Sunday, November 17, 2019

Climategate, 10 Years Later: What Can we Learn About it from Memetics?

Ten years ago, on November 20th, 2009, the "Climategate" story broke into the news, worldwide. At the beginning, it seemed to be just part of the heated debate on climate. Then, its true character appeared more clearly: it was a major demonstration of the power of the media to control the memesphere. Above, an image from The Telegraph of Nov 28th, 2009

You may think of "Climategate " as a scandal but, really, it was a startling demonstration of how propaganda can be effective. That dawned on me one day when I was having lunch at the university cafeteria with one of my former teachers. We were chatting of this and that when he came up with something like, "hey, Ugo, did you hear that they intercepted the phone calls of some climate scientists and they confessed that they had altered the data?" I remained frozen, holding my fork in mid-air. This scientist was like a child: outside his narrow field of study, he was unable to critically evaluate the news that he received from the media.

That was not the only experience that showed me that there is something deeply wrong in the way we manage knowledge, but surely it was a big push in that direction. As a scientist, I am trained in the scientific method, not a single rule but a general attitude that says, "verify everything before assuming it is true." Evidently, that doesn't apply to politics, not even to those issues that are important for the survival of humankind. But how is it that people are so easily swayed by propaganda?

As I discuss in my latest book, "Before the Collapse," believing in what looks true is a time-honored tradition. It is a quick and dirty epistemological trick that often works in situations where you have to take a rapid decision based on insufficient data. (say, you stumble into a sabertooth tiger that looks hungry -- it is safe to assume it is). It even has a name, the term "zetetics" is used sometimes, coming from a Greek word that means "I search." This approach is used also when you are overwhelmed by data and you have to simplify. The idea of zetetics is to avoid all kinds of theory or models: what you see is what is true. It is the attitude of flat-earthers: the Earth looks flat, then it has to be flat, and the hell with those "models" trying to show that it is round.

In the case of Climategate, the basis of the problem is that climate science is a complex story that proposes something that looks contrary to fact: that the Earth's climate changes. A good zeteticist would never accept that: climate looks stable, then it has to be stable. Then, why those scientists insist that it is not? Something smells bad, here. And there comes Climategate to confirm that there is something bad in the story, indeed. Of course, there was nothing in the mails that were released that could even vaguely indicate that climate scientists were conspiring in order to swindle humankind by tampering with their results. Out of 160 Mb of data, all that could be found were a couple of sentences taken out of context ("hide the decline" or "Mike's trick") and some legitimate personal opinions. But, apparently, if scientists could be made to look evil, then they had to be evil! Zetetics at work.

But it wasn't just that: Climategate was especially impressive not just for its rapid diffusion, but also for how resilient it was to all attempts to dislodge it from the public consciousness. Even today, 10 years later, you can read plenty of commentaries on the Web showing that many people are still convinced that the scientists involved with Climategate were doing something ugly and horrible, although it isn't clear to them exactly what. So, we can be easily swindled by this kind of hoaxes: Climategate is just one of them.  But can we at least learn something from these stories?

Yes, we can. For me, Climategate was the start of a research that went in some depth into understanding how the mechanisms of what we call "consensus" work. With some colleagues of mine, we discovered the existence of something called "memetics" and how memes diffuse through the "memesphere." Being good scientists, we even published papers in this subject, trying to define what pushes a meme to become "viral" as it is fashionable to say nowadays. In one of these papers, we observed that there is a difference between "bottom-up" memes (that is, the true viral memes) and memes diffused from above (we call them "fall-out" memes).

So, here are some data for "Climategate" obtained from Google trends. Note the abrupt "spike" in the signal: according to our models, it shows that the story was pushed into the public consciousness mainly by the media. What we see in the data is a reflection of how the public was driven to search more about what they had read in news sites or heard on TV,

Here are some more data on the peak of interest

Note also how the peak goes in bumps. It is another characteristic of fall-out memes. They are pushed from above by the timed release of new data that keep the interest of the public alive. A meme managed in this way is like a city attacked by successive waves of bombers.

The searches for the Climategate story rapidly abated, after about one month the "infective" phase of the meme was over. But the meme remains dormant like an encysted virus, you can see that from the fact that the "tail" never goes exactly to zero. It is remarkable how "Climategate" has a search volume comparable to that of "Russiagate" despite being ten years old -- an age that for news exceed that of the Biblical Methuselah.

So, did the Climategate meme have something special that made it so resilient? I'd say no: it was just one of those memes that live on pointing at an enemy of the people ("orange man bad"). These memes are extremely effective and long-lasting (see this post of mine for a series that includes Jews eating children and Marie Antoinette telling the hungry people of Paris to eat cake). There is very little that can be done to stop them once they start growing along their viral trajectory. Rational arguments against memes are not more effective than they would be with biological viruses. Just like a virus doesn't "see" the macroscopic world in which we live, a meme doesn't "see" the real world. The memesphere is another dimension.

Still, we are not completely defenseless against memetic attacks. We could say that the false information (aka fake news) that pervades the Web is a form of pollution. Then, it could be reduced by using the same methods used to reduce the real world's pollution. That is, forcing polluters to clean up their act and to pay for the damage they caused. That could be applied also to the people who spread fake news on the Web but, unfortunately, right now, those who claim to be fighting fake news are also the main producers of fake news, so it is hard to think that they would act against their own interests. But, in the long run, something good could be done using this approach.

Then, at the individual level, we can learn from biology how to fight back against memetic attacks. For instance:
  1. Avoid contact with contaminated areas: That means mainly avoiding the mainstream media (MSM), but also social media can be highly toxic. They are carpet bombing your brain with destructive memes every day: if you don't dodge them, eventually they'll destroy your defenses and with that your brain.
  2. Avoid contact with infected people. Don't debate with people who have bought into some especially malign meme: it is like thinking that you can cure someone from aids by sleeping with him or her. It is much more likely that you will be infected yourself.
  3. Build up your immune system. Create a meme filter: any and every meme that arrives to you, especially if it is from the MSM, has to be considered false unless proven to be true.
  4. Reinforce your defenses. Counter the MSM and social media with other sources of information. Blogs are an especially effective way, not for nothing they are under continuous attack, nowadays. But as long as you have access to independent information (we don't know for how long that will be possible), use it. Just don't forget that even what you learn from blogs has to be considered false unless proven true. Otherwise, you risk being infected by opposed but just as malign memes.

Of course, that's hardly sufficient to stop the diffusion of evil memes but, at least, it will help you maintain a certain degree of mental sanity. And that's the best we can do for now.

(See also a previous comment of mine on the same subject)

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Before The Collapse: The New Book by Ugo Bardi

My new book on collapse is out, published by Springer. You can find it at the Springer site at this link (priced in Euro) and at this link (priced in dollars). You can find it also on most Web sites that sell books.

Collapse is a popular subject nowadays, so I thought I could add some more confusion to the already ongoing mess by publishing this new book "Before the Collapse: A Guide to the Other Side of Growth."

If you follow the "Cassandra's Legacy" blog, you know that collapse is a subject that I touch frequently and that two years ago I published a book titled "The Seneca Effect," that made an explicit reference to the Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca, whose work I took as the first mention in history of collapse as a normal feature of the universe. "The Seneca Effect" was not a difficult book to read but it was a technical book, dedicated to people interested in subjects such as system dynamics. It was also priced accordingly.

So, the second book was thought at the beginning as a simplified version of the first to be placed in the category of "trade books" destined to the general public (also at a lower price). But, eventually, as the text grew, it became a different book. It maintained some elements of the first, but it included new examples, new ideas, new subjects, and a new slant. It became a practical manual on how to deal with collapse, although it does not neglect some scientific elements of the story (and for this I have to thank my unicellular assistant, Amelia the Amoeba. You see her in the picture on the right, as she appears in the book. She is a nice girl except for her habit of eating human brains, but - hey! - nobody's perfect!)

So, the choice of the title, "Before the Collapse," to emphasize that we still have time to prepare for "The Other Side of Growth," the dreaded social and climatic collapse that, by now, appears unavoidable. Yes, but that doesn't mean we have to fall into the doom and gloom attitude that seems to be spreading among those who take the time to examine the situation. The gist of the book is that collapse is not an exceptional event, it is the way the universe works (collapse is not a bug, it is a feature). It is the way the universe uses to get rid of the old to make space for the new. And we badly need to get rid of the old things and ideas that have led us to where we are. As someone said, "collapse early and avoid the rush!" So, sometimes you can't avoid collapse, but you can always be prepared for it.

But "BTC" is not just about the "big one," the civilization collapse that we are fearing so much and for good reasons. Collapse, it seems, has a certain fractal character. There are big and small collapses and the small ones are more frequent and can affect anyone. So, BTC tries to help the reader to navigate among the perilous cliffs of life that involve such things as bankruptcy, natural disasters, structural collapses, wars (large and small), social unrest, business competition, zombie apocalypses and more. It is a sort of a smorgasbord of collapses: there is something for everyone.

Writing a book is a big effort and once you have a printed copy in your hand you always feel like you would have written it in a different way if you were to start anew. But books are books, this one is written and I hope you'll like it. I dedicated it to my two granddaughters, Aurora and Beatrice, who were both born while it was being written. While writing, I couldn't' avoid realizing that their life will be most likely way more "bumpy" than ours, but I don't despair for their future. Humans are an adaptable species and our descendants will adapt to the mess their ancestors created and, I hope, will find ways to clean it up.

And so, onward, fellow humans!

Thursday, November 7, 2019

What Future for Africa? A Report from the Meeting of the Club of Rome in Cape Town

Manphela Ramphele (*) and Sandrine Dixon-Decleve, the co-presidents of the Club of Rome, at the start of the meeting of the Club in Cape Town on 5 November 2019 (**). These are somewhat rambling and incomplete notes written immediately after the end of the meeting.

Africa? What is Africa, exactly? A continent? A nation? A world in itself? Surely, it is enormous, variegated and complex. Personally, I had never crossed the equator in my life but these few days in Cape Town were enough to give me a new perspective of the world. It started with a small epiphany received from a Kenyan lady at the meeting of the Club of Rome who told me, "things are happening here."

Indeed, things are happening in Africa. You can see it from the data and the statistics but, perhaps, it is more a sensation. It is like a humming, a buzz, the feeling that something gigantic is stirring down below in the bowels of the continent. Something is happening, here.

When you land in Cape Town, you are struck first by the landscape: enormous rocky mountains all over the horizon -- remnants of the immense geological forces that shaped this section of the continent. Then, you move along the townships of Khayelitsha ("new home"), a seemingly infinite expanse of wood and iron shacks. Think of a European Gipsy camp multiplied by a factor 1,000 or more: the contrast with the skyscrapers, downtown, couldn't be starker. Not as grandiose as the mountains, nevertheless these settlements give you a sensation of human resilience, of the willingness to endure and survive, no matter how hard the conditions are.

And then you start getting a feeling of the place. It takes some time but, eventually, the pieces of the puzzle start coming together. Well beyond the trinkets for tourists and the cheap folklore, there are such things as an African vision, an African way, an African logic, and a certain feeling of being African. Of course, Africa is not a nation and it may never be one. Besides, it is sharply separated in two parts by the Sahara desert. But there is a certain continuity, a certain degree of shared beliefs that pervades the continent.

For instance, an African participant to the meeting generated another small epiphany for me when he said, "when we Africans disagree, we don't vote like you Westerners do. We discuss until we find an agreement and then there are no more contrasts." My first reaction as a Westerner was that it would never work in the West, but maybe that's because we have never been educated to believe that it is always possible to find an agreement when we need one. Then, of course, it may not work so perfectly even in Africa but, at least, if you start with the idea that you should strive to reduce contrasts, at least you won't exacerbate them. On this point, I had another epiphany from the words of a Chinese member of the Club who, in debating with someone else, said, "I am against you, but only 90%. I am with you 10%, and that may change to 90% with you: it is the principle of the Yin and the Yang, things always change and then become the same again." Maybe the Chinese and the Africans have something in common, for sure there is some wisdom, here.

So, there is such a thing as "Africa" that goes beyond the name of a continental plate. And there are people who define themselves as "Africans," a term that goes beyond the fact that they live on a certain portion of the Earth's continental plates. For sure, both Africa and the Africans have been badly misunderstood. If you live in Europe, and in Italy in particular, you can't avoid noting that Africans are seen as somewhat less than human, bands of renegades who land on our shores to steal our jobs and rape our women, people who can't keep themselves from breeding like rabbits. I am shocked myself at what I just write, but if you live in Italy that's what many people seem to think. The outburst of racism, there, has been simply unbelievable, but we have to believe it because it has happened.

Africa and the Africans have been invaded, enslaved, insulted, exploited, exterminated, misunderstood, slighted, despised, and much more. And yet, they are here. Despite all the problems: crime, corruption, violence, poverty, inequality, and what you have, Africa is here and Africans have something to say to the rest of the world. Will they be able to do that?

The challenges for Africa are enormous although, perhaps, not harder than for the rest of the world. One of these challenges is that the economic powerhouse of the sub-Saharan region, South Africa, is an economy that was built on coal, just like the European economies. And as all economies built on fossil fuels, the problem is how to move away from the original source of power. Clearly, South Africa is in big trouble, here. Apart from the need for phasing out coal, it is also a problem of supply, as it seems clear from the production data which indicate a peak in 2014.

In addition, the South African coal-fired power plants are obsolete and need to be phased out within the next two decades. South Africa also has a modest nuclear power production, but it doesn't seem to have the resources to increase it -- perhaps not even to maintain it. Then, there would be good chances for increased production of renewable energy but it seems that the South-African government suffers from the same failure of imagination as most Western governments: they can't imagine that energy can be produced without burning something, so they aren't encouraging renewable energy as much as it would be possible and advisable. And that's especially bad because South Africa provides energy for several other African countries and it is probably the only country of the region having sufficient resources for an energy transition. A decline in the South African production would reverberate all over the Southern African region.

Then, there is the enormous question of climate change: what's going to happen to Africa as we climb the temperature ladder? We don't really know: some regions of the continent may become too hot for human habitation. The precipitation patterns might change: Cape Town had already a close call with a climate-related disaster with the drought that lasted until 2018.

Fortunately, the abundant rains of 2018 staved off the crisis, but Cape Town went close to be the first modern city in the world that could literally run out of water: it would have been the event known as "day zero,"  the day when nothing would come out of the taps anymore. Was it a problem related to climate change? And will the problem return in the future? We don't know and we can't know, but a future "water apocalypse" for Cape Town cannot be ruled out.

And finally, there is the question of population. In South Africa, the growth rate is slowing down, but the population curve shows no evidence of a flattening trend. At nearly 60 million people, today, it maintains a rate of increase of about 1.5% yearly. It is the inertia of a young population, compounded with legal and illegal immigration. And the economy is not expanding to match the trend: there are ominous signs not only of decline but of a much worse outcome that could include a social collapse undermining the reconciliation policies that had been successful in the 1990s.

Facing these enormous problems, it is no wonder that the Club of Rome has no miracle solution. Perhaps no solution whatsoever. Perhaps nobody in the world has solutions. What the Club could do was to state with the maximum possible force that we are in a climate emergency and that we need to go ahead with a climate emergency plan. Yet, at the meeting in Cape Town, some talks were so removed with the reality of the emergency situation to make one feel like screaming in rage. It takes time for some concepts to penetrate into people's consciousness. Climate change is such a gigantic thing that many people simply can't perceive it. It takes time. Likely, more time than we have.

One thing is clear, anyway, that whatever it is going to happen, we have no hope to do anything unless we do it together as that nebulous entity we call "humankind." We have created the problem, we are the only entity that (perhaps) can solve it. In this sense, the Cape Town meeting was in the best tradition of the Club of Rome as it was established by its founder, Aurelio Peccei. A truly international encounter of people who came from all over the world to bring their contribution and their ideas for the benefit of all humankind. Alone, the Club can't do that much but ideas can grow and spread and there is still hope. In this, Africans could give a major contribution.

So, where are we going? Onward, fellow humans!

(*) I am saddened to have to report that Manphela Raphele received the news of the death of a close family member just at the beginning of the meeting, so that she had to leave. Her presence was sorely missed and I can only offer my sincere condolences to her. Hopefully, she'll be soon active again with the many activities of the Club. 

(**) Greta Thunberg has been able to popularize the concept that flying on a plane is inherently something evil. She is probably right and I have been thinking of that when I considered whether it was a good idea for me to fly to Cape Town. In the end, I decided to do that and I'll see to explain the reasons in a future post.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

"The Limits to Growth" continues to make waves

The Club of Rome is holding its annual meeting in Cape Town, South Africa. In the image, you see the co-president, Sandrine Dixon-Decleve, speaking
Now heading toward its 50th anniversary, "The Limits to Growth," the 1972 study sponsored by the Club of Rome, continues to generate interest. Past is the time of the "Limits-Bashing" fashion, when no one would dream to cite the study except to say that it was wrong. But there are still plenty of people who blindly repeat the legend that the study had predicted shortages that never occurred. As Daniel Dennett said, we are apes infested with memes and the Limits to Growth is an especially virulent one. 

Here, Marc Cirigliano writes a balanced review of the story, citing my book on the subject and giving some credit to one of the main critics of the study, Julian Simon, who in my opinion would deserve some more bashing but I admit that he may have been, at least, well-intentioned. 


By Marc A. Cirigliano

Popular journalism seems to have finally caught up with what the scientists have been telling us for well over five decades about the environment. You really can’t read anything in mainstream news or commentary without coming across articles about such ecological matters as overpopulation, pollution, resource use and climate change. The main topics related to these stresses include human excesses, noticeable changes that affect the day-to-day well-functioning of a society somewhere on the planet or the long-term viability of human life as we now know it.

It has not been an easy matter for science to get to the point where environmental problems are part of the grist of everyday reporting and opinion pieces. The opposition has been fierce, well funded and plays upon people’s primal fears.

Science discovers new ways of thinking about the world. Often, this is unsettling because with a new way of thinking, there comes change, and, with change, comes the possibility of loss. Sometimes the threat of loss may seem monumental, overwhelming, and, perhaps, even apocalyptic.

Change may portend personal dislocation, social change and economic upheaval. No wonder, then, that some people may see some aspects of scientific advancement as a threat. Further, people in authority may feel that a new scientific discovery threatens their very position of power within society.

One historic centuries old example is religion’s well-known and consistent opposition to a scientific explanation for the universe that upended the Christian one. Science told us the Earth was no longer the center of a God-designed universe. To threaten religion’s primacy even more, evolution upended the hexplanation that humans descended from Adam and Eve. In place of that, science said we descended from other life forms.

Religion freaked out even as the evidence mounted that science was correct.

Still today some clerics defend their authority over parishioners by still insisting the Bible is the undeniable authority in understanding the functioning of the universe, the origin of humans and the motive of humans in living on the planet. Some use it as a reason to oppose environmental reforms all together. Looking at the idea that informs the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Genesis 1:26 (NIV) gives use the dominion argument:

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

Yes, the dominion argument is that God sanctioned humanity with using the earth as we see fit. Enironmental science puts forth a different view.We will come back to science as a threat to the authority of the status quo later.

A Major Environmental Warning from 1972

By the 1960s, science had established, or more precisely, environmental science had developed a proven explanation for the complex way ecosystem earth functioned. This explanation used the idea of population dynamics. Here, population growth, carrying capacity, overpopulation and population collapse—also referred to as a die-off or crash—were part of a pattern of life both in a segment of the environment or even on the planet as a whole. Bear in mind that as science developed its ideas on population dynamics, earth was in the midst of a population explosion never before seen.

In 1972, the Club of Rome received a report they had commissioned from four MIT researchers— Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers and William W. Behrens III—to study what they called the predicament of mankind. This team published The Limits to Growth (LTG), subtitled A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind.

The researchers described their goal and the predicament they were proposing we fix:
The intent of the project is to examine the complex of problems troubling men of all nations: poverty in the midst of plenty; degradation of the environment; loss of faith in institutions; uncontrolled urban spread; insecurity of employment; alienation of youth; rejection of traditional values; and inflation and other monetary and economic disruptions. (10)
The LTG supplied a new way of looking at these problems, problems they labeled as the world problematique:

It is the predicament of mankind that man can perceive the problematique, yet, despite his considerable knowledge and skills, he does not understand the origins, significance, and interrelationships of its many components and thus is unable to devise effective responses. This failure occurs in large part because we continue to examine single items in the problematique without understanding that the whole is more than the sum of its parts, that change in one element means change in the others. (11)
In other words, each of these elements—poverty, environmental loss, social mistrust, overpopulation, job loss, alienated youth, etc.—is part of a system, with system defined as “a regularly interacting or interdependent group of items forming a unified whole.”

Consequently, instead of studying each of these problems separately from the system, the LTG proposed to study them as part of an environmental system. The way they examined this as a system was to develop a model, which they clarified as “simply an ordered set of assumptions about a complex system.” (20)

This was a new approach at that time in 1972.

Let us look at some of the specifics. TLG clarifies:

Our world model was built specifically to investigate five major trends of global concern-accelerating industrialization, rapid population growth, widespread malnutrition, depletion of nonrenewable resources, and a deteriorating environment. (21

The TLG draws a distinction between their approach and more traditional ones:

The model we have constructed is, like every other model, imperfect, oversimplified, and unfinished. We are well aware of its shortcomings, but we believe that it is the most useful model now available for dealing with problems far out on the space-time graph. To our knowledge it is the only formal model in existence that is truly global in scope, that has a time horizon longer than thirty years, and that includes important variables such as population, food production, and pollution, not as independent entities, but as dynamically interacting elements, as they are in the real world. (21-22)

TLG gives us three observations on how we may address these problems:

The present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years. The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline inf both population and industrial capacity.  t is possible to alter these growth trends and to establish a condition of ecological and economic stability that is sustainable far into the future. The state of global equilibrium could be designed so that the basic material needs of each person on earth are satisfied and each person has an equal opportunity to realize his individual human potential. If the world's people decide to strive for this second outcome rather than the first, the sooner they begin working to attain it, the greater will be their chances of success. (23-24) TLG also acknowledges:
These conclusions are so far-reaching and raise so many questions for further study that we are quite frankly overwhelmed by the enormity of the job that must be done. (24)Addressing population growth, TLG zeroes in one of the reasons for the exponential population explosion in the 20th century:
With the spread of modern medicine, public health techniques, and new methods of growing and distributing foods, death rates have fallen around the world. World average life expectancy is currently about 53 years and still rising. On a world average the gain around the positive feedback loop (fertility) has decreased only slightly while the gain around the negative feedback. loop (mortality) is decreasing. The result is an increasing dominance of the positive feedback loop … (37)

In other words, several elements of the world system have enabled the population to grow exponentially. LTG explains further:

The exponential growth of demand for food results directly from the positive feedback loop that is now determining the growth of human population. The supply of food to be expected in the future is dependent on land and fresh water and also on agricultural capital, which depends in turn on the other dominant positive feedback loop in the system-the capital investment loop. Opening new land, farming the sea, or expanding use of fertilizers and pesticides will require an increase of the capital stock devoted to food production. The resources that permit growth of that capital stock tend not to be renewable resources, like land or water, but nonrenewable resources, like fuels or metals. Thus the expansion of food production in the future is very much dependent on the availability of nonrenewable resources. Are there limits to the earth's supply of these resources? (54)

One of the results of population growth caused by resource us is pollution. LTG points out:

Man's concern for the effect of his activities on the natural environment is only very recent. Scientific attempts to measure this effect are even more recent and still very incomplete. We are certainly not able, at this time, to come to any final conclusion about the earth's capacity to absorb pollution. We can, however, make four basic points in this section, which illustrate, from a dynamic, global perspective, how difficult it will be to understand and control the future state of our ecological systems. These points are: 1. The few kinds of pollution that actually have been measured over time seem to be increasing exponentially. 2. We have almost no knowledge about where the upper limits to these pollution growth curves might be. 3. The presence of natural delays in ecological processes increases the probability of underestimating the control measures necessary, and therefore of inadvertently reaching those upper limits. 4. Many pollutants are globally distributed; their harmful effects appear long distances from their points of generation. (69)

There is no doubt today that the deleterious effects of pollution are everywhere: the air, the water and the soil, all in the form of billions of tons of solid waste. All this not only affects people, but also animals, plants and, on a microscopic level, bacteria and viruses. In a simple overview of the systemic nature of the problematique, TLG links these issues together:
Of course, none of the five factors we are examining here is independent. Each interacts constantly with all the others. We have already mentioned some of these interactions. Population cannot grow without food, food production is increased by growth of capital, more capital requires more resources, discarded resources become pollution, pollution interferes with the growth of both population and food. (89)

The Crux of the Matter: “A Choice of Limits”

The heart of the problem has to do with the way that we solve social problems:

But the relationship between the earth's limits and man's activities is changing. The exponential growth curves are adding millions of people and billions of tons of pollutants to the ecosystem each year. Even the ocean, which once appeared virtually inexhaustible, is losing species after species of its commercially useful animals. (151)

After demonstrating the crisis facing the whaling industry around 1972, TLG points out that there were agreed upon limits to whaling to preserve the whale population. By extension, then, the report argues:

The basic choice that faces the whaling industry is the same one that faces any society trying to overcome a natural limit with a new technology. Is it better to try to live within that limit by accepting a self-imposed restriction on growth? Or is it preferable to go on growing until some other natural limit arises, in the hope that at that time another technological leap will allow growth to continue still longer? For the last several hundred years human society has followed the second course so consistently and successfully that the first choice has been all but forgotten. (151-153)

TLG make a point that they:

… are searching for a model output that represents a world system that is: 1. sustainable without sudden and uncontrollable collapse; and 2. capable of satisfying the basic material requirements of all of its people. (158)

To achieve a stable population, the number of births would more or less have to equal the number of deaths. TLG states:
Such a requirement, which is as mathematically simple as it is socially complicated, is for our purposes an experimental device, not necessarily a political recommendation. (159-160)

At the same that TLG discusses socially complicated limits, they acknowledge that:

Technological advance would be both necessary and welcome in the equilibrium state. A few obvious examples of the kinds of practical discoveries that would enhance the workings of a steady state society include:
  • new methods of waste collection, to decrease pollution and make discarded material available for recycling;
  • more efficient techniques of recycling, to reduce rates of resource depletion;
  • better product design to increase product lifetime and promote easy repair, so that the capital depreciation rate would be minimized;
  • harnessing of incident solar energy, the most pollution-free power source;
  • methods of natural pest control, based on more complete understanding of ecological interrelationships;
  • medical advances that would decrease the death rate;
  • contraceptive advances that would facilitate the equalization of the birth rate with the decreasing death rate.

TLG continues:

As for the incentive that would encourage men to produce such technological advances, what better incentive could there be than the knowledge that a new idea would be translated into a visible improvement in the quality of life?

They clarify the social reality of new inventions through history:

Historically mankind's long record of new inventions has resulted in crowding, deterioration of the environment, and greater social inequality because greater productivity has been absorbed by population and capital growth. There is no reason why higher productivity could not be translated into a higher standard of living or more leisure or more pleasant surroundings for everyone, if these goals replace growth as the primary value of society. (177-178)

TLG concludes:

If there is cause for deep concern, there is also cause for hope. Deliberately limiting growth would be difficult, but not impossible. The way to proceed is clear, and the necessary steps, although they are new ones for human society, are well within human capabilities. Man possesses, for a small moment in his history, the most powerful combination of knowledge, tools, and resources the world has ever known. He has all that is physically necessary to create a totally new form of human society-one that would be built to last for generations. The two missing ingredients are a realistic, long-term goal that can guide mankind to the equilibrium society and the human will to achieve that goal. Without such a goal and a commitment to it, short-term concerns will generate the exponential growth that drives the world system toward the limits of the earth and ultimate collapse. With that goal and that commitment, mankind would be ready now to begin a controlled, orderly transition from growth to global equilibrium. (183-184)

Why the Attacks on Limits in Particular and Environmentalism in General?

The Limits to Growth received strong criticism after its publication. It came in many forms. The Limits to Growth threatened specific groups. As Ugo Bardi explains:

In 1997, the Italian economist Giorgio Nebbia, noted that the reaction against the LTG study had arrived from at least four different fronts. One was from those who saw the book as a threat to the growth of their businesses and industries. A second set was that of professional economists, who saw LTG as a threat to their dominance in advising on economic matters. The Catholic world provided further ammunition for the critics, being piqued at the suggestion that overpopulation was one of the major causes of the problems. Then, the political left in the Western World saw the LTG study as a scam of the ruling class, designed to trick workers into believing that the proletarian paradise was not a practical goal. And this by Nebbia is a clearly incomplete list; forgetting religious fundamentalists, the political right, the believers in infinite growth, politicians seeking for easy solutions to all problems and many others.

So, when Limits came out, no doubt that business, industry, economists, religion, politicians, true believers in capitalism, and even workers thought that limiting growth would diminish their respective claims to authority and, most certainly, their lifestyle. This certainly fits, as asserted earlier in this article, that science is a threat to the authority of the status quo.

One Persistent Critic

Although there were many critics and criticisms, one of the most cogent and insistent came from economist Julian Simon. For example, Simon, in his 1995 Cato Policy Report “The State of Humanity: Steadily Improving,” continued his by then multi-decade rejection of the idea of limits to growth by asserting that [Italics added]:

We have seen extraordinary progress for the human enterprise, especially in the past two centuries. Yet many people believe that conditions of life are generally worse than in the past, rather than better.

I must say that nowhere in any environmental studies have I found that assertion, that “conditions of life are generally worse than in the past, rather than better.” Simon is setting this up as a straw man argument, which he easily demolishes with evidence on the improved living conditions of millions, if not billions, of people in our modern age.

In point of fact, these are ideas that TLG agrees with:

With the spread of modern medicine, public health techniques, and new methods of growing and distributing foods, death rates have fallen around the world. World average life expectancy is currently about 53 years and still rising. (37)

Hence, no sensible person, scientist or not, would assert what Simon claims they are asserting. In point of fact, the LTG was quite clear in stating that problems from overpopulation and pollution, plus potential shortfalls of resources, would become paramount well into the future:

…the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years. (23)
So, LTG is talking about 100 years from 1972, not as Simon claims. And, LTG does not assert, as Simon says they do, that that life is worse now than in the past. However, this is not to entirely dismiss what Simon says. He does develop a provocative thesis when he writes:

The most extraordinary part of the resource-creation process is that temporary or expected shortages -- whether due to population growth, income growth, or other causes -- tend to leave us even better off than if the shortages had never arisen, because of the continuing benefit of the intellectual and physical capital created to meet the shortage. It has been true in the past, and therefore it is likely to be true in the future, that we not only need to solve our problems, but we need the problems imposed upon us by the growth of population and income.

Simon clarifies why he thinks increased population is a benefit to mankind:

The most important benefit of population size and growth is the increase it brings to the stock of useful knowledge. Minds matter economically as much as, or more than, hands or mouths. Progress is limited largely by the availability of trained workers. The main fuel to speed the world's progress is the stock of human knowledge. And the ultimate resource is skilled, spirited, hopeful people, exerting their wills and imaginations to provide for themselves and their families, thereby inevitably contributing to the benefit of everyone.

Simon argues that over the long haul things would continue to get better just as they had been doing for the past two centuries:

The process operates as follows: More people and increased income cause problems in the short run--shortages and pollutions. Short-run scarcity raises prices and pollution causes outcries. Those problems present opportunity and prompt the search for solutions. In a free society solutions are eventually found, though many people seek and fail to find solutions at cost to themselves. In the long run the new developments leave us better off than if the problems had not arisen. This theory fits the facts of history.

This is actually fascinating, because when Simon writes that when things go bad, “those problems present opportunity and prompt the search for solutions,” he actually sounds like an environmentalist. And, he would seem to agree with LTG which says “technological advance would be both necessary and welcome...”

On another point, Simon misses the mark when he claims “there is little scientific literature on the relation of population to war.” Actually, according to Steven A. LeBlanc, there is sound evidence that “ecology and warfare intertwined today, just as they have been for millions of years.” LeBlanc explains:

The consequences of environmental stress will be scarce resources, and the consequences of scarce resources will be warfare. (Constant Battles, 12)

Simon, though, seems to go off his rocker in further explaining the need for and the capacity to invent solutions:

We have in our hands now--actually, in our libraries--the technology to feed, clothe, and supply energy to an ever-growing population for the next 7 billion years.
No doubt we do have the technology through knowledge in our libraries, but, 7 billion years? A bit of an exaggeration, perhaps.

Simon presents his argument as a universal for the ages, that we could apply his assertions to when he was writing, to 7 billion years in the future and to our now of 2019. As such, he would, at least up to now, be wrong. There is no indication that we have policy solutions to our current woes of overpopulation, seemingly insidious pollution (such as Roundup causing cancer, CO2 driving global warming or plastic refuse overwhelming both land and sea), and stresses over resource shortages, such as a lack of arable land and lack of water from droughts.

In fact, the very business and technical community that is creating the progress supporting our modern lifestyle is actually doing the opposite of Simon’s prediction that environmental problems would “prompt the search for solutions.” Business, in general, consistently lobbies against environmental action that effectively stops our politicians from taking any meaningful action. As we see today, President Trump is actually repealing environmental regulations.


The Limits to Growth raised key environmental concerns about population growth, pollution, depletion of resources and a deteriorating environment. These were ideas new to the public and new to policy makers in 1972. Today in 2019 they are foundational concepts in biology, ecology and environmental studies. The MIT researchers who wrote TLG studied these problems as part of an ecological system, not, in the then traditional way as isolated events. To top it off, we were given sound policy advice fifty years ago. Instead of listening, we tried to kill the messenger. To this day, it is advice ignored by policy makers.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Report From Iran: A Country we can't Ignore

Above, Ugo Bardi giving a talk at the University of Tehran, October 2019

Iran is a country that maintains something of the fascination it had in ancient times when it was both fabulous and remote. In our times, it remained somewhat remote but also a country that couldn't be ignored as it went through a series of dramatic events, from the revolution of 1979, the hostage crisis, the Iraq-Iran war from 1980 to 1988, and much more. The latest political convulsion was the "Green Revolution" in 2009 that quickly abated, but the country clearly keeps evolving, especially in its relations with the West. It is impossible for anyone, including perhaps the Iranian themselves, to evaluate everything that's going on in their country. For sure, Iran is complex, changing, varied, and fascinating, perhaps as much as it was at the time of Marco Polo when it was the hub of the merchant caravans carrying silk and spice from China. These are some notes from a trip to Tehran where I stayed for a week in October 2019.

The first impression you have when you arrive in Tehran is of chaos: heavy traffic, throngs of people, movement and noise everywhere. But it takes little time to understand that this is friendly chaos. Especially if you happen to be Italian, you find yourself rapidly at ease in the confusion. Tehran is appropriately exotic in the bazaars, but also quiet in the suburbs, and very modern in places such as the shopping center near the Azadi lake, where you could think you are in Paris.

One thing about Iran is that it is a remarkably friendly place. That's not unexpected: Most people everywhere in the world are naturally friendly if they don't feel threatened, or feel that they are being swindled or chided. They are also normally able to separate real foreign visitors from the image their TV presents to them. If, as a visitor, you approach the local people in a friendly manner, they will almost always reciprocate in the same way. In Iran, Western governments are often perceived (for good reasons) as evil entities, but that doesn't apply to individual foreign visitors.

Just to give you some idea of the Iranian attitude, let me tell you of when I was sitting with my wife at a local restaurant (by the way, if you happen to be in Tehran, try the Reza Loghme on the Mirza Kurchak Khan street: Iranian fast food, absolutely great!). There, we entered in a conversation with another customer who turned out to be a civil engineer. When he learned that we were heading to see the Abgineh (glassware) Museum of Tehran (again, a highly recommended place to visit), he accompanied us there and then he insisted to pay our tickets in order, he said, "to show us the traditional Iranian hospitality." That surely takes Iran several notches upward in the classification of friendly countries, but it was not the only example in our experience in Tehran. That friendliness may also extend to American visitors, the Iranians were friendly with them even at the time when the US was referred to as the "Great Satan," as Terence Ward reports in his book "Searching for Hussein" (2003).

This said, Iran doesn't seem to be just friendly to foreigners, it seems to be friendly also to Iranians -- at least these days. Of course, for a foreigner it may be difficult to detect social tensions brewing below the surface but what I can tell you is that in Tehran there is no heavy security apparatus detectable, unlike what you can see in many Western cities. We were taken to see from outside the residence of president Hassan Rouhani in a building in the Northern Area of Tehran: the security of the President seemed to require only a few policemen standing around the building. Of course, there may have been other, invisible, security measures. But it is impressive how they don't seem to expect serious troubles.

In terms of social tensions, the obvious thing that comes to the mind of a Westerner about Iran, just as for all Islamic countries, is the status of women. Iran and Saudi Arabia are probably the only states in the world enforcing by law the Islamic tradition for women to cover their heads. Yet, the time when women were harassed by the police if they didn't cover their heads well enough seems to be a thing of the past. In Iran, if a woman likes to wear a black chador that makes her look like a European nun, she is free to do so and many do. But most Iranian women, at least in Tehran, tend to interpret the rules creatively. The headscarf, the hijab, is worn halfway over the head and it is often light and brightly colored. The dress is also colored and decorated, women also wear jewelry and makeup. The result is often very elegant and lively. My wife reports that after a few days in Tehran she felt completely at ease wearing the hijab and that she even felt a little strange when she had to abandon it, coming back to Europe.

Of course, the impressions of a week may be misleading, but what I noted in terms of the social structure of the country seems to be consistent with the data. In Iran, women are still a minority in terms of being part of the workforce, but their role is important and larger than in other Middle-Eastern countries. Also, the gap seems to be rapidly closing. Iran also remains a relatively poor country: in terms of GDP per person (PPP), it ranks at about half that of Italy and one third the value of the US. Nevertheless, in terms of social equality, as measured by the Gini coefficient, Iran does better than the United States, although not as well as Italy. Iranians also have a good public health service

A country's educational system is a good indicator of social cohesion: dictatorial governments have no interest in an educated citizenship -- they rather tend to exterminate their citizens or use them as cannon fodder. Iran, instead, shines in this area with the state providing free of charge education for all citizens with impressive results. Some 4.5 million students enrolled in university courses, which is only slightly less than in the US in relative terms and much larger than in Italy. Iran has one of the largest ratios of students to the workforce anywhere in the world.

Of course, an evaluation of the Iranian education system would have to consider the scientific level of the universities and it is true that, right now, they don't score as high as Western ones. But the universities I visited seemed to be staffed by competent people and the research level was good. Here, one has to take into account the language barrier that often puts non-native English speakers at a disadvantage in the competition for space in the best scientific journals. I noted also that the research institutes I visited were massively staffed with women although, as it happens in Europe, the top-level positions are still mostly in the hands of men. That may rapidly change, though.

Islam is also part of the national Iranian culture: visiting Iran at the time of the Arba'een celebration gives you some idea of the importance of some religious traditions: you need not be a Shi'a Muslim to understand how deep the feelings for these traditions run and how fascinating they can be. Nevertheless, I would say that the current Iranian society is remarkably secularized. I can't quantify that, just take it as a personal impression.

And now something about the perspectives. The first question is population: It reached 80 millions and it continues to grow, although at a progressively slower pace. Iran is moving toward its demographic transition, but it is not there, yet. That may be a serious problem in the future: Iran is a large country but mostly dry and only a fraction of its land is arable. The result is that food must be imported from abroad. So far, this has not been a problem: globalization has made it possible to buy food anywhere and the result has been the near disappearing of hunger and famines worldwide. But things keep changing: globalization is on its way out and we may see a return of the old maxim that says "thou shalt starve thy neighbor into submission."

Recently, The US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, seemed to suggest that starving Iranians was the objective of the US sanctions, although he later denied that. In any case, the food supply problem is recognized by the Iranian government, hence the emphasis on research on desalination and water management (incidentally, the reason why I was in Tehran). Desalinated water, so far, has been way too expensive to be used in agriculture, but that may change in the future and, in any case, water management is a vital element in the future of Iran.

Then, there is the question of oil production. Here are the latest available data for Iran. (From "" -- the Y scale is in thousands of barrels per day)

At its peak, around 1978, the Iranian oil production had reached about 6 million barrels per day making Iran one of the main oil producers in the world. After the revolution and the war, it reached a certain stability at near 4 Mb/day. But you see the effect of the economic sanctions: Iran's production was nearly halved and exports nearly zeroed. At the current prices of oil, it is a loss of revenue of tens of billions of dollars, not at all negligible for a GDP around 500 billion dollars.

The Iranian economy can survive the loss of revenues from oil: it is surviving it right now, although with difficulties. But, in a certain sense, the sanctions are not completely bad: they can be seen as a stimulus to move in a direction in which Iran has to move anyway. The national oil resources are not infinite and the gradual loss of demand worldwide is going to bring Iran to a point where it will have to cease to be an oil-based economy. These are the same challenges faced by all countries in the world: abandon oil and move to an economy based on renewable energy. It is a difficult challenge that won't probably be met without trauma and suffering, but it is not a choice. Willing or not, we all have to go in that direction.

One problem, here, is the evident lack of what we call "environmental awareness." Of course, university researchers and teachers in Iran are aware of climate change, but most people seem to think that it is just one more Western hoax concocted to force them into submission. Seeing the world from the Iranian side, I can't fault them for being oversuspicious. In recent times, Western governments have been doing their best to lose even the last shreds of credibility they had managed to maintain. And the results are easily detectable: I asked a group of about 30 students of the faculty of engineering of Tehran University what they thought of Greta Thunberg. It turned out that none of them had any idea of who she was.

Overall, though, I am not pessimistic about the future of Iran. Facing a difficult challenge, Iran has some advantages. One is that of being at the hub of the nascent Eurasian exchange zone. Another is to be a well-insolated country that makes it especially suitable for solar energy. In the end, I would agree with the idea proposed by Hamid Dabashi in "Iran, the Birth of a Nation" (2016) where he notes that Iran was a nation before it was a state. The Iranian nation is kept together by strong cultural traditions and linguistic ties. It has survived tremendous challenges in the recent past, it has a chance to survive the new ones that will come.

Acknowledgments: Ali Asghar Alamolhoda, Ati and Soroor Coliaei, Grazia Maccarone, Fereshteh Moradi, Mohammad Mohammadi Hejr,  Hossein and Samaneh Mousazadeh, Bijan Rahimi, and several others.

Monday, October 21, 2019

The West Fades. The Center Quietly Returns: The New Silk Road

An image from the workshop on desalination and mineral extraction from seawater organized by Sharif University in Teheran this week. In the photo, you can see people from Oman (3), Iran (3), South Africa (1), India (1), and Bangladesh (1). It was not only a multi-ethnical group but also a Eurasia-centered one. It gave me some impression of the shifting balance of power in the world, from the West to the Center, and inspired this post. 

If you think about that, it is funny that we tend to define ourselves as "Westerners." Most civilizations and cultures in history have tended to see themselves as the center of the world, just think of China: it is supposed to be "the Middle Kingdom". This idea that we are on an edge is something that we've probably inherited from the ancient Greeks, when everything west of them was seen as a land of mystery, peopled with savages, monsters, and Gods. 

But the fact that we call ourselves Westerners doesn't mean we think we are a periphery of the world, not at all. Most Westerners seem to cherish the idea that we are the real center, the most advanced, enlightened, and powerful area of the world. The rest of is, well, it is mostly inhabited by turban-wearing barbarians, savage tribes, or, at best, ancient and decadent empires on their way to dissolution. These Non-Westerners need our guidance if they have to attain the nirvana as defined here: democracy and economic liberism.

But the world is vast and things change. Empires are born, reach their pinnacle of greatness and then collapse while still claiming that they will last forever. That may be the destiny of that great world empire, the "Western Empire," that started with the British and continues with the Americans. The center of the world may well be returning to what it used to be up to a few centuries ago, gravitating around that "geographical center" sometimes said to be in Egypt, sometimes in Turkey, sometimes in Syria. It doesn't matter where it is exactly: it is at the heart of the gigantic landmass of Eurasia, somewhere in the region we call the "Middle East."

Chess players know how important it is to dominate the center if they want to dominate the game. Not for nothing, indeed, the game of Chess was developed not far from the center of the world: somewhere in Persia. But to dominate the center, you need to be able to move in and out of it and in the real world that takes roads. In ancient times, the center of Eurasia was crossed by the Silk Road: a long and winding road that went through mountains and deserts, including also coastal sea lanes. It was the realm of commercial caravans with their camels slowly marching from one edge to the other of a Eurasian supercontinent and to Africa as well, carrying gold, silver, ivory, spices, silk, and much more.

The Silk Road lost importance and then disappeared with the arrival of the Westerners who monopolized commerce with their ships and power with their armies. The concept of national borders had never existed before but it was the death toll for the old caravans, now confined within states. Commerce was taken over by Westerners with their container ships, crossing the oceans in a gigantic network that created the empire we call sometimes "Globalization." Not just a commercial empire but a military one as well, dominated by the mighty armies of the West.

Empires are run by a combination of commerce and military power and it is the balance of costs and profits that keeps them together. The old Silk Road never turned into a continental empire because it was just too expensive to move armies along it on long distances. But the agile camel caravans provided the link that was needed for the road to remain open: a low-cost system that didn't need a military governance system and couldn't afford it anyway, Instead, the modern sea lanes of the current World Empire are kept together and controlled by the mighty carrier strike groups of the American Navy: nothing and nobody would even dream of challenging their power, so far. But the carrier group is a behemot that needs to be fed, and for how long will that be possible?

Things keep changing, as they have always been doing. The old Silk Road is being revamped with the name of the "Belt and Road" initiative. It is the revenge of the land over the sea: the lanes of the new silk road are nearly invulnerable to the naval power of the Westerners if nothing else just for the sheer vastity of the territory it connects. Think about that: the population of Eurasia and Africa, together, make almost 6 billion people. The rest of the world is a periphery. 

So, the Western domination may be fading and much of what we are reading in the news nowadays is a reflection of this decline. With the depletion of the resources that created the Western Empire, first coal, then oil, the center is returning where it used to be and the great road that links Eastern and Western Eurasia is going to be again the pulsating artery of the world. Maybe Eurasia will be crisscrossed by fast trains powered by solar energy, or maybe the old camels will return: solid, resilient, unstoppable.

And the Westerners? They will return to their ancient role of seafaring pirates: coming and going like storms, leaving little trace. Curiously, though, they'll be leaving a reverberation of their presence with the English language, initially carried into Eurasia by the American Legions, now the tool of choice by Eurasians to understand each other.

Perhaps English is the true reason for the use of the term "The West" since it did originate on the extreme Western edge of Eurasia. But that's just a quirk of history: once, at least four languages were spoken along the old silk road: Mongolian, Persian, Arabic, and Turkish, while Chinese and Greek were spoken at the two ends. English as the dominant language may make things simpler and continue being used during the 21st century, and even farther in the future. Or we may switch to some other language: perhaps "googlish" or some other pidgin language. Who knows? As always, life is a journey, not a destination.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Report from Tehran: What is the Effect of the Sanctions?

My wife, Grazia, in a supermarket in Tehran, today. No effect of the economic sanctions is visible. The shelves are full of goods from everywhere. You can find even Coca Cola cans

For this Monday post on Cassandra's Legacy, I can offer you just a very brief report from Tehran, Iran, where I am for a meeting. I arrived here thinking that the economic sanctions were bankrupting the country. Maybe, but if they do, it seems to be taking a very long time. The streets are full of traffic, all shops are full of goods, Tehran is alive and well and the Iranians I met seem to be in good spirits, not at all dismayed by the situation, engaged in the celebrations for this year's Ashura. My colleagues tell me that the only effect of the sanctions is the difficulty they have to buy electronic equipment when they need it -- it has to come from China and it is now more expensive than before the embargo.

That's surprising, considering that the Iranian oil production has dropped from nearly 4 million barrels/day to about 1 million barrels/day after the embargo. The oil revenues for Iran must have collapsed this year -- but it may very well be that more oil is produced and exported than it is reported in the official statistics.

I am here for a meeting on the desalination of seawater and I'll report some preliminary results of a study we are performing on the extraction of lithium from the sea -- the perspectives seem to be reasonably good. If our civilization collapses, it will not be because of the lack of lithium.

That's all for this Monday. Greetings from Tehran!


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)