Sunday, May 24, 2020

How catalytic events change the course of history: From the 9/11 attacks to the coronavirus pandemic

The 9/11 attacks of 2001 are classic examples of  "catalytic events" that change the course of history. They can be seen as triggers for "Seneca Collapses," sudden and catastrophic, they are well described by Seneca's words, "the way to ruin is rapid." It is the way history moves: never smoothly but always in bumps. The most recent example of a catalytic effect of this kind is the current epidemic of coronavirus.

If you are a chemist, you know very well how catalysts can work small miracles: you had been trying for some time to have a reaction occur, without success, then you add a little pinch of something and - suddenly - things go "bang." In no time, the reaction is complete. Of course, as a chemist you know that catalysts don't really work miracles: all they can do is to accelerate reaction that would occur anyway. But that may be mightily useful, sometimes.

The concept of catalysis can be used also outside chemistry, for instance in politics. Let's go back to the year 2000, when the group of American neoconservatives identifying themselves as the "Project for a New American Century" (PNAC) issued a document titled "Rebuilding American Defenses." In that document, they argued that the American public could be led to accept a major shift of the available resources to military purposes only by means of "some catastrophic and catalyzing event like a new Pearl Harbor."

Surely, the PNAC members were highly successful with their plans, perhaps more than they themselves would have imagined. One year later, in 2001, the world saw the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and on other locations, providing exactly the "catastrophic and catalyzing event" they had invoked. It was Pearl Harbor again: a new attack on the American soil that catalyzed a strong reaction on the part of the American people. The result was that several of the PNAC proposals, such as a significant increase in military expenses, were adopted in the following years.

The PNAC may be credited for having proposed perhaps for the first time the concept of "catalyzing event" for a class of events that change the course of history. It is normal that human societies tend to resist changes, but changes are unavoidable. Small changes pile up until something gives way and the result is the big change called the "Seneca Collapse."

The oldest catalytic event in history may be the defeat of the Roman army at Teutoburg in 9 AD that generated a perennial state of war of the Empire on the Germanic peoples. In modern times, we may cite the sinking of the US "Maine" that started the US-Spain war in 1898. Then, the iconic fire of the Reichstag in Berlin, in 1933, that consigned Germany in the hands of the Nazi party. Many of these events are related to the current world empire, such as Pearl Harbor in 1941, that started the war on Japan, the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964, that started the Vietnam war, and the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) in 2014 that started the ongoing economic war against Russia.

There have been many more incidents of this kind, in most cases military attacks, never serious enough to be an existential risk for the attacked side, but sufficient for an aggressive media campaign aimed at terrorizing people. The recent coronavirus epidemic has similar features. It was not a military attack, but it was surely a catalytic event that deeply changed society also with the help of an aggressive media campaign that succeeded at terrorizing everybody.

It is often said that these events are "false flags," that is, they are engineered by the attacked side with the specific purpose of creating a desired political change. Indeed, why should the attacker engage in provocation against a stronger adversary when that is likely to cause a strong reaction? Yet, actual proofs of false flag attacks for these events are rare. Even for the paradigmatic case of the Reichstag fire, often defined a false flag, we don't really know what role the Nazis exactly had in the story. Mostly, it seems that these events involve the opportunistic exploitation of a mistake. Pearl Harbor, for instance, was surely not a false flag but a gigantic strategic miscalculation on the part of the Japanese government. About the 9/11 attacks, there is a whole cottage industry engaged in describing them as having been perpetrated by forces controlled by the US government, but there is no proof that this was the case. Even the Covid-19 virus, the culprit for the current pandemic, has been said to have been manufactured in a lab or spread on purpose by someone. Very unlikely, to say the least.

In any case, the "false flag" aspect of these events is a moot point, what counts is that they acted as catalysts for major changes that would have occurred anyway. In 2001, the American Empire was finding it more and more difficult to maintain its grip on its vast possessions worldwide because of rising costs and dwindling resources. The most obvious reaction was to increase military expenses, a typical evolution of most empires of the past. It was unavoidable, but it had to be "triggered." The 9/11 attacks provided the kind of push that was needed. It matters little whether or not the attacks were organized by a mad sheik living in a cavern in Afghanistan.

Similar considerations hold for other catalytic events in history, but let's move to the current coronavirus epidemic. As a catalytic event, it is surely one, complete with the related aggressive campaign aimed at terrorizing the public. But what kind of change is it catalyzing? Chuck Pezhesky has correctly identified the epidemic as something "akin to a Dirac Delta, or Impulse function." Applying a Dirac function to a system is like whacking it with a hammer. The system oscillates in response and it shows its "natural" frequencies. There is no doubt that the coronavirus was a sledgehammer hitting society, what we are seeing are resonances scattering all over. In practice, everyone is trying to emphasize the frequencies they think are favorable to them. But, in this game, there are winners and losers.  

At the time of the 9/11 attacks, there were some attempts to emphasize some frequencies different than the main ones, such as proposing that the West should have been acting less aggressively toward Islamic countries. But these feeble attempts were rapidly swept away when the balance of power decisively moved in favor of the military-industrial complex. In the case of the coronavirus, something similar is going on, with various lobbies trying to frame the event in a favorable light for their specific economic interest. The fossil fuel industry, for instance, is asking the elimination of "useless environmental regulations" in order to "restart growth." The military-industrial lobby cannot claim that they can bomb the virus into submission, but they are using it as an excuse to make war on China.

But, overall, it is clear which frequency is resonating most intensely. It is the "new capitalism" of the Silicon Valley companies. Those who are benefitting from it are the communication industry, the surveillance industry, the e-commerce industry, and just about everything that involves virtual communication. It is Bill Gates' triumph over the Koch brothers, but not just that. It is a resonance that rings deep in many layers of society: we had been told many times that we had to get rid of fossil fuels, airplanes, private cars, and activities such as tourism, and more. That's exactly what the virus is forcing us to do, at least the way it has been interpreted by our governments.

But, again, as well known in chemistry, catalysts don't do anything by themselves: they just trigger unavoidable transformations. And if something is unavoidable, it means that one day or another it has to take place. It is what we are seeing.

There remains a question: why does history have to go in bumps? It is, of course, because we are unable to plan ahead and so the future always takes us by surprise. And the fact we can't plan ahead is also deeply ingrained in the way modern society works. The wonderful technologies that link everybody in virtual space won't make us better able to predict the future -- perhaps they'll have the opposite effect. And so we seem to be condemned to march toward the future as a ship that sails onward climbing great waves one after the other. Maybe we'll arrive to a safe harbor, someday. Just maybe.

A note from Ugo Bardi's personal troll, Mr. Kunning-Druger

So, Mr. Bardi, this time you are showing us that, in addition to being a climate warmunist, you are also a conspiracy theorist. Sure, you think you are clever by telling us that it is not so important that the 9/11 attacks were a false flag or not, but really, what you mean is that they were: you think it was a conspiracy, don't you? You and your climate alarmist gang are friends of Osama Bin Laden and of the Islamic terrorists who want to destroy the American way of life, all because they hate our freedom. And, now you and your gang are probably behind the attempt of using the coronavirus scare to lock Americans inside their homes and stripping them of their freedom in the name of the climate change scam. But we are resisting and our cure for the coronavirus has been developed by two doctors whose names are Smith and Wesson. Remember that!

Friday, May 22, 2020

Questions about the coronavirus: the epidemic seen in a historical perspective

The figure above shows the effect of the two major outbursts of plague in Europe (you can find a detailed discussion of this subject in my book "Before the Collapse"). Here, Rorberto Mussi developes a historical perspective of past epidemics and of how that can help us understand the current one. (image from Langer et al., 1964)

Guest Post by Roberto Mussi

The COVID-19 epidemic is generating a lot of questions from scientific, medical, political, and societal points of view. It not yet the time for complete answers, they will come slowly in the future together, hopefully, with antiviral treatments. But we can at least ask correct questions: this article tries to do that by looking at past history.

The first question that comes to my mind is about the conditions that generate a pandemic outbreak. Are pandemics completely random events or do they spread only when some specific conditions occur in society? Historians can provide information about similar events of the past. They tell us that the "Black Death" arrived in Europe after the economic downturn of the late 13th century (some talk about a true economic revolution occurring between the 11th and 13th centuries [1]). It’s also a pretty intuitive statement: a virus can attack more easily an undernourished population [2]. In modern terms, the reproduction number (R0) depends on the context. In a historical dimension, pandemics are a consequence of a crisis, not a cause.

So, the consequent question is: why now? Economic historians teach us [3] that the Western heavy industrial development stopped at some moment in the 1970s. From then on, (only) information related and finance-related innovation flourished [4]. Something similar happened also after the 13th century [5] with, for instance, movable type printing. Of course, we are not experiencing famines as in the 14th century and, as Ugo Bardi [6] notes, this virus is causing a much lower death rate than other historical pandemics. What's at stake, it seems, is not our lives, but the kind of life we are used to: a highly motorized society, mass commuters, low-cost tourism, etc. (let’s call it "high mobility life"). No need to stress that we are moving much less after the COVID-19 outbreak. An obvious consequence will be a big economic depression because of future low mobility.

Now, another question that comes to my mind is: what is the link between COVID-19 and the high mobility life? In the 14th century, undernourishment (cause) created conditions for the plague (effect). Then, the world after the plague was less populated and food became again sufficient for everybody [7] (negative feedback that stops the effect). Today, some sort of cause (unknown) created the condition for the COVID-19 to spread (effect) which is threatening high-mobility life (negative feedback that stops the effect).

Then, what is the unknown cause? Easy to ask, but much less easy to answer. I am looking forward to future analyses that will provide satisfactory answers. Nevertheless, we all know history repeats itself, at least in some forms, and it is there that we can find a possible answer already now. Paradoxically, (we could say also ironically if that was not the case of thousands of victims) the COVID-19 epidemic spread mainly in the major world economic areas. But this is, I think, the point that we have to focus on to find answers: zoonosis, the passage of the virus from animals to humans, is not always related to low sanitary conditions.

We are always told that the zoonosis that led to the coronavirus epidemic happened because some Asian regions cannot afford refrigerators so they bring living animals directly to the wholesale marketplace. But that’s not correct, yewei (a term that means eating exotic wild animals) is a kind of luxury and status symbol nowadays in southern China [8], and it is by the way much more expensive than conventional cuisine. Not to speak to the city of Wuhan as we see it on TV: a megalopolis with brand new skyscrapers that we just cannot afford to build in many countries today.

So, the Covid-19 epidemic is not a problem unrelated to growth (that is, of people who haven't yet experienced growth), it is a problem of growth. That's the similarity with the past: an economic downturn is threatening many aspects of life and especially mobility. Diminishing returns of resources, especially fossil fuels, is an open issue. Many successes with renewables have been achieved but not for mobility, by far much dependent on oil than other energy sectors.

Coming back to the cause-effect-feedback chain: an economic downturn (cause) created conditions for a pandemic (effect) then the world did not find a better solution than stopping mobility (negative feedback that stopped the effect). The growth failure of high mobility life may be the element that makes the current situation similar to past failures.

The Author

Roberto Mussi was born in 1977 in Italy. He studied mechanical engineering and has a Ph.D in Energetics. He studied and worked as a research fellow at the Politecnichal school in Milano, at the Politecnichal school of Torino, and at the University of Florence. He lives and works in Florence for Yanmar R&D Europe as group leader of the renewable energy sector. 


[1] The Medieval Machine : the industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages, Penguin Books, 1976

[2]Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present,” Frank M. Snowden

[3] The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power, and the Origins of Our Times, 1994

[4] Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. Penguin. ISBN 978-0241263884. 2018

[5] Baroque Tomorrow: Why Inequality Triumphs and Progress Fails?by Jack Michalowski

[6] (Italian)

[7] (Italian), Prof. Alessandro Barbero conference on crisis of the Late Middle Ages,

[8] Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic; W. W. Norton, 2012

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

The Fascinating Story of the Oscillating Epidemic.

I was surprised, today, to find this graph on Google. What struck me was the evident periodicity in the number of deaths in the US. Most of the deaths take place on Thursdays and Fridays. On the contrary, the minima in the curve are almost always on Sundays. Why don't people die on Sundays?

It may well be just a case of bad reporting. I went on, exploring for more data and I discovered that there is something of a worldwide "beat" that generates a weekly periodicity in the deaths. Here are the data.  In this case, instead, people seem to like to die on Fridays and Saturdays, but they stay more alive on Tuesdays.

Some regions show clear oscillations, such as the Netherlands, as shown here. In the Netherlands, people die mostly on Wednesdays and survive best on Mondays.

Other countries, such as Italy, don't show a clear periodicity in the number of deaths

So, what can we conclude? Well, I think that the hypothesis that it is a reporting problem is the most likely, yet it is a little strange for various reasons. Possibly it is the bad quality of the data that messes things up

But there is another possibility that I have been considering: that the deaths caused by the coronavirus feel the weekly "beat" of the world activities. In other words, people have a weekly rhythm of working and moving around. It is a periodicity that is reflected in the number of social contacts, then reflected in the number of infections, and finally in the number of deaths. It is an internal "clock" of the system that's reflected on its overall behavior, just like the ice ages of the Pleistocene were clocked by the wobbles and the oscillations of Earth's orbit.

That would explain why the oscillations are clearly detectable in the US and in the Netherlands, where the government implemented a rather light lockdown, but not in Italy, where the lockdown was very strict. In Italy, people lost track of the day of the week -- no more working days, no more weekends. So, no periodicity that would be reflected by the coronavirus cases.

Maybe. More work to be done, more than I can do right now, and I think we need better data. But I thought I could propose this chain of thoughts to the readers of "Cassandra's Legacy" Maybe some readers have different and better ideas? In any case, we keep learning new things with this coronavirus!

Monday, May 18, 2020

Victor Gorshkov (1935-2019): a life for the biosphere.

The basic concept of the biotic regulation of Earth's temperature according to Victor Gorshkov and his coworkers. The figure shows the potential function U(T) for the global mean surface temperature. Stable states correspond to pits, unstable states to hills. The modern value of +15°C (288 K) corresponds to an unstable state (2, thin line). Physically stable states correspond to a frozen Earth (state 1) and a red-hot Earth (state 3). We are precariously living in a shallow minimum of potential energy that defines the habitable zone for the biosphere. This state can be created and maintained only by a healthy biosphere.

On May 10th, 2019, Victor Georgievic Gorshkov died at 83 in St. Petersburg, after a life dedicated to scientific research that he continued to perform up to nearly the last moment. One year later, I thought I could publish this small homage to his figure and his work. His longtime coworker and companion, Anastassia Makarieva, was also kind enough to write a summary of Gorshkov's life and work for this blog.

In many ways, science follows the 20/80 rule, sometimes called the "Pareto's rule," which tells that 80% of the work is performed by just 20% of the performers. But it may well be that Pareto was an optimist if his rule is applied to science. It seems more likely that science works because, as Newton said long ago, a small number of creative "giants" emerge out of the general mediocrity. One of these creative people, a true giant of science, was Victor Gorshkov (1935-2019), researcher at the Petersburg Nuclear Physics Institute, in Russia.

Understanding Gorshkov's work and ideas takes some time and patience. He was trained as a theoretical physicist and his approach was very different from the way most western scientists operate in the field of ecology. I would say that it was exactly this difference that attracted me and made me tackle the non-trivial effort to read one of two main books: Biotic Regulation of the Environment, 2000.  (see also Physical and Biological Bases of Life Stability, 1995). Reading Victor's work is a refreshing experience: you feel the intellectual freedom that pervades it, the sheer beauty of exploring new concepts and new ideas. And that's true also for other ideas proposed by Gorshkov and his coworkers, such as the concept of the "biotic pump." (you can learn about these and other ideas on the "Biotic Regulation site").

Russian science suffers from many of the same problems that plague science in the West: lack of resources, hyperspecialization, bureaucracy, creativity stifling, "Superstar scientists," and more. But, apparently, it can still produce outstanding researchers. Gorshkov's work is important for many reasons but I would say that one is how it highlights how in the West we may well be "hypermodelized." We tend to put a lot of trust in complex, multi-parameter models and, sometimes, we tend to think that models are the reality. Models can easily lead us astray and they can also generate a backlash with non-scientists: a good example is the recent debacle of the multiparameter model of virus diffusion used by the research group of professor Neil Ferguson, in London.

Gorshkov's approach was very different: he used physics to highlight the boundaries of the system and then exploring its behavior. This approach is relevant for climate science: in the West, models are considered the main -- if not the only -- tool to understand climate change. They are remarkable tools developed by highly competent people. But these models cannot normally tell us the limits of stability of the system that Gorshkov and his coworkers had already identified in their work, and that only recently have started to make their way in the Western debate. This is the truly critical issue of climate change:are tipping points going to destroy our civlization?

More than all, Gorshkov's work was all a homage to the great power of the biosphere and an attempt to stop its destruction. On this point, the best Russian and Western thinkers are of the same opinion. But can we stop the destruction? Not easy, but we must continue to try. Victor Gorshkov himself was an optimist and we can hope he will turn out to have been right.

Victor Gorshkov, his life, and the discovery of biotic regulation

by Anastassia Makarieva

Victor Gorshkov was born on 12th July 1935 in Leningrad to a family of two physicists. He was born an optimist and he lived a very happy life.

This is Victor’s photo taken in the yard of their apartment house on Vasilyevsky Island, St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) historical district, approximately 1937. Many of the kids behind him probably died of hunger during the Nazi’s siege of Leningrad in 1941-1943. The Radium Institute where Victor’s father worked was evacuated to Kazan, Victor’s family followed and survived.

He became a theoretical physicist. I was Victor’s student and, since October 1994, I have been his coworker until he died on the 10th of May 2019. Describing him is akin to describing the Universe. By common judgment, Victor belonged to the kind of cats who walk by themselves.

He used to tell me that there are five spheres of life, each able to completely fulfill one’s realization as a personality. They were Nature, Science, Women, Music, and Tennis. He lived them all. Victor played the piano very well and he was a fervent tennis player. He was a skillful dancer and very fond of alpine skiing.

Among the five, Nature and Science (or Science and Nature, the order was never quite clear), appeared to be the main ones. Victor spent all his free time completely disconnected from the civilization in the remote wilderness areas of Russia, in the basins of Ob, Yenisey, and on the White Sea.

 This photo was taken about 80 years after the first one, during our last trip together to the White Sea.

In the late 1970s, Victor finally merged his interests in Nature and Science and turned away from the more conventional areas of theoretical physics where he had been quite successful. He founded a new research topic “Physical and Biological Bases of Life Stability” in the Theoretical Department of Petersburg Nuclear Physics Institute. He formulated the concept of the biotic regulation of the environment according to which natural ecosystems create and control the environment favorable for their existence.

Unique to Victor’s theory was a joint quantitative consideration of the environmental, ecological, and genetic characteristics of the biota. Victor started from the consideration of the carbon cycle by noting the extremely short turnover time of carbon in all major pools (approx. ten years) compared to the characteristic times of observable environmental stasis.

Could the biota adapt to rapid environmental changes it can itself induce? Proving that impossible would constitute proof that the biota controls the environment rather than adapts to it. Such proof required analyzing the rate of generation of genetic variability in various species and contrasting them with the rate of environmental change by finding some transitional dimensions between the two.

With his training in theoretical physics, Victor originally knew nothing about genetics and biology in general and had to learn everything from scratch. For example, he told me that, in the beginning, he was very irritated by the “DNA word” and tried to avoid papers mentioning it. Several years of intense self-learning enabled him not just to make the necessary conclusions for the multidisciplinary concept of the biotic regulation, but also arrive at results appreciated by the more narrow circle of professionals dealing exclusively with evolution or ecology.

In particular, his idea was that if adaptation is governed by intraspecific genetic variability, then the largest and least numerous species (e.g. mammals) should have been adapting by many orders of magnitude more slowly than the smallest and most numerous (like unicellular ones). The contrasting reality is that all species, big and small, give rise to new species at approximately the same rate, once in a few million years. These estimates testified against intraspecific genetic adaptation to an ever-changing environment. Rather, the environmental change came along as the result of some infrequent spontaneous evolutionary shifts of the biota.

Victor was an outstanding theoretical physicist. He taught me, “Be not afraid of not knowing other people’s misconceptions. It is a big asset. Reach out with a free mind, formulate your own ideas and use them as the compass to navigate across the seemingly chaotic evidence, seeing patterns, and verifying them.”

He also warned, “Never leave a remotest, smallest corner of the problem unattended. It is there that the solution (or self-disproval) may hide. When after a long work you feel totally lost and overwhelmed by controversial evidence and considerations, do not yield to despair – it is often a sign that the solution is close”.

Victor built the biotic regulation theory from several major blocks – carbon cycle, climate stability, the concept of the biotic pump of atmospheric moisture, genetic stability, and more. Along this remarkable researcher’s path, there was one discovery he was especially overwhelmed by. He never ceased to emphasize its importance, considered it to be a key point of the theory. His final ecological work reviews and develops this discovery. It is about the effect of large animals on the ecosystem.

The body sizes of living organisms range from less than one micron to several meters. Everything in life depends on body size. These dependencies are usually described by dimensionless scaling laws (called allometries in biology) of the simplest form dx/x = a dy/y. Is there a characteristic body size meaningful for life stability in general?

Life features a conspicuous yet enigmatic dichotomy. It consists of immobile organisms like trees and locomotive organisms like animals. Plants receive energy from solar photons and generate net primary production at a rate of about P = 1 W/m2.

On the other hand, as Victor discovered from his extensive analysis of published literature, all living beings on a grand average consume energy at a rate of about q = 103 W/m3. The ratio of these two fundamental constants has the dimension of linear size, L = P/q = 1 mm. This critical body size divides life into the big and the small, the immobile and the locomotive, into the ecologically stable and the ecologically unstable.
j = ql3/l2

The dependency of the energy consumption, j, per unit area in organisms of different sizes versus primary production P. Beyond the critical body size, locomotion is a must. Smaller animals can live without active locomotion.

Organisms of linear size l smaller than L, consume less power than the biosphere generates, j = ql3/l2 < P per unit area of their projection on the Earth’s surface (l2). Such organisms do not need to destroy plants. They can sit and wait until the dead plant parts fall down to become their food. They do not need to move. They can form a continuous cover.

In contrast, species larger than the critical body size cannot sit and wait. They require more food per unit area and per unit time than the biosphere is able to produce. Such organisms have to move and to destroy the biomass of live plants. Each such species, which evolution continuously makes bigger and bigger, represents a time bomb for the ecosystem.

Born to destroy live plants, as soon as such organisms go out of their permissible green corridor (low population densities), they can eliminate primary producers and thus life itself. It is just a matter of time when a big species with a sufficient destructive potential appears in the course of evolution, which generally moves life towards spontaneous decay.

A forest enclosure for wild boars who destroyed all plants on the ground preventing tree re-growth

So, Homo Sapiens arrived and, governed by our innate instinct to destroy, we have been destroying the biosphere on a global scale. That was nothing new – many big species did the same to their ecosystem.

Victor was an optimist. He thought that a unique property of humans – the ability to sometimes overcome their genetic instincts with science-based reason – would allow them not only to stop the degradation they inflict themselves but – by returning to the permissible green corridor and not allowing any other species going out of it – probably even to become the guardians of life stability on Earth.

Friday, May 15, 2020

The Great EROEI Scam: Are renewables a good idea?

The cheetah in the figure knows very well that it cannot spend more energy in chasing the impala than the impala can provide once eaten (in other words, the cheetah needs an energy return on the investment (EROEI) >1). Carnivores make no calculations about that question, they only know that, if they want to survive, they have to run. And this is our destiny, too. If we want to survive, we need energy and we need to move away from fossil fuels before depletion or climate change (or both) destroy us. But, unlike lions and cheetahs, we tend to discuss a lot on the subject and, sometimes, to get it wrong. This is the problem with the recent movie "Planet of the Humans" and its wrong evaluation of renewable energy (image by Nick Farnhill, creative commons license)

Years ago, when I discovered the concept of "EROEI" (or EROI), energy return for energy invested, I was both delighted and elated. "Here is," I thought, "an objective way to evaluate and compare the efficiency of energy technologies. No more shaky financial calculations, no more ideology, no more politics, only facts. And everyone has to agree on the facts." And the beauty of the concept was that if the EROEI is smaller than one for a certain technology, then it is an energy sink, not an energy production system.

I was wrong more than I could have imagined. From when the idea of EROEI was first proposed, in the 1980s by Charles Hall, the concept was stretched, squashed, squeezed, twisted, and shaken until it became a useless mongrel. Ideology took over from physics and EROEI became a support for preconceived ideas rather than an evaluation tool.

I should have known better, but I hadn't realized how difficult it is for most people, including opinion leaders, to think in terms of data. One of the problems with EROEI is that many people just can't understand it, but the main one is that it is not easy to quantify its value. You can say, "this apple is red" just by looking at it, but not "this plant has an EROEI of 12.5." That is unless you perform a complex calculation based on the rules of LCA (life cycle analysis). Impossible if you are not trained in this specific field of work.

In practice, it is not difficult to find people with sufficient knowledge of the rules to be able to bend them in such a way to obtain the results they (or their sponsors) want. The result is a jungle: for every conceivable energy technology, you can find a range of values of the EROEIs so large that you can pick one according to what you like (2+2=5).

But it is not so much a question of cheating, it is just that science and politics talk two different languages. If you are a scientist, you reason in terms of data and models. If you are like most people, you reason in narrative terms. And narrative, as we all know, is all about a conflict between bad guys and good guys. So, that's the way people tend to evaluate the EROEI issue: they judge the messenger rather than the message. And they tend to like messengers who bring them messages they like. It is called "selective exposure" or "confirmation bias."

That's the reason for the success of a movie such as "Planet of the Humans." It is a clever movie because it passes a simple message that resonates with many people in the environmentalist movement: "big capital bad." That may even be true: there are plenty of scams embedded in concepts such as "green growth." But, in the movie, the real target is not big, bad capitalism, but renewable energy. It is presented as being unable to support itself because it has EROEI<1  or that, at least, the value of the EROEI is too small to support a complex civilization.

Then, most environmentalists know nearly nothing about the most elementary technologies of communication and many of them reacted by criticizing the many factual errors of the movie. But they didn't realize that most people are unable to evaluate the details of the takedown of the movie that many experts engaged in. And the result was a remarkable success for the movie and for its sponsors.

In any case, you can't change the way people think, not in a short time at least. So, my personal opinion is that it is useless to engage in infinite discussions about the EROEI of renewables or of other technology. And it is especially useless to discuss at length about a bad movie such as "Planet of the Humans." The human mind is such that it can demonstrate just about anything on the basis of apparently logical arguments. You probably know the story of how in 1903 the American physicist Simon Newcomb "demonstrated" on the basis of physics that human-made machines couldn't fly -- that was just five years before the first flight of the Wright brothers.

I am sure that with a little work it would be possible to "demonstrate" on the basis of physical principles that cheetahs cannot catch impalas. But cheetahs don't need theories telling them that they cannot feed on impalas. They run and they catch their prey. So, we can demonstrate that renewables work by installing renewable energy plants, as many as possible. And show that they work -- they do produce energy. And the more plants we install, the better the world will be for us and for those who'll come after us. It will help climate to stabilize, too. 

On this matter, below you may read a post that I wrote three years ago. See also a post I published in 2016: But what's the REAL energy return of photovoltaic energy?

Why EROEI matters: the role of net energy in the survival of civilization 

Published on Cassandra's Legacy, March 13,, 2017  (slightly modified in this version of May 15, 2020)

The image above was shown by Charlie Hall in a recent presentation that he gave in Princeton. It seems logical that the more net energy is available for a civilization, the more that civilization can do. Say, build cathedrals, create art, explore space, and more. But what's needed, exactly, for a civilization to exist? Maybe very high values of the EROEI (energy return on energy invested) are not necessary.

A lively debate is ongoing on what should be the minimum energy return for energy invested (EROEI) in order to sustain a civilization. Clearly, one always wants the best returns for one's investments. And, of course, investing in something that provides a return smaller than the investment is a bad idea. So, a civilization grows and prospers on the net energy it receives, that is the energy produced minus the energy required to sustain production. The question is whether the transition from fossil fuels to renewables could provide enough energy to keep civilization alive in a form not too different from the present one.

It is often said that the prosperity of our society is the result of the high EROEI of crude oil as it was in the mid 20th century. Values as high as 100 are often cited, but these are probably widely off the mark. The data reported in a 2014 study by Dave Murphy indicate that the average EROEI of crude oil worldwide could have been around 35 in the past, declining to around 20 at present. Dale et al. estimate (2011) that the average EROEI of crude oil could have been, at most, around 45 in the 1960s Data for the US production indicate an EROEI around 20 in the 1950s; down to about 10 today.

We see that the EROEI of oil is not easy to estimate but we can say at least two things: 1) our civilization was built on an energy source with an EROEI around 30-40. 2) the EROEI of oil has been going down, owing to the depletion of the most profitable (high EROEI) wells. Today, we may be producing crude oil at EROEIs between 10 and 20 on the average, and the net energy yield keeps going down.

Let's move to renewables. Here, the debate often becomes dominated by emotional or political factors that seem to bring people to try to disparage renewables as much as possible. Some evidently wrong assessments claim EROEIs smaller than one for the most promising renewable technology, photovoltaics (PV). In other cases, the game consists of enlarging the boundaries of the calculation, adding costs not directly related to the exploitation of the resource. That's why we should compare what's comparable; that is, use the same rules for evaluating the EROEI of fossil fuels and of renewable energy. If we do that, we find that, for instance, photovoltaics has an EROEI around 10. Wind energy does better than that, with an average EROEI around 20. Not bad, but not as large as crude oil in the good old days.

Now, for the mother of all questions: on the basis of these data, can renewables replace the increasing energy-expensive oil and sustain civilization? Here, we venture into a difficult field: what do we mean exactly as a "civilization"? What kind of civilization? Could it build cathedrals? Would it include driving SUVs? How about plane trips to Hawaii?

Here, some people are very pessimistic and not just about SUVs and plane trips. On the basis of the fact that the EROEI of renewables is smaller than that of crude oil, considering also the expense of the infrastructure needed to adapt our society to the kind of energy produced by renewables, they conclude that "renewables cannot sustain a civilization that can sustain renewables." (a little like Groucho Marx's joke, "I wouldn't want to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members.").

Maybe, but I beg to differ. Let me explain with an example. Suppose, just for the sake of argument, that the energy source that powers society has an EROEI equal to 2. You would think that this is an abysmally low value and that it couldn't support anything more than a society of mountain shepherds, or not even that. But think about what an EROEI of 2 implies: for each energy-producing plant in operation there must be a second one of the same size that only produces the energy that will be used to replace both plants after that they have gone through their lifetime. And the energy produced by the first plant is net energy fully available to society for all the needed uses, including cathedrals if needed. Now, consider a power source that has an EROEI= infinity; then you don't need the second plant or, if you have it, you can make twice as many cathedrals. In the end, the difference between two and infinity in terms of the investments necessary to maintain the energy-producing system is only a factor of two.

It is like that: the EROEI is a strongly non-linear measurement. You can see that in the well-known diagram below (here in a simplified version, some people trace a vertical line in the graph indicating the "minimum EROEI needed for civilization", which I think is unjustified)):

You see that oil, wind, coal, and solar are all in the same range. As long as the EROEI is higher than about 5-10, the energy return is reasonably good, at most you have to re-invest 10%-20% of the production to keep the system going. It is only when the EROEI becomes smaller than ca. 2 that things become awkward. So, it doesn't seem to be so difficult to support a complex civilization with the technologies we have. Maybe trips to Hawaii and SUVs wouldn't be included in a PV-based society, but about art, science, health care, and the like, well, what's the problem?

Actually, there is a problem. It has to do with growth. Let me go back to the example I made before, that of a hypothetical energy technology that has an EROEI = 2. If this energy return is calculated over a lifetime of 25 years, it means that the best that can be done in terms of growth is to double the number of plants over 25 years, a yearly growth rate of less than 3%. And that in the hypothesis that all the energy produced by the plants would go to make more plants which, of course, makes no sense. If we assume that, say, 10% of the energy produced is invested in new plants then, with EROEI=2, growth can be at most of the order of 0.3%. Even with an EROEI =10, we can't reasonably expect renewables to push their own growth at rates higher than 1%-2%(*). Things were different in the good old days, up to about 1970, when, with an EROEI around 40, crude oil production grew at a yearly rate of 7%. It seemed normal, at that time, but it was the result of very special conditions.

Our society is fixated on growth and people seem to be unable to conceive that it could be otherwise. But it is clear that renewables, with the present values of the EROEI, cannot support a fast-growing society. But is that a bad thing? I wouldn't say so. We have grown enough with crude oil, actually way too much. Slowing down, and even going back a little, can only improve the situation.

(*) The present problem is not to keep the unsustainable growth rates that society is accustomed to. It is how to grow renewable energy fast enough to replace fossil fuels before depletion or climate change (or both) destroy us. This is a difficult but not impossible task. The current fraction of energy produced by wind and solar combined is less than 2% of the final consumption (see p. 28 of the REN21 report), so we need a yearly growth of more than 10% to replace fossils by 2050. Right now, both solar and wind are growing at more than a 20% yearly rate, but this high rate is obtained using energy from fossil fuels. The calculations indicate that it is possible to keep these growth rates while gradually phasing out fossil fuels by 2050, as described in a 2016 paper by Sgouridis, Bardi, and Csala

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Small deaths and the real death: how humans are failing

Guest post by Federico Tabellini

This article was originally published last year on the Italian blog ‘Effetto Cassandra’. I repropose it here because I think the coronavirus crisis has made it somehow more relevant. The current situation raises new questions: is this new crisis just another ‘small death’ on a much wider scale? Or is it an opportunity to highlight the global ecological crisis we’ve been ignoring for decades? If it’s the latter, will the lights turn off once the emergency is over? Will the world return once more to blissful ignorance?

Seneca used to say that death, real death, is a process  lived day by day. Yet people deal with the real death only when its effects come to a head when the proverbial last straw breaks the camel’s back, and the camel falls upon us with all its weight. Then, yes, we notice both the straw and the camel. Until then, however – or perhaps we should say, until now – the small deaths dominate our thoughts.

The difference between these small deaths and true death lies in three factors: spatial proximity, temporal proximity, and speed of execution. What's near worries us more than what's far, the present issues more than the future ones, the event more than the process. Such is human nature. We are biologically programmed to pay more attention to current events, the forthcoming ordeal, the tragedy that we can experience first-hand. We mourn the tree burning in the garden while the forest on the horizon is slowly eaten up by parasites.

The media and the political sphere, instead of compensating for this human weakness, inflate its effects. They concentrate on events because events have a wider audience. They sell more. On the front page, the terrible flood: 24 injured and 3 deaths. Facebook is grieving. The systematic accumulation of plastic in the oceans that risks compromising entire ecosystems forever? Page 15, after the sports section. On prime time, a special report on a local earthquake: six deaths and tens of people injured. At 2 a.m. a documentary on the sixth mass extinction: no meteorites this time, only pink apes with an insatiable hunger.

But it’s not our fault if the true death is slow and prosaic, boring, lacking dynamism. The media cannot be blamed if we struggle to stifle a yawn while looking at it. There are some who’ve tried hard to make it look more interesting. The most effective way is to transform it into an event: capture it in a dramatic instant, when it’s more photogenic, and present it as ‘news’. We’ve all seen the best snapshots: Earth Day, the latest fruitless international political meeting to fight climate change, Greta Thunberg. The most politically active among us took a step further to reverse the decline: they shared the news on Facebook. Unfortunately, their heroic efforts have yet to change the world.

And then there are the modern stage democracies [1], which function in more or less the same way. What matters here, again, is the audience. Politicians who propose short-term sectorial solutions to ephemeral problems – the small deaths – can reap rich rewards at the ballot box. Those who propose systemic solutions to hinder the deterioration of the ecosystems – the real death – are welcomed by a thunderous silence. The necessary complexity of such solutions, after all, is difficult to explain to an electorate concentrated on the here and now. It can’t be condensed into a TV interview, a tweet or a Facebook post. The fact that those solutions require time intervals much longer than those of a single political term to bear fruit doesn’t help, either. Proposing and implementing long-term solutions is simply not politically profitable.

‘But those solutions would save billions of lives in the coming centuries!’ 

Who cares? The men and women of the future cannot vote for the political leaders of the present. So let’s muddle on with yawn-proof marketing stunts! Preserving biodiversity in mountain areas? Useless, the most you’ll get is some praise from a few animal-rights activists. Instead, save a dog from a flooded area and tweet a picture with it. You too can become a national hero!

And this is how the world dies, you know? Not gunned down onstage, but one small piece at a time, far from the spotlights. In the meantime we, the pink apes, jump from event to event, like mosquitoes chasing lights around a Christmas tree. Imprisoned in the ephemeral. Absorbed in our little problems, or maybe fleeing from stress, seeking refuge in a shelter of entertainment and consumption. The camel is still standing, barely. For a few more years.

[1] The concept of ‘stage democracy’ and its profound effects on the political agendas of the states are explored in my book ‘A Future History of the 21st Century: how we overcame the crisis of civilization’.

Saturday, May 9, 2020

The downfall of 'Professor Lockdown': triumphs and failures of science based policies

Scientists normally think that a scientific theory can be good or bad independently of the moral status of the person who proposes it. But in politics, the messenger can be blamed. That was the probable reason for the downfall of Dr. Neil Ferguson, nicknamed "Professor Lockdown," whose moral position was destroyed by a sex scandal. For most scientists, Dr, Ferguson's personal misbehavior has no relevance to the validity of his models, but for politicians and for the public, it does. A lot.

You all read the story of the downfall of Professor Neil Ferguson, aka "Professor Lockdown," trashed worldwide in the media for having had his lover, Ms. Antonia Staats, visiting him during the lockdown period that he himself had recommended for everybody else. It was a blessing for tabloids and there is no doubt that Dr. Ferguson deserved much of the scorn and the ridicule that was poured on him. Yet, there are some elements in this story that make it different from an ordinary story of philandering.

Let's review what we know: it seems that Ms. Staats and Dr. Ferguson met first over an internet site and then it was Staats who went to visit Ferguson during the lockdown period at his home in London, and the same Staats who told the story to friends who, in turn, diffused it around. Ferguson didn't even try to deny the media reports, and he immediately apologized and resigned from his post of government advisor.

I don't know about you, but. to me, all this looks like a trap, sounds like a trap, even smells like a trap. So, it probably was a trap. Ferguson fell head first into it and he was neatly skewered.

Of course, I am not the only one who smelled the rat: there have been plenty of speculations about who decided to push Dr. Ferguson under the bullet train, and why. Some say that it was because the British government needed to distract the public from bad news about the epidemic. Others think of a disagreement between the government and Ferguson. And when a government decides that a scientist is a nuisance, you know what happens (think of the case of Robert Oppenheimer in the 1950s)

Whatever the case, we are not talking here about a despicable professor who flouted a few moral rules. It is all about the political struggle that underlies the coronavirus story. It was Ferguson who told the UK government that they were facing a stark choice: either to accept a huge number of victims, maybe half a million of them, or to wreck the UK economy. The government chose the second strategy, probably thinking it was the least damaging one. Several other European governments, for instance the Italian one, patterned their response on the basis of the views expressed by Ferguson.

And here we have the interesting point: going into lockdown was one of the very few cases of a major policy choice made on the basis of a scientific model, and I mean a really major choice.  Governments do enact laws on the basis of scientific data, but normally it is a matter of gradual changes that don't change people's lives. Say, there are laws regulating the exhaust emissions of private cars, but no laws (up to now) forcing people to walk. The lockdown was also a rare case of a policy derived not from past data but from a predictive model of the future. It was a huge novelty because, normally, politicians ignore scientists' predictions: they tend to react rather than "pro-act". 

The problem, here, is that science and politics use different languages to model reality. Science speaks in terms of data, politics uses narrative. There follows that if you want to use a scientific model for political purposes, you must translate it into a different language: the language of politics. That means turning quantitative models into narratives. And there lies the problem. A big, large, huge, humungous problem: there is no "Google Translate" service that smoothly turns scientific results into policy choices. When people speak different languages they are bound to misunderstand each other, sometimes with disastrous results.  

So, Dr. Ferguson's recommendations were translated into a narrative and the lockdown became a moral tale of good and bad behavior. People were told that if they didn't follow the lockdown rules, they were not just breaking the law, they were evil for putting the life of their neighbors at risk. 

That worked nicely for a while in the UK and almost everywhere in the world, with people accepting in good faith to be locked into their homes for the sake of the common good. But there was a problem: it soon became clear that the lockdown was doing great damage to the very people it was supposed to protect. Stuck in small spaces, often without a job, without money, and without perspectives, people's health was badly affected. Heart attacks, depression, substance abuse, suicides, and more: we can't yet estimate how many life-years were lost because of the lockdown, but wasn't the solution worsening the problem? Unfortunately, in narrative terms, moral considerations always take precedence over cost-benefit analyses, and so the question couldn't be asked in the public debate. But, surely, it was being asked privately.

Then, it started becoming clear that Ferguson's model had big problems. It was a hodgepodge of lines of code put together as needed, never comprehensively documented, never independently tested, never having undergone a sensitivity analysis. As far as I can say from my personal experience with modeling, it was a model good enough for academic research, but hardly a tool that could be used to guide the policy of a national government. The problem was that there was no way to test if the model was correct or not. What if the model had badly overestimated the effectiveness of the lockdown, as some elements seemed to indicate?

Now, let's assume that someone in the upper echelons understood that the case for the lockdown was not at all so clear cut as it had seemed to be at the beginning. Then, a huge problem appeared. The government couldn't just tell people, "oops... folks, we made a mistake. We beggared you for no reason." 

Think in narrative terms, as politicians do, and remember that the lockdown had been framed as morally and ethically as "good" while no lockdown framed as "evil." The politician who proposes to end the lockdown would be seen as evil himself/herself. There follows, as politicians know, that the way to change policies is to change the narrative. That has rules, just as science has rules. Typically, evil cannot be turned into good (Sauron can be defeated but not turned into Gandalf's friend). But it is possible to turn good into evil when a supposed good guy turns out to be actually evil (Saruman the White who turns into Sauron's ally). And that's the key: turn the good guy into the bad guy and then the narrative can be changed. 

At this point, the path is clear: take the person who proposed the lockdown, Neil Ferguson, and turn him into an evil, amoral, egoistic, and reckless character. That can't have been difficult: mounting a petty sex scandal surely poses no problems for a national government. Of course, we have no proof that this is exactly what happened, but the gist of the story is clear: Ferguson's head had to roll. And it had to roll as noisily as possible. Afterward, the whole edifice that the former good guy had built can be targeted at will with the heavy artillery of the media.

It is happening. Not only Ferguson is being shredded to pieces (actually, all the way down to atomic particles), but also his work is being massively and aggressively criticized. Note what Elon Musk said about him: “This guy has caused massive strife to the world with his absurdly fake ‘science." We'll have to see how things will evolve in the coming days but right now, if things keep moving in this direction, the lockdown is a dead hippo in the water. And so be it: it had to be.

From this story, we can also learn something about the climate debate. You see on the image at the beginning of this post how the enemies of climate science had no qualms in associating Neil Ferguson with Michael Mann, a climate scientist often targeted with all sorts of smears and lies. Fortunately, so far Mann has been able to avoid getting entangled in some stupid scandal, but scientists as a category came under attack for lack of coherency when they use planes for their international meetings where they recommend people to stop using fossil fuels. No government ever implemented serious model-based policy choices about climate, although many of them claimed to have done that. But if something serious were ever to be done to follow the recommendations of climate science, you might see a much nastier backlash against climate scientists. 

Will we ever able to blend science and politics together? For sure, it is a very difficult task. We need nothing less than a completely different political language, a way of debating that would search for common ground instead of focusing only on shooting down the bad guy of the story. But that will take time, to say the least. And, in the meantime, we keep navigating toward the future thinking that the reefs don't exist if they are not mentioned in the media.

A comment from Mr. Kunning-Druger, Ugo Bardi's personal troll.

Glad to see that you finally recognize at least some of your many mistakes, Mr. Bardi. And the mistakes made by this friend of yours, this despicable Mr. Ferguson -- despicable indeed, as you say. And you even have the gall to tell us that he created a model that is "good enough for academic research, but not reliable enough to be used as a policy tool." Why don't you say things the way they are: that model is crap. Yeah, stuff that comes out of a bull's rear end. And you gave yourself away when you said, "good enough for academic research." Shameful: you scientists spend public money to publish academic papers just thinking of your academic careers and then you take planes to go to academic meetings and enjoy nightlife and cocktails at the expense of the taxpayers! And then you think you can tell us what to do. You even think you can tell the government to lock everyone in jail as if we were criminals. But it is not the people who are criminals: it is you and your fellow scientists who are criminals. Now, this scandal about the coronavirus is going to really destroy you -- and I can split an infinitive here, just like the public will split your gang and have all of you truly skewered, not just in a metaphorical sense, ha! This is the end of the whole scam called "climate science" and you know that very well. Mankind can thank Mr. Ferguson for this: at least he made it clear what kind of people those "scientists"
(so to say) are. Ugly, amoral, reckless, evil, power-hungry monsters -- not surprising that they ganged up together to create the scam called "global warming" just to fill their pockets with public money. Make no mistake: we'll remember this scandal. It is the beginning of the end of fake science and scientists.


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)