Monday, August 19, 2019

What's Happening in Italy? The Fatal Flaw of Democracy

Richard Gere on the stranded NGO ship "Open Arms" off the coast of Lampedusa, Italy. A humanitarian intervention that surprised most Italians who reacted by insulting ad vilifying Mr. Gere in all possible ways. This story may be highlighting a fatal flaw of democracy: once leaders discover that the nastier they are, the more they are liked, they tend to overdo it and the result is a spiral that nobody knows how to stop.

A few days ago, American actor Richard Gere appeared in Italy to visit the stranded Spanish NGO ship "Open Arms," the migrant rescue ship that had been forced to remain at sea for days with more than 100 migrants on board. He looked very much like the alien of the 1951 movie "The Day the Earth Stood Still," suddenly disembarking from his flying saucer just landed in Central Park. 

For most Italians, the appearance of Richard Gere was a totally incomprehensible event. Where does he come from? What does he want? Who is he to criticize us? Just like in the movie, the reaction of the Earthlings (Italings) was not friendly. Mr. Gere was insulted and vilified in all possible ways in the mainstream media and in the social networks and even by the Italian interior minister in person, Mr. Matteo Salvini. On his part, Mr. Gere seemed to be bewildered at the reaction of many Italians, declaring that he couldn't believe his Italian friends could harbor ''such hatred" against migrants.
For everything that happens, there is a reason and there are reasons also for this situation that would look silly if it weren't tragic (*). Political leaders have discovered that the nastier they are in their declarations, the more popular they are and the more votes they gather. As a consequence, they engage in the game that once was called "rousing the rabble." This strategy was pioneered in Italy by Silvio Berlusconi who consistently targeted the least cultured fraction of voters to gain political power. It is a strategy that works, but it feeds on itself. The more a politician finds he can rise in the polls by sounding nasty and racist, the more the public expects politicians to be nasty and racist. 

The emphasis on finding an enemy to insult and demonize leads the whole debate to become purely internal. Maybe the current situation in Italy can be defined in terms of a Narcissistic Personality Disorder affecting the whole country. Italy is completely isolated from the rest of the world: the English-Italian boundary seems to be an impassable barrier. If you can't read Italian, you have no idea of what's being said and thought in Italy and, conversely, Italians can't read English and have no idea and no interest in what is being said and thought about them in the rest of the world. It may be just a sensation of mine, but I notice that nobody in Italy seems to read what I write in English on the Cassandra blog. Truly, I feel like Klaatu, the alien of the movie, myself. 

It is a race to the bottom: the process feeds on itself and nobody knows how to stop it. It is the fatal flaw of democracy that politicians such as Donald Trump in the US and Matteo Salvini in Italy have learned to exploit to their advantage. And when something is fatally flawed, it can't usually last long.

(*) What I said in this post doesn't mean that there is no such thing as an "immigration problem" in Italy. By all means, there is a problem and a serious one. The population curves of Europe and Africa are out of sync, with Europe on the declining side while Africa is still climbing up. That creates a true imbalance also enhanced by the ongoing climate change. It needs to be managed in some way until Africa goes through its demographic transition, too (might happen way faster than many population "projections" indicate). Reasonably, it is a matter that can only be dealt with by means of international agreements. But, right now, nobody in Italy seems to be interested to talk with anyone outside Italy: the debate is all about whether these people should be let to drown or their ship sunk by the navy. 

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Why I went underground and how I am enjoying my subterranean life

Here is one of the windows of my new home. No, not the big one. Look at where my wife, Grazia, is pointing. Yes, that one!

This summer in Florence we already had two vicious heat waves. As I am writing, we are in the middle of the third one, even more vicious. It has been, actually, a continuous period of very high temperatures punctuated by a few storms that brought the usual floods and disasters.

Global warming is no joke. If you don't plan for these heat waves you seriously risk your life, especially if you are not so young and you are not in perfect health. And people do die: we don't have statistical data for this year, yet, but the reports from countries like Italy, Europe, India, and Japan tell of tens, maybe hundreds, of victims and thousands hospitalized.

As usual, people here and everywhere in the world suffer from the syndrome that Daniel Pauly calls "shifting baselines." They seem to think that it is all normal because that's what they have been seeing during the past decade or so. And they don't seem to realize that they are living in houses that were designed and built in a world where heat waves were occasional and lasted just a few days, not the rule for more than one month per year.

Most homes in Florence have no air conditioning or have the kind of makeshift units that make a lot of noise but don't do much to lower temperatures. Some people insist on saying that air-conditioning is "not ecological" because it consumes energy. In other cases, the city regulations forbid people to install the external unit of a truly efficient air conditioning system. And, worst of all, very few people realize how bad it is going to be in a few years from now.

So, I have been preparing for what's coming. I told you already how we (me and my wife) decided to move from a big, American-style suburban home to a smaller apartment, downtown. It was for several reasons, but one was that such our big house was impossible to cool in summer. So, we chose an apartment that would be especially suitable to survive these terrible heat waves. An underground apartment.

Actually, our home is not fully underground, It is on the slope of a hill, three sides are against solid rock, but the fourth, the North side, opens on a small garden. That's the only side having large windows, but the sun never shines on them. That was part of the choice to keep the house cool. Here is a picture of our living room.

And here is the garden, in the background you can see the bomb shelter that came with the apartment, it is a WWII relic. It is not supposed to be used against heat waves, but it could be useful again for its original purpose, who knows?

Here is my studio, the room that corresponds to the "slit window" shown at the beginning of this post. The picture is taken in a moment when the sun shines exactly on that window, normally the room is much darker, of course.

The apartment is not very large, but more than enough for two people. It has two bedrooms, kitchen, two bathrooms, storage space, and more things, but I guess what you want to know at this point is how it performs during heat waves. And, I can tell you it performs beautifully even without air conditioning.

As I am writing this post, the temperature outside is about 39°C  (102.2°F). Inside, the thermometer marks 26.3 °C, I never saw it going over 26.6 °C (80 °F), so far. No air conditioning, windows are tightly shut. It is a reasonably comfortable temperature although we found we needed a dehumidifier running full time to bring humidity in the comfortable range of less than 60%. (*)

For comparison, my mother-in-law apartment is nearby. It is an old building with massive walls, but also with windows facing South. With the air conditioning off, it touches 29 °C. My daughter's apartment is on the second floor of a modern building. It arrives at 30-31 °C if the air conditioning is off. Some people tell me that their apartments downtown Florence reach 33-34 °C (91-93 F). That starts to be uncomfortably close to that upper limit of survivability marked by a "wet-bulb temperature" of 36 degrees. Not a joke: heat kills.

So, what's the idea of going underground? Why not just use air conditioning? Sure, it could be done. But there is such a thing as the possibility of a black-out, you heard what happened in England these days. Now, if that happens in Italy at the height of a heat wave perhaps you won't die, but for sure you'll suffer horribly.

But can everybody live underground? No, of course not. Some people do, even in Florence there are plenty of basements used as living quarters. But that's not a good idea: Florence is built on an alluvial plain that's periodically reclaimed by the Arno river. It happens infrequently enough that people forget about these periodic floods -- the last big one was in 1966. But they are unavoidable and if you live in a basement in Florence you have to think that eventually you'll have to get out of it swimming, if you can. Our apartment, instead, is built on the slope of a hill and it is safe from flooding. But you can't build a whole city on the slope of a hill.

What you can do, though, is to build houses made to withstand the heat waves that will become worse and worse as time goes by. How to do that is no secret: the house must have a large thermal mass to make it able to absorb the heat. It may be underground or partly underground, it may have massive walls, or it may have other tricks to store heat away from the living quarters. But it shouldn't count 100% on air conditioning: besides being wasteful, it may not be healthy and not even comfortable.

So, we have been spending this sizzling hot summer tucked in this basement home. An interesting experience. Looking through the window at the haze of the heat, the feeling was like we were living in a science fiction novel. We had landed in an alien planet, too hot for humans to live, and we had to stay inside our spaceship to survive. Maybe that's our destiny in any case: a planet too hot for humans to live, at least during the summer. It is a concept explored by Antonio Turiel in a science fiction story published on his blog "The Oil Crash" titled "Dystopia IX (in Spanish). Maybe we'll really need spacesuits if we want to venture outside in Summer. Who knows?

Elon Musk's spacesuit was designed for Mars, but it could be useful here, on Earth, if things keep going the way they have been going.

(*) We'll have to see how the apartment performs in winter. I expect the rock to act as heat reservoir, but in reverse, so that it may be warm and comfortable with just a little help from the central heating system. Of course, the place will be a little dark but, hey, my ancestors lived in caves, who am I to criticize them?

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Gaia Exists! Here is the Proof

Gaia is neither benevolent nor merciful. She is harsh and ruthless. 

Environmentalists are sometimes defined as "Gaia worshippers," a term supposed to be an insult. That's a little strange because most people on this planet openly worship non-existing entities and that doesn't normally make them targets for insults. Maybe it is because there is an important difference: Gaia exists.

But who or what is Gaia, exactly? The name belongs to an ancient Goddess but the modern version is something different. As you probably know, the term was proposed for the first time by James Lovelock in 1972 and co-developed with Lynn Margulis. As it happens for many innovative ideas, it was the result of a simple observation: if the Sun radiative intensity increases gradually over the eons, how come that the Earth's surface temperature has remained within the boundaries necessary to keep the biosphere alive? There has to be something that keeps it like that. Lovelock proposed that the mechanism was based on regulating the concentration of greenhouse gases, mainly CO2. You understand that this idea goes at the core of the current debate on climate change: it deals with the inner mechanisms that make the Earth's climate what it is and what it may become in the future.

So, Gaia is powerful but She is not supposed to be benevolent or merciful, and not even a Goddess: we could say that She is what She is. But does She really exist? Not everyone agrees on this point. The concept is often referred to as the "Gaia hypothesis" and entire books have been written to demonstrate that there is no such a thing as a control mechanism of the Earth's temperature. Indeed, in the beginning, the idea was mostly qualitative and not proven. Lovelock proposed a clever model called "Daisyworld" that showed how a simple biosphere could control the temperature of a planet. But the Earth's biosphere is not just made out of daisies and something more than that was needed. But over time proofs have accumulated to show that Gaia is much more than a qualitative hypothesis (or an object of worship by people believing in non-existing beings).

Let me show you some data from a 2017 paper by Foster, Royer, and Lunt that can be seen as proof of the existence of Gaia even though they never mention the term. It is not about new discoveries, but it uses available data to look at how the concentration of CO2 and the sun irradiation varied over the past 400 million years, most of the eon we call the "Phanerozoic." The paper is somewhat technical, but clearly written and you can follow the argument even if you are not a specialist in atmospheric physics. Here are the main results:

The top (a) figure shows the average CO2 forcing (red line), compared to the solar forcing (yellow line). "Forcing" means the thermal effect over the Earth expressed as power per square meter (W/m2). It is called forcing because it is a change of a previous condition. A positive forcing warms the Earth, a negative forcing cools it. Values of the order of a few W/m2 may seem to be small, but they may change the Earth temperature of some degrees C.

The surprising result shown in the figure is how the two forcings, sun and CO2, balance each other nearly exactly. You can see that in the bottom panel of the figure: the net forcing is the red line. This is truly impressive. Assuming a sensitivity factor of 0.3, you can calculate that the solar forcing, alone, should have increased the Earth's average temperature of about 2-3 C (nearly 5 F) over 400 million years. The increase would have been considerably larger if feedbacks (e.g. water vapor) are taken into account. But we don't see this increase, not at all. Here are some recent data by Mills et al.

Look at the gray curve: plenty of oscillations but, on the average, the temperature has remained constant over the past 400 million years. If it had increased even of just 2-3 degrees C, the effect would be clearly detectable. If we push back the boundary to more ancient times, to the origins of life on Earth, the effect should have been much larger: the ancient Earth should have been at least 20 K colder than it is today. It should have been a ball of ice. It was not: we know that there was liquid water even in those remote times.

So, the data are clear: the increasing sun irradiance over the Earth's geological history has been compensated mainly by a declining CO2 concentration. Of course, there are other factors affecting climate: other greenhouse gases, changes of albedo, ocean currents, clouds, atmospheric particulate, orbital and axial oscillations. But they seem to play a minor role at the time scale of an eon. And would you believe that this near-perfect compensation occurred by chance? Yes, sometimes things happen by chance, but can the same thing keep happening by chance for 400 million years?

Anyone said "Gaia"? Smile! The Lady is right in front of you. She exists and we are lucky that She is what She is. Otherwise, the biosphere wouldn't have died long ago, burned or frozen.

But what mechanism causes the CO2 concentration to decline as solar irradiance increases? And where does the removed CO2 go? Lovelock had proposed that it was just the biosphere that did the job, it seems now that we need a tight coupling of biosphere and geosphere to obtain the effect we see. In part, CO2 is removed from the atmosphere by photosynthesis and then transformed into the inert substance called "kerogen" (the precursor of fossil fuels), then buried into the crust. In part, CO2 reacts with silicates in the crust to form solid carbonates. It is a long story and not everything is known, but things start to make sense. Lovelock was right.

Now, are events occurring over hundreds of millions of years relevant for us? Absolutely yes. The time scale may change, but the physics remains the same. The impressive point is that there is no fiddling, here, with mysterious models. These are experimental data coupled with simple physical principles that have been known and established for at least a century. They do show that CO2 affects climate, something that many non-worshippers of Gaia refuse to accept.

Comparing the current situation with the record of the Phanerozoic, we can see that the forcing that we are creating with our CO2 emissions (at present about 3 W/m2, and rising) is of the same order of magnitude of the past forcings that caused the Earth to reach the condition of "hothouse Earth," 10-20 degrees warmer than it is today -- and that even for a smaller sun irradiation! If it has happened in the past, it may well happen again. But it would be easier today because the sun is hotter. So, we may well be in deep, deep trouble.

How fast could the transition to hothouse Earth happen? On this point, the Phanerozoic data help us little: we don't have the resolution that would be necessary to detect rapid events such as the incredible burst in atmospheric CO2 concentrations that humans have created during the past few centuries. Some people say that humans will go exctinct in a few decades because of the triggering of the release of methane, another powerful greenhouse gas, from the permafrost. That would be consistent with the several mass extinctions that took place during the Phanerozoic: we know that Gaia is neither benevolent nor merciful.

But the extinction of humankind is not necessarily Gaia's will. The damage we made may still be reversed, especially if we manage to crash the global economic system. That would stop the burning of fossil fuels and the Earth might return to the previous conditions without the utter destruction that some scenarios foresee. Eventually, it surely will, even though that may take a few million years. Gaia may not be benevolent, but she is surely patient.

You Gotta Believe from Nina Paley on Vimeo.


A comment from my personal troll

Ancient kings hired personal advisors to remind them that they were mortal. This I know well enough by myself, but I thought I could hire a personal troll to remind me of my limits as a scientist. Here is a comment from him, Mr. Kunning-Druger). 

Glad to see this post, professor Bardi, and I see that you and your friends finally admitted what you always refused to admit: climate has always been changing. And all the data you are showing to us that humans have no effect on climate: look at all those variations in CO2 concentrations: where were the SUVs, the coal mines, the oil wells that you and the others have been telling us are the cause of "climate change"? How can that be? And the supposed "coincidence" that you are showing to us, that should "prove" that Gaia exists. Do you think we are stupid to believe that when we know that these numbers come from the same people who wrote "hide the decline" in one of their mails? And all this story of the Goddess, again, it proves what we had been saying all along: those idiotic Greens are just a bunch of adhorers of Nature, they and their little prophetess, that disturbed girl, Greta - just another scam among the many. You think you are doing science, but you do politics with just an attempt to mask it with a little New Age flavor. The reality is that the whole story is a scam to get public money for your fat research grants. We know that and I am going to write to the president of your university to tell him that you are wasting the salary that the government gives to you. You are using it to scam people and you should be fired together with all those silly scientists. (KD).

Monday, July 29, 2019

The Brief Spring of Global Science: How Climate Science is Affected by Nationalism and Propaganda

The start screen of the "Climadrom" site, kept by Aleksander Zhabskiy. The site is strongly oriented toward rejecting the current scientific interpretation of climate change, labeled as "climate alarmism," "hysteria," and the like. This view seems to be fashionable in Russia in all sectors of society and, nowadays, Russian science seems to have rejected the current understanding of climate change as seen in the West. Yet, we must keep trying to bridge the gap: if people don't speak to each other, the only way they have to communicate is to fight. In this sense, the site by Mr. Zhabskiy has some merit in seeking for a discussion at the international level. I did present my views that he correctly published.

There was a time, during the 19th century, when Darwin's ideas on natural selection were rejected by the whole French science. One reason was the influence of Baron George Cuvier who had interpreted the geological record in terms of mass extinctions periodically caused by planetary catastrophes (see this link to know more about this fascinating story). French scientists saw Cuvier's role in nationalistic terms and thought that it was outrageous that their great master was contradicted by those silly Britons.

The concept of "National Science" was rather common throughout the 19th century and the first half of the 20th. Earlier on, scientists were still communicating with each other in Latin, but that was abandoned with the 19th century and that led to science being more and more constrained by national borders and national cultures. There are many examples of how this evolution affected the scientific debate: one is how the work by Alfred Wegener on continental drift was widely rejected in the 1950s in part because of anti-German sentiments in the West (a link). I could cite examples of how the Fascist government in Italy tried to purify Italian Science from foreign influences in the 1930s. Then, of course, there was "Soviet Science," supposedly different from the decadent capitalist science practiced in the plutocracies collectively known as "The West." An example is how the Ukrainian biologist Trofim Denisovich Lysenko fought Western Genetics.

But all that seemed to be past and gone with the internationalization of science after that the American legions had imposed English on the rest of the world, just as the Roman legions had imposed Latin long before. As a young researcher, in the 1980s, I perfectly understood that science was international: everyone, anywhere in the world, could be a scientist by accepting two fundamental tenets: publish in English and speak in English. International science was egalitarian, global, and suspicious of national borders. The researchers of my age even tended to mock the older generation of scientists because of their limited command of English. The fall of the Soviet Union, in 1991, seemed to give the final push to the full internationalization of science: there would be no more "Soviet Science." Just as the world's economy was being globalized, the same was taking place for science.

That was just a brief spring: today, nationalism is returning everywhere with a vengeance and science is not immune to the trend. I can tell you how the capability of my younger colleagues to speak English seems to be going down every year a little more and one of the shocks of my life was when, a few years ago, one of the students engaged in a laboratory exercise complained to me that the instruction manual of the instrument he was using was in English.

The downfall of English is just a personal impression but it seems clear to me. Some people in Italy seem to find it totally incomprehensible that I keep a blog in English. Actually, I don't know another example of an Italian scientist who keeps a blog in English, except for my coworker Ilaria Perissi. (If you know of other examples, please let me know!)

How about Climate Science? As it is normal, it is an international field that encompasses contributions from all countries with a significant budget in scientific research. But it seems to me that in Italy climate science is especially neglected. Don't get me wrong: there are several excellent climate scientists in Italy, but the average effort in the field is not impressive. Some evidence of the problem is a recent petition denying the anthropogenic origin of global warming, said to have been signed by 90 leading Italian scientists. Actually, the  "leading scientists" are a ragtag band of elderly scientists, scientists with no competence on climate, and people who are not even scientists -- some of them belonging to all three categories at the same time. Nevertheless, that such petition exists is a symptom of deep problems. Much worse was when, in 2015, the president of the Italian Society of Physics (!!) refused to sign a statement on climate science in support of the ongoing Paris negotiations.

So, what's the problem in Italy? Perhaps the same the French had with their Baron Cuvier. In Italy, we have Antonino Zichichi, an elderly particle physicist who has left a strong imprint in Italian physics and who, today well in his 90s, is still active in criticizing climate science in ways that we can define at least questionable. But it is also a question of science being intertwined with politics: the Italian movement called "sovranism" is clearly suspicious of climate science as a foreign scam.

And let's go to Russia. Judging from what can be read in the scientific literature in English, Russia may be in the same conditions as Italy in terms of neglect of climate science, perhaps even worse. With the best of good will, I couldn't locate much in terms of major contributions to climate science by Russian scientists working in Russia, with the work by Gorshkov and Makarieva being the main exception with their concept of the "biotic pump". I asked my colleagues if they could name a serious Russian climate scientist working in Russia and they couldn't. Maybe they are publishing in Russian? One of the problems with Russia may be the same as in Italy: a dominant figure blocking progress in a whole field of science. In the case of Russia, it seems to have been Kyril Kondratyev (1920-2006). He was a valuable atmospheric scientist but his views on climate change seem to me obsolete by now but, unfortunately, still affecting Russian science.

I may be wrong if I say that Russia is neglecting climate science, but there is clearly a problem, there: a much larger one which has to do with politics. I must admit that, If I were a Russian citizen, I would find it hard to dismiss the idea that the whole story of anthropogenic global warming is just one more psyop coming from the West. The Western media are producing so much propaganda and so many lies that the temptation is to disbelieve anything that comes from a Western source. It is the destiny that befell the Moon landings, now widely disbelieved in the very country that was so proud of having sent men to the Moon not long ago. The same destiny may be affecting climate science: despite decades of efforts of thousands of excellent scientists, it tends to fall into the same category of government-sponsored propaganda. All this goes together with the locking up of science and scientists within national boundaries, something that may turn foreign scientists from colleagues into enemy agents and foreign science into political propaganda.

And now? Could we ever recover a unity in science allowing us to act together against climate change? Could we do that before it will be too late? For sure, at present, we are moving in the opposite direction. As usual, when people refuse to talk to each other, the only possible way to communicate is to fight. And, unfortunately, it may be where we are heading to.

I am grateful to Mr. Aleksander Zhabskiy for the useful conversations we had on the matters covered in this post.

Friday, July 26, 2019

The real reason why we didn't go back to the Moon: The decline of spaceflight

With the massive onslaught of fake news we are subjected to, a particularly obnoxious one is that the Moon landings never took place. It is not just a fashionable idiocy, it is a symptom that the whole Western society is rotting at the core.

In a way, the spreading of the "Moon landing was a hoax" legend was to be expected -- it was even unavoidable. The society we call "The West" inflicted itself mortal wounds during the past few decades with the those technologies that go under the name of "perception management," once known as "propadanda" but now much more refined and effective. If you start using this form of black magic, it is a slippery slope that leads you to the illusions of greatness that were voiced during the invasion of Iraq, in 2003. At that moment, someone was so intoxicated by the new power of propaganda that he uttered the well know words "now we create our own reality."

That was the ultimate hubrys and it didn't go unpunished. Reality cannot be created by mere human beings. What they can do is to create illusions that look like reality and that can hide reality so well that noone can discern the true reality anymore. Losing track with reality would be sufficient punishment in itself, but it carries even worse consequence. Once you start creating your own reality, you can't be trusted any more. And if trust is lost, everything is lost. Society becomes an Empire of Lies and it is destined to fade away and disappear.

So, who would believe the story that people landed on the Moon when it was told by the same people who, later on, invented non-existing weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? For everything that happens there is a reason and there is a reason also for the disbelief in the Moon landing.

Will we ever be able to restore trust? Maybe it is too late, maybe it is not even worth trying. Yet, I was thinking that the astronauts who performed the incredible feat of the several travels to the Moon deserve better than being ridiculed, as it seems to be becoming fashionable nowadays. They deserve respect and admiration for their courage and their dedication. For this reason let me address one of the few reasonable questions that may be asked about the story: why didn't we go back to the Moon? Some people are genuinely perplexed on this point: could it be because it really was a fake?

No. There were deep structural reasons that made it impossible for the Western economic system to provide again the same surplus that was used to finance the Moon program. Here, let me reproduce a post that I published in 2015 examining the trends of human spaceflight. (you can read similar considerations in a post by Antonio Turiel). Clearly, we have peaked and we are going down. It is the way civilizations end.

Monday, February 9, 2015

The last astronaut: the cycle of human spaceflight is coming to an end

Smart, dedicated, competent, polyglot, and more; Samantha Cristoforetti seems to have been invented for a "Star Trek" episode. She is shown here at the International Space Station, where she is staying at the moment of publication of this post. Cristoforetti may not be the last astronaut to orbit the earth, but it is possible that the end of what was once called "the space age" will not be far away in the future. (Image credit: ESA/NASA)

I experienced the enthusiasm of the "space-age," starting in the 1960s, and I am not happy to see the end of that old dream. Yet, the data are clear and cannot be ignored: human spaceflight is winding down. Look at the graph, below. It shows the total number of people launched into space each year. (The data are from Wikipedia - more details.)

As you see, the number of people sent to space peaked in the 1990s, following a cycle that can be fitted reasonably well using a bell-shaped curve (a Gaussian, in this case). We have not yet arrived at the end of space travel, but the number of people traveling to space is going down. With the international space station set to be retired in 2020, it may be that the "space-age" is destined to come to an end in the future.

The shape of the cycle can be seen as a "Hubbert curve." This curve typically describes the exploitation of a non-renewable resource; fossil fuels in particular, but it also describes how economic activities are affected by a diminishing availability of resources. In this case, the shape of the curve suggests that we are gradually running out of the surplus resources needed to send humans into space. In a sense, the economics of human spaceflight are like those of the great pyramids of Egypt. These pyramids were expensive and required considerable surplus resources to be built. When the surplus disappeared, no more were built. The shape of the pyramid building curve was, again, Hubbert-like.

This result is not surprising, considering that we are reaching the planetary limits to growth. In part, we are reacting to the diminishing availability of resources by replacing humans with less expensive robots, but sending robots to space is not the same as the "conquest of space" was once conceived. Besides, the decline of space exploration is evident also from other data, see for instance this plot showing the budget available to NASA (from "Starts with a Bang"). Note how the peak in human spaceflights coincides with the peak in the resources destined to space exploration.

If space exploration is directly related to the availability of resources, it is also true that, from the beginning, it was not meant to be just a resource drain. The idea of the conquest of space involved overcoming the limits of the earth's ecosphere and accessing the resources of the whole solar system. Some of the concepts developed in this area were thought explicitly as ways to avoid the dire scenarios laid out in the 1972 study, "The Limits to Growth." Proposals involved placing giant habitats at the Lagrange libration points, where no energy was necessary to keep them there. The idea gained some traction in the 1970s and, in the figure, you see an impression of one of those habitats - the "Bernal Sphere."(image credit: NASA)

Today, we can't look at these old drawings without shaking our heads and wondering how anyone could take them seriously. Yet, these ideas were not impossible in themselves and, in the 1970s, we still had sufficient resources to make it possible some kind of human expansion into space, even though not on the grand scale that some people were proposing. But we missed that occasion and we much preferred to invest our surplus in military toys. Today, we can't even dream of colonizing space anymore.

The space age is not completely over, yet, but it is becoming more and more difficult to sustain the costs of it. Right now, the Russians are still willing to launch to orbit West European astronauts. But how long will they continue to do so while Western Europe is enacting sanctions devised to cripple the Russian economy? Samantha Cristoforetti, brave and competent Italian astronaut, may well be a member of the last patrol of humans orbiting around the earth for a long time to come.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Can you imagine being a whale? A tale of empathy and communication

From left to right in the photo, Ishmael, Captain Ahab, and Captain Peleg. Actually, the top-hatted, harpoon-bearing person in the center is me (Ugo Bardi) giving a talk on sustainability in Bagnaia, Italy, on July 17, 2019. Near me, Albert Bates (right in the photo) and Simone (left in the photo -- sorry that I don't know his last name).

Some people see whales as nothing more than an economic resource. But, for many of us, whales are an endless source of fascination. Herman Melville, in particular, may have been the first person in history who tried to see the world from the viewpoint of a whale, as he does in his "Moby Dick" novel. It is not an easy task, surely, what can whales see with their small eyes, located the sides of their gigantic heads? But, once you start to follow this line of thought, you discover a whole new world where whales see the world not with their eyes but with their sophisticated sonar system. 

Whales and men are truly alien to each other, even though they had a common ancestor, a furry creature living at the time of the dinosaurs, more than 60 million years ago. From then on, the ancestors of the two species lived in completely different environments, unaware of each other, until the hominin known as "homo sapiens" took to the waters and started a true war on whales. It started perhaps as early as in Neolithic times, but its pace and violence enormously increased in recent times. And the whales are losing it. 

Why this war? Why did we need to erase entire populations of whales, such as the "Right Whale" of which just a few are left alive in the Earth's oceans? The question is deeper than it seems and it can't be solved simply in terms of optimizing the exploitation of an economic resource that just happens to be in the form of a giant sea mammal. Who gave us the right to think of these creatures as resources?

The story is long and it is one of the subjects of the book I am writing with my colleague, Ilaria Perissi, that should be titled "The Empty Sea" (sorry that it will be in Italian). Let me just say that I am working on it on the basis of the concept of "biotic regulation" developed by Victor Gorshkov and Anastassia Makarieva. It can be seen as a "strong" version of the concept of Gaia proposed by James Lovelock. The idea is that all the elements of an ecosystem are tightly coupled with each other and it is that the reason for the ability of the ecosystem to maintain itself in relatively stable conditions. 

Something that Makarieva and Gorshkov don't emphasize is that, in order for the system to work as a control system, the elements composing it must communicate with each other. There follows that if we need to maintain the Earth system reasonably stable, we don't just need to optimize whaling for human needs -- we need to communicate with whales. It means, within some limits, becoming a whale, or at least trying to understand what a whale is. It is, in the end, a question of empathy, not of economics.

I don't claim that all this is completely clear to me, as I said, I am still working on it. Anyway, giving talks on things you don't completely understand -- yet -- is a way to improve. This is what I did last week in Bagnaia where, among other things, I had a chance to meet Albert Bates in person. Albert wrote a comment on my talk that I am reproducing below. As he notes, not everything in this story is completely clear. Indeed, learning is always a journey, not a destination

(h/t Cristina)


It was a dried gourd that brought whales to the edge of extinction in the 19th Century. 

by Albert Bates - Resilience 

For some time now I have been writing in this space that our Achilles Heel as a species may have come at a fork along our evolutionary biology pathway many millions of years ago. Relatively few others of our fellow creatures decided to follow our lead, and for good reason. We decided to sweat.

Having sweat glands conferred an immediate advantage, the type of advantage our kind also seems to select for, rather than thinking through the more distant implications. Only primates — such as humans, monkeys, and apes — and horses have skin covered by sweat glands to regulate their body temperature through evaporation of water. Maximum sweat rates of an adult human can be 2-4 liters per hour or 10-14 liters per day. Dogs and cats, which have just a few such glands, accomplish temperature regulation by panting, which evaporates water from the moist lining of their oral cavity. Elephants manage it with capillaries in their giant, flapping ears (Woolly Mammoths, unfortunately, lacked those and were hunted to extinction).

As bipedal athletes, our ancestors could not dash as fast as deer, boar, or zebras but had the advantage of sweat. We could keep up a fast pace longer than our prey could. As the prey overheated, they were forced to slow down. As we overheated, we only needed to refill our water reserve— hence the gourd. It became as important as the spear. Fear, anxiety, stress, and pain can also cause us to sweat because our biological instincts kick in and prepare us to run.

Ugo Bardi teaches physical chemistry at the University of Florence, in Italy. I have been following his writing on biophysical economics, system dynamics modeling, and metahistory for more than 20 years. His blog in English is Cassandra’s legacy. His most recent book in English is Extracted: How the Quest for Global Mining Wealth is Plundering the Planet (Chelsea Green 2014). He was also the author of The Limits to Growth Revisited (Springer 2011).

In essays just this month so far, he seems to have debunked the notion that the Roman Empire fell from climate change, but raised the possibility that its fall caused a climate change; described how Earth’s ecosystem controls climate by the biotic pump; how the mountain Ebih “melted into a vat of sheepfat” in the 3rd Millennium BCE; and how in times of crisis the panicked elite do not react with reasoned debate, but with the usual combination of lies, damned lies, and propaganda.

I was delighted to have the chance to experience Ugo in person when he gave a lovely workshop entitled, La Grande Transizione — Da Dove e Per Dove (The Great Transition — From Where and To Where) at the annual convergence of GEN-Europe in Comune di Bagnaia, Italy, this week. What was surprising was not what he said, because he left many of the questions he raised unanswered, but how he lectures.

Describing how Herman Melville developed his empathy for the whale, Bardi donned Ahab’s top hat and fastened his sister-in-law inside a raincoat so that her arms were replaced by empty sleeves for fins, then set out with a spear to chase her around the tent.

How did these small humans in their rowed boats kill these leviathans, he asks. Why didn’t these mammals, who were much faster and stronger, merely swim away? He holds up the gourd.
In whaling, the gourd takes the form of an empty oak cask, attached to a line. If the harpooner can toss a barbed dart into the thick skin of the whale as it passes his boat, the whale is doomed. The barb may cause some superficial bleeding but is not fatal by itself. Attach a cask to its line, however, and now the whale is unable to dive to safety. As it swims, pursued by the rowboat, the drag of the line wears it out. Eventually, the boat overtakes the whale and delivers the coup de grĂ¢ce, usually by a lance driven through the creature’s heart.

In a 2004 post to the Oil Drum, Bardi wrote:
In his 1878 book, Alexander Starbuck cited several factors for the decline of production of the whale fisheries in times that for him were recent. He seems to have believed that it was not the extermination of the whales that caused the decline but, rather, the increase of the human population which led to “an increase in consumption beyond the power of the fishery to supply.” But it was also clear to him that the cost and the length of voyages had increased beyond reasonable limits. He did cite “the scarcity and shyness of whales” as a problem, but he stops short of saying that the whale stock was depleted beyond recovery. Most likely, the concept of “extinction” was alien to him, as it was to most of his contemporaries.

Our perception problem with crude oil is equivalent to that of Starbuck, and indeed it is perhaps more severe. The concept of the terminal depletion of a mineral resource is alien to us, since there have been no worldwide precedents. In addition, we are apparently just near the midpoint on the production curve, so we still have to experience the peak, the associated price rise, and the decline. What the future has in store is uncertain: perhaps an energy equivalent of the “rock oil” of Starbuck’s times will materialize in the near future. But if it does not materialize we will have to live with depletion and before long begin to see lamps going out.
So what is our lesson here? Bardi never really got to that, but my takeaway was that we humans have immense technological hubris but little empathy. Bardi said we have developed empathy for honeybees, pandas, and whales but are unlikely to do that for mosquitoes and cockroaches. Unless we can imagine ourselves within the web of life, instead of seeing ourselves as its masters, we are doomed.

I think we risk destruction by many separate routes. We can fill our gourds to slake our thirst, but these days the water is likely contaminated with microplastics. The plastic spear Bardi used to illustrate his whale story is killing more whales now when it is discarded than Ahab could have with forged iron at the tip of a wooden pole.

One real problem we will face stems from that evolutionary decision about sweat glands that our ancestors made.

Orcas, thanks to subcutaneous fat stores, can withstand water temperatures ranging from 0° to 30–35°C (32–95°F). Certain species of tardigrade, including Mi. tardigradum, can withstand and survive temperatures ranging from –273 °C (near absolute zero) to 150 °C in their anhydrobiotic state. Humans have no such tolerance.

Certain sharks, tuna, billfishes, birds and mammals, including ourselves, are endothermic, or “warm-blooded” in common parlance. We have a larger number of mitochondria per cell than ectotherms, enabling us to generate heat by increasing the rate at which we metabolize fats and sugars. If we get too hot, we sweat. If we get too cold, we shiver, sit in strong sunlight, bundle in furs, or burn fat faster.

To sustain higher metabolism, we need several times the food intake of ectothermic animals. Endothermism has its advantages, such as a constant core temperature for optimum enzyme activity. We are not only ourselves under the skin but an entire community. Our human microbiome is optimally advantaged at 37°C (98.6°F).

But endothermism also has disadvantages. If we get too hot we try to slow our metabolic burn. That is what happens during sleep when our core temperature drops typically 1°C. It’s also why the greatest threat to life during heat waves may be during the night when bodies cannot stay cool enough to survive.

When relative humidity is 100%, sweating does nothing to cool us. Hotter air can store more water than colder air. When the human body is exposed to constant temperatures of approximately 55°C (131°F) longer than a few hours, death is almost inevitable. In the early stages, we may try to slow heat generation by ceasing activity. If the heat persists, the effects of our diminished metabolism damage our central nervous system first, especially the brain and those parts concerning consciousness; then heart rate and respiration decrease; judgment becomes impaired as drowsiness supervenes, becoming steadily deeper until we lose consciousness. Mammalian muscle becomes rigid with heat rigor at about 50°C (122°F), with that sudden rigidity of the whole body rendering life impossible.

Humans may catch lethal hyperthermia when a wet-bulb temperature (heat index) is sustained above 35°C (95°F) for six hours. In these conditions, if the temperature of the surroundings is greater than that of the skin, the body actually gains heat by radiation and conduction. Peter Sinclair writes: “Stepped outside yet today? Today in the midwest is what a normal summer day will be like in a few decades.” National Geographic: “In less than 20 years, millions of people in the United States could be exposed to dangerous “off-the-charts” heat conditions of 127 degrees Fahrenheit or more….”

Sadly, hyperthermia occurs in birds, insects, fishes, land animals, and plants of course, too. The sacred lotus (Nelumbo nucifera) can sustain 20 degrees C (36 degrees F) above air temperature while flowering by breaking down starch in their roots, consuming oxygen at a rate of a flying hummingbird, but lacks a similar ability to cool itself. Many plants do not flower, do not fruit, and do not reproduce themselves when it is too warm.

We will need better tools than gourds if we are going to survive this time. We need to discover empathy. And then plant a whole lot of trees.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

A rare glimpse of what the members of the elite think: What are they going to do when things get really tough?

"A lot of these laws and regulations were designed back when the US had a finite amount of energy. Before the new technology was put into place."  Gordon Sondland, US ambassador to the European Union, at the meeting titled "The Fight for EU Energy Security" held on April 11, 2019, in Brussels. Full video of the event.

Scott Fitzgerald said once that "The rich are different from you and me” and Ernst Hemingway is reported to have answered, “Yes, they have more money." Maybe this exchange never took place, but it is probably true that, apart from the money they have, the rich are not really different from ordinary people. That is, they are not smarter than us. Their riches are the result of luck and of a certain capability of being in the right place at the right moment, including being born from a rich father.

I think that the same conclusion is valid for the category we call the elite. They are not different from you and me: they are not smarter, they just have more power. The concept of elite, of course, is a little vague. Let's say that they are people who have a certain capability of putting into practice their beliefs and so have an impact on the world. The commoners (you and me) cannot do that: at best we can vent our frustrations on the Web: it is what I am doing here!

So, if something important happens in the world, it is because the elites want it to happen. The president of the United States can decide to bomb a foreign country and it will be bombed. Senators and MPs can create laws that will be valid for everyone in the country. The military may lobby to siphon ever-increasing sums of money out of the taxes paid by everyone to build more and more expensive weaponry. Rich people may move huge amounts of money to support the extraction of fossil fuels. As we go down in the hierarchy, these capabilities fade gradually and disappear at the fuzzy boundary that separates the elites from the commoners. The elites and the commoners behave in similar ways, although it may be possible that the members of the elite are more aggressive. But the point remains: some people, up in the hierarchy, can do things we can't do.

I am not inventing all this, the "Elite Theory" that says that the world moves the way the rich and the powerful want it to move has been well known for more than a century. The most recent study that shows how commoners have little or no decisional power in a democracy was published by Gilens and Page in 2014 and their conclusion is that "economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence."

Not surprising, I'd say. But note that there is no such a thing as a secret "government of the elite" of people dressing in capes convening in a dark hall in the basement of the White House, in Washington. It is just that the pushes generated by powerful people average to a certain direction according to their prevailing beliefs. And the world moves in that direction.

So, what do the elite think? Maybe we can get a glimpse of that from what Mr. Gordon Sondland said when speaking at a meeting about the EU energy security in April 2019. Among his many dubious statements, one stands above the others: "the US had a finite amount of energy before the new technology was put into place." That's the same as saying that the fossil energy available in the US is now infinite.

Now, Mr. Sondland is surely a member of the US elite. He is a rich man, reported to have donated $ 1 million to support Donald Trump's electoral campaign. No wonder that he was given the prestigious job of US ambassador to the EU. But that was not just a reward for previous credits: Mr. Sondland is perfectly suited for the job of peddling US natural gas to the Europeans. If you have time, listen to him speaking at that meeting. Smooth, self-assured, convincing, the kind of person who could sell whiskers to cats.

The interesting point is that I think Mr. Sondland really believes that the US energy is infinite because of technological progress (*). Of course, I can't get inside his head but it was said in such a matter-of-factly tone that I'd bet he does. It is a belief that fits well with the current debate in the media. Of course, just a fringe believe that hydrocarbons are physically infinite, but most people are now in a phase of complete remotion of the concept that such a thing as "depletion" even exists, to say nothing about being a problem for the foreseeable future. The same is true for climate change.

If we can take Mr. Sondland's sentence as representative of the way the elite think, I guess it proves that they are influenced by their own propaganda. As I said, they are not different from you and me: they watch CNN and Fox News, too! And, like most people, they are unable to reason in quantitative terms, they cannot understand complex systems, they have no knowledge of physics, and they use only extremely crude, intuition-based models.

That, I think, explains a lot of things about what's happening in the world today. The elite think that technology can provide "infinite resources" and that's why their financial branch is pouring enormous amounts of money into a money-losing enterprise such as shale oil. And it also explains why their military branch is so fixated with petty little wars while the ecosystem is going to Hell. They are just acting according to their beliefs.

Of course, that's what's happening now. What if something really big changes the elite's cherished beliefs? How about a new oil crisis? What about a truly gigantic climate-related disaster? That may open up some interesting scenarios. Overall, people's behavior is well described by something that James Schlesinger said, "People have only two modes of operation: complacency and panic." There is no doubt that the elites are in full complacency mode, right now but, if things get really tough, will the elite go into panic mode? And, if so, what happens?

Likely, the panicked elite will not react in a rational way: that's not one of the operating modes of human beings. Most likely, they will keep their trust in technology: if Mr. Sondland believes that it could make fossil fuels infinite, then more technology can solve other problems. If fracking ceases to work we can apply more technology and get liquid fuels out of coal, why not? Or maybe restart an all-out effort with nuclear energy, and damn the radioactive torpedoes. And climate change? Well, the scientists can think of some way of dealing with it: spray something in the atmosphere, put mirrors in orbit, whatever.

It could be much worse: the elite may decide that the problem is just that there are too many people consuming and polluting. Then, they could think of ways to solve it - you guess how. Or they may simply decide that, after all, what do they care about the commoners? They'll just work at saving themselves. It is just what the Roman Elite did at the time of the fall of the Roman Empire. And it we will see the usual combination of lies, damned lies, and propaganda. Interesting times ahead.

(*) What if Mr. Sondland was lying and he knows perfectly well that the US fossil reserves are not infinite? That changes little in the situation, except that it would indicate that a larger fraction of the elite (including Mr. Sondland) is already in panic mode.


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)