Thursday, December 22, 2011

Chemistry of an Empire: the Last Roman Empress

A 5th-century medallion showing what is perhaps the only portrait we have of Galla Placidia (388-450 c.e.), the last (and the only) Western Roman Empress. The inscription says "Domina Nostra, Galla Placidia, Pia, Felix, Augusta," that is "Our Lady, Galla Placidia, Pious, Blessed and Venerable."  A contemporary of such figures as Saint Augustine, Saint Patrick, Attila the Hun, and – perhaps – King Arthur, Placidia had the rare chance of being able to do something that past Roman Emperors never could do; take the Empire to its next stage which was to be, unavoidably, its demise.

As I was preparing this essay on Empress Galla Placidia, I found myself giving an impromptu talk on the subject to my students in chemistry on the last lesson before Christmas. Later on, I thought that I could write my essay in the form of that talk. So, here it is. It is much expanded in comparison to what I said to my students on that occasion, but still, it maintains the essence of it. I have added headings and some figures.

Introduction: chemistry of an empire

I think there won't be a lecture in chemistry, today.  We are close to Christmas, there are just a few of you, and so it is better to skip a long and boring lecture; we'll have it after the pause for the holidays. So, we could simply leave for a coffee but, maybe, we could use this time we have in a different way. You know, there is a subject that I work on when I have some free time: Roman history. So, I was thinking that, instead of giving you a lecture in chemistry, I could speak to you about that. How would you like to hear the story of a Roman princess who married a barbarian king and then became Empress of Rome?

Now, I see from your faces that - yes - you would like to be told this story! But note that perhaps it is a subject that is not so far from chemistry as you might think. You see, civilizations can be seen as huge chemical reactions and you know that chemical reactions tend to flare up and then subside; it is what we call "chemical kinetics," you have studied that. The same happens for empires; they tend to flare up and then disappear; that's what happened to the Roman Empire, as you know.  So, civilizations and chemical reactions can be studied using similar methods; it is a field of science that goes under the name of "system dynamics". In a sense, there are forces pushing people to do things just like there are forces pushing molecules to react. In chemistry, we call those forces “chemical potentials”, about people we might use the term “destiny” or "karma" or something like that. But perhaps the difference is not so great.

But don't worry about equations. I said that today I was going to tell you a story, and I am going to do it. It is the story of Galla Placidia; born a Roman princess, then Queen of the Goths, and, in the end, Empress of Rome. It is a great story of love, sex, and war. So, let's start!

The fall of Rome.

Now, I am asking you to close your eyes and forget for a moment where you are. Forget that you are in a classroom, forget that you are students of chemistry, forget that you live in the 21st century. Try to imagine something that existed way back in time: ancient Rome in the first years of the 5th century of our era, fifteen hundred years ago.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Peak E-Cat

Number of searches of the term "E-Cat" according to Google Trends

The interest in the "E-Cat", the supposed "cold fusion reactor" invented by Andrea Rossi and Sergio Focardi, is waning. You can perceive that clearly from the activity of the various sites dealing with it; while "Google Trends" confirms that the trend is indeed down. After a flare of curiosity that peaked in november 2011, people found that there was nothing to see about the E-Cat except some purported "demonstrations" that didn't really demonstrate anything. So, they lost interest. 

What remains of the E-Cat is a core of diehard supporters - especially in Italy. - who will likely keep the myth alive for a long time. It is typical and well known: "free energy" theories never die. Today, people are still discussing the supposed free energy devices attributed to Nikola Tesla and that go back to almost a century ago - poor Tesla is probably still rolling over in his grave. And, in the meantime, plenty more cranky theories have been proposed. In this field, the E-Cat will remain remarkable for the amount of noise it generated when compared to what little evidence (actually, none) was presented.

About the E-Cat, you may be interested in two well thought and in depth articles that demolish Rossi's claims at their basis.

Friday, December 16, 2011

The invisible toothpaste: overselling science

Justin Hall-Tipping CEO of "Nanoholdings" gives a presentation titled "The Future of Nano-Electric Power Generation". I was not impressed by the scientific content of the talk, but it think it can give us interesting insight on how communication works and how the public sees science and scientists.

The science of advertising is based on a number of fundamental laws; the most important one can be stated as, "don't just sell them a toothpaste, sell them a whole new way of life". You can see this law applied every day in TV. If you brush your teeth with a specific brand of toothpaste, you don't just get beautiful white teeth, but you'll become sexy and athletic. And you'll have a happy and smiling family, too!

Almost every one who works in advertising knows and applies the law, but if you want to see real mastery, do give a look to the video above. This guy is not just selling a toothpaste; he is selling a promise of a toothpaste to come; an invisible toothpaste. He is a true adept of the Art, a master. Look at the posture, the tone, the sense of the talk, the mix of scientific wonder and moral duty. Look at the faces of the people listening to the talk - totally enthralled. Look at the final stroke of genius, when he sorts out of his pocket the photo of a little girl from Sudan, dying of thirst. That borders on the sublime.

But what is exactly that this guy is selling? Well, my impression while watching the show was to be exposed to the output of a giant hair dryer. Of course, nanotubes are real and they have interesting properties. They do have promising future applications. But, in this talk we have no quantitative information anywhere, except for one point and, there, the given datum is wrong! (I leave it to readers to discover it as an exercise). I also went to the site of the company and there I found plenty of claims, but no details, no quantitative data, no products on sale. So, there is no way to say whether their products are real or something coming out of that giant hair drier I was mentioning before. 

Apart from that, what is hugely interesting in this talk, it is the way scientists are described. Notice when he says (8:15), ".. these incredibly brilliant and kind scientists .. they have a magic look of the world .. their discoveries are coming out of the lab, and into the world.... "

A truly brilliant choice of words: I think we have here a nice summary of the problem with the public perception of scientists. They are "brilliant and kind" as long as "their discoveries are coming out of the lab and into the world" in the form of assorted gadgetry. When it works, it is "magic." But, when scientists are not bringing gadgetry for free; when they warn us of inconvenient truths such as climate change or resource depletion, well, the magic is gone. They are not any more brilliant and kind; they are enemies of the people to be insulted and threatened.

With this attitude of the public, it is impossible to think that solutions based on voluntary restraints could ever work. But can we really solve our problems with nifty little gadgets? Surely not with windows that change color or glasses that let you find your car keys in the dark. Maybe nanotubes could give us a breakthrough in solar cells, just maybe; but don't forget that even if we could have cells at zero cost, a solar plant would still cost money because of all the rest that is needed, from supports to the electronics.  So, there are no miracles in science  and we are going to be badly disappointed if we expect science to solve all our problems by "magic." It is like expecting to whiten our teeth with an invisible toothpaste.

H-T: Neven

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

It gets boring running around being a Cassandra

Being a Cassandra is often boring in the sense that it is so predictable. You know from the start that whatever you say will be ignored and, when it is not ignored, it will generate all sorts of insults as a response. On the other hand, some of us seem to have taken this role and, just as the Cassandra of the Iliad, we keep trying to alert everyone of what is going on with climate change and resource depletion. Who knows, maybe not all Cassandras will always be ignored - after all, she was right! Here are some thoughts on climate change from Bruce Sterling's talk at the 2011 Art and Environment conference. The wolf is in the living room, he says. A true Cassandra; and perfectly right.

Bruce Sterling:

Climate change has lost all its sci-fi tinge in my lifetime and is now a melancholy and tiresome reality

There hasn’t been a year when I haven’t written about climate change. It’s one of the most obvious things to predict.

It’s just kind of a blunt reality that the fossil-fuel enterprise has done a regulatory capture of the entire planet, and we’re involved in a war for oil, and it’s the curse of oil, and it’s a war for a curse that’s endless and happening. You know, it gets boring running around being a Cassandra. Starting Earth Day in 1970 was a pretty late start considering the multicentury scope of this problem.

I will pass the rest of my lifetime in the shadow of climate change. It’s not about warning people in 2011, or trying to avert or defuse a misfortune. The wolf is beyond the door. The wolf is in the living room. This is the anthropocenic condition. This is how we live. This is force majeure. It’s here. It’s very obvious.

There are no national forests. You cannot protect a forest with a nation. There are forests that protect nations.

The global climate crisis is the climate crisis and it’s global because the globe is an externality. “Don’t pollute you, don’t pollute me, pollute that fellow behind me.” Just throw that into the atmosphere because the atmosphere is somebody else’s problem."

The thing that encourages me or sort of offers daylight is there’s no pro-climate crisis party. There’s no government that actually likes the idea of wrecking the climate. It doesn’t really benefit anybody. It really is an externality. It’s just something that’s entropic.

h/t Big Gav

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Durban: good science always wins

It will take some time before we can digest and understand the actual significance of the agreements of Durban. As usual, some people will see the glass half full, others half empty. But there is an element that gives us hope: the effort to stop climate change continues.

The effort continues despite the opposition of the fossil fuel lobbies, despite the propaganda action of "Climategate 2.0", despite the continuous attacks against science in the media, despite the fact that in the US the whole spectrum of Republican candidates has taken an anti-science position on climate. There was a whole alliance of powerful forces that were trying as hard as they could to sabotage the Durban Conference. They didn't succeed, and not for lack of trying: Christopher Monckton, the arch-enemy of climate science, was so desperate to get attention that he resorted to parachuting himself to Durban. He was ignored, anyway.

Given the coalition that had gathered against science, we can see as an almost incredible success that the conference ended up with a structured agreement that keeps the negotiations ongoing. Evidently, the gravity of the situation is becoming more and more clear: people are getting the message. As I said, climate science is good science and good science always wins in the end.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Climategate 2.0: fool me once.....

Number of searches of the term "Climategate" according to Google Trends. The second release of stolen e-mails, last month ("Climategate-2.0") didn't generate anything like the spike of interest of the first release ("Climategate"), in 2009.

The so-called "Climategate" case of 2009 will remain in history as an example of a highly successful "spin campaign". It had a strong negative effect on public beliefs in global warming and trust in scientists and it played an important role in the failure of the Copenhagen climate talks. However, the public has reacted with a big yawn to the second batch of email messages released last month ("Climategate 2.0"). We can see that using "Google Trends" as shown above and also below. The modest spike that correspond to frantic attempts to ignite the interest of the public in Climategate 2.0 is nothing even remotely comparable to the giant spike of the first Climategate.

Apparently in these things there holds the old say, "fool me once...." That is, it is very difficult to fool people twice with the same trick and, indeed, "Climategate 2.0" is turning out to be a big flop.

The most recent polls indicate that concerns about global warming are climbing up again with the public and that's more evidence that you can't fool people forever. So, we still have a chance to win this battle. We need to keep fighting it.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Recognizing good science when you see it: climate change seen by depletion scientists

The panel of discussants at the first session of ASPO-9 in Brussels. From left to right, Pierre Mauriaud (Total); Jean-Pascal van Ypersele (IPCC); Kjell Aleklett (ASPO); Colin Campbell (ASPO); Paul Hohnen (Greenpeace). During the discussion,  Colin Campbell, founder and honorary chairman of ASPO, said "I am convinced," referring to the talk on climate change by Van Ypersele. A good scientist can always recognize good science when he sees it. Unfortunately, it seems that many people involved with peak oil studies don't often interact with serious climate science and their view of it remains linked to the distorsions presented in the mainstream media

One of the most interesting talks at the recent meeting on Energy organized by the Club of Rome in Basel, was the one given by Ian Dunlop, of ASPO Australia (photo on the right). It was not so much on energy, but on the interconnection of energy and climate change. It was up to date and saying the things that needed to be said. That is, Ian Dunlop didn't shy away from saying that climate change is threatening the very existence of our civilization and that we must do something quick about it. It was an excellent talk; give a look to the slides if you have a moment, here is the link.

What I found surprising were the several comments that I heard later on from people attending the meeting. Some of those who didn't have a specific background in climate science seemed to be shocked. They didn't know, it seems, that the climate situation is so bad and that it is so urgent to act - but they now recognized the problem. This experience of mine in Basel parallels well the one I had in Brussels for the ASPO-9 conference, when climate scientist Jean-Pascal van Ypersele gave a good talk on climate change. Also there, the reaction of some of the people attending the conference was of surprise; they never had a chance, apparently, to hear a comprehensive report on the climate situation.

Of course, I have no statistics about the average competence in climate science of the people who work with peak oil and similar subjects (let's call them "depletion scientists"). But my experience with this issue has been often disheartening: many depletion scientists are badly outdated in what they know about climate science. A few (just a few, fortunately!) make a banner of their ignorance and they fall for the most obvious propaganda tricks diffused by denialists or scoff at the whole idea with the simplistic statement "not enough oil for climate change". Alas, things are much more complex than that!

That doesn't mean that depletion scientists are not smart people; by all means they are. And it doesn't mean that there doesn't exist a parallel bias on the part of climate scientists who, often, appear to be totally oblivious of the situation in terms of resource depletion. The point is that we all suffer of narrow vision. The Internet is vast and we tend to go in depth only in the areas that we know well; the rest of our information often comes by a haphazard mix of what we read in the media. In this, we all suffer of "confirmation bias."  (see below)

So, what you get from the media about climate change is that it is all a question of small details: did we see a warming during the past 10 years? What is the meaning of "hide the decline"? Didn't scientists fear "global cooling" in the 1970s? And so on. Even people who are on the side of climate science often seem to engage in the debate worrying about minor details. How many tons of CO2 can we save if we install double paned glasses in public buildings? Should we use public transportation instead of a private car for commuting? So, the general impression that you can get is that climate change is a minor issue affected by great uncertainties.

That the results of more than half a century of work in climate science have been reduced to such narrow terms in the media is a victory for denial: it is a way to keep people in the dark about what is really happening. But climate change is not something that can be stopped by double paned windows. It is a major upheaval of the whole earth ecosystem and it has the potential to do to us immense damage. The problem must be faced for what it is, in its complexity, and with the risks that come with it. Uncertainty is not an excuse for doing nothing: what we don't know is what is most dangerous for us.

So, it is very good to see that a good scientist can always recognize good science when he sees it. It has been the case of Colin Campbell (left), founder and honorary chairman of ASPO, who stated to the audience "I am convinced" after having heard the talk by Van Ypersele at the ASPO-9 Brussels conference.  It was the same for several colleagues at the Basel meeting after the heard the talk by Ian Dunlop. I also noticed in other occasions that climate scientists can understand the depletion message when they hear it presented for what it is. They are good scientists, too.

So, it is time to recognize good science when we see it. And it is time to tell everyone how things stand, just as Ian Dunlop did in Basel.


About confirmation bias:
From the Washington Post, by Ramesh Srinivasan

We’ve long heard that the Internet was supposed to unite people of different cultural and political persuasions. Yet, despite the explosion of online voices, social-media users rarely access opinions that differ from their own, and many social-media sites — with their bifurcated like/dislike, join/don’t join ethos — only perpetuate the sound-bite culture of older media.

Not only are our Facebook friends similar to us (we usually connect through mutual friends and shared interests), but researcher Ethan Zuckerman has shown that the sites we visit reaffirm our political and cultural preconceptions. This homogenization reaches the very machinery of social media — its algorithms — which tailor search results or Facebook feeds according to what the systems “think” users will find most interesting.

Bridging disparate cultural and political backgrounds remains a challenge for social media. To learn from differing viewpoints, the technologies and cultures of social media must evolve so that they bring people together rather than keeping us in digital silos.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Waiting for the big wave

Guest post by Antonio Turiel

Cassandra's legacy publishes this post by Antonio Turiel that appeared first on Nov 18, 2011 on "The Oil Crash" blog (in Spanish). Here, Turiel examines the Spanish situation, seen a few days before the recent elections that saw the victory of the right wing "Partido Popular". In this lucid analysis, Turiel compares the present situation of Spain - and of the other states in trouble in Europe - to the apparent calm that arrives just before the great tsunami hits. (translation from Spanish by Ugo Bardi)

By Antonio Turiel, 18 Nov, 2011

"People willing to trade their freedom for temporary security deserve neither". Benjamín Franklin.

Dear readers

among the most interesting phenomena that are part of the fields of oceanography and geology, there are tsunamis. A sudden vertical displacement of a fault at the bottom of the sea, by the enormous energy it releases, can displace all the mass of water above it for a not too big height, maybe 50 centimeters, maybe one meter. The problem is that the displacement affects the whole water column, which may be four or more kilometers of height. The wave generated simply by gravity propagates at speeds of hundreds of kilometers per hour; in some cases - if the earthquake takes place in very deep waters - it may arrive to supersonic speeds. When the wave gets close to the coast, the slope of the sea floor creates an effect known as shoaling. 

The solitonic wave breaks up and decomposes in several packets which propagate at much lower speeds (some km/h) but, because of the accumulation of water, their height grows and grows. Because of this, it is much safer to wait for the tsunami at sea, where the wave, of some centimeters, will pass without generating major damage; but its height on the coast will arrive to several meters; in some case as much as 15 (there are documented historical cases of monster tsunamis of almost 50 meters of height) and able to penetrate inland for several kilometers, razing to the ground everything with their enormous power and pressure. Just before the first wave of a tsunami arrives to the coast, the sea retires rapidly of several kilometers; revealing a rocky seafloor of unreal aspect. Some people are fascinated by the phenomenon and find themselves looking at it, captivated, without understanding that, if in that moment they had started running inland, perhaps they will be able to get far enough, or reach a ground sufficiently high, to survive. It is a question of a few crucial minutes; those few vital minutes before the arrival of the first wave. Another fact that people often ignore is that the first wave is almost never the largest one; and sometimes it happens, as in the case of the  tsunami in Hawaii of April 1st 1946 (day of the innocents),  that people go to the beach to see what had happened during the half hour that separates the first and the second wave, horribly increasing human losses when the second wave, usually is larger, unleashes all of its violence over the unfortunates.

Yesterday, the spread of the Spanish treasure bonds with respect to the German ones arrived, according to what we are told, to about 500 basic points. That means that the yield given to these debt issues is about 5% larger than that of equivalent German titles. As the information given by the media is always brutally incomplete and antiquated, I never know for sure to what it is referred to: whether we are speaking of one year bonds, or five or ten, or all together. I understand, anyway, that this spread with respect to German titles is being observed in the secondary market - that means, the individuals who possess Spanish debt are selling it to other individuals with a certain discount (because, obviously, they couldn't renegotiate the conditions expressed on the bond issue). That, if you think about it a little, is even more serious than if it were Spain to sell its debt with a larger kind of interest (which happens, because the debt issue usually follows the secondary market: Spain cannot obtain cheaper money than what the market perceives). It is more serious because, in summary, those people who keep Spanish money and are selling it are accepting a certain percentage of loss (perhaps no real losses, but surely on their expectations of gain) and that means in the end that the credibility of Spain as a trustworthy debtor state is falling.

But, in the end, this is not a blog dedicated to the economy and there is no need to spend time on these questions. The interesting part of what we observe is that the Spanish debt is arriving to levels that have motivated the "rescue" of Greece and which forced a "change of government" in Italy, last week. Here in Spain, we are just two days before the general elections which all polls indicate will be won by the conservative Partido Popular with a large majority. The party's leader, Mariano Rajoy, has already anticipated that they will take appropriate measures to try to heal the Spanish accounts, hinting that we'll see more reduction in the social services and salaries than anything that was seen in the past year. In addition we could say, as a matter of coherency, that for being an amateur in applying these measures, the Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, was shot down by the entity that the media sometimes call the "European Troika."

We are facing, then, general elections which will radically change the orientation of the governing party, from socialist to conservative, in a country were the perception is that the right is a better manager and that, as a consequence, will be able to ride out better the difficult economic situation. In reality, the result will be the same, because after having seen what has happened to the fatuously democratic European union during the past few week, with Greece and Italy, it is clear that decisions are not taken in single countries and much less reside with the people: our new leaders will do what they are told to do - full stop. This situation will lead to a growing disillusion of the Spanish people; a disillusion that will turn into rage when the new recession which we are starting to see will increase the jobless level from the present 21,5% to 25 o 26% in a couple of years. And, no doubt, the only thing that we are doing is to follow a known path: collapse. It is sure that, about collapse, Dimitri Orlov recently revised his model of the five phases of collapse (financial, commercial, of the state, of the community and of the family) and his conclusion can't be more disheartening; according to him, it seems that the great effort of states to stave off financial collapse - which should have occurred in its full magnitude during the past 2-3 years - will cause the real financial collapse to arrive at the same time as the commercial one and, eventually, that of the state - this latter entity being dragged in by the giant weight of the debt incurred with the financial rescue. In summary, Orlov's model was too gradual and suave when compared with the abrupt road where the BAU (Business as Usual) is dragging us. It is another piece of evidence of the fact that the descent along the right side of  the Hubbert curve will be dominated by non linear effects. And the present events in Greece indicate that, indeed, the financial collapse will take place at the same moment as the commercial one. Greece had no choice but turn to Iran as its major supplier of oil (thanks to Ángel, for the reference), since the other countries don't trust the Greek solvency. The descent that us, the Spanish, are starting, following the same path of Greeks, Irish, Portuguese and Italians, will take us from our pretended "First World" condition, where arrogantly we believe to belong because of our merits, to the Second or the Third in which we are being pushed down without the rest of the planet giving a damn; and it will help us little that until a couple of years ago we considered ourselves to be with the rich and the powerful; they have their own concerns and right now we are just a hindrance for them.

These days before the elections are like the sea which retires before the first tsunami wave. There is a strange and unreal calm while a vague and ominous shade is appearing at the horizon. In reality, if we know a little of history and how economy has been practised in the 20th century, we know what it is going to pass in Spain. Starting with Monday, they'll start saying that now it is the time to keep quiet, that it is urgent to find the means to contain the damage, that it is intolerable that the Spanish deficit doesn't stay within the established bounds (fixed by the government for this year at 6%, which could reach 8%). It is possible that the socialist government, in function until January, will be forced to take already some drastic measures; measures that in any case will be adopted by the Partido Popular when it will take charge: immediately lowering the salary of public workers - once more; perhaps 10% in this occasion - cutting even more health services, education, and, ouch, public works, because Germany and France are very sensitive about those multi-million airports without passengers and other stupid infrastructures build during the golden age of concrete. There will be, possibly, an increase in the VAT and surely a generalized reduction of the subsidies and help (that is affecting me, research grants and projects). All that will bring a larger economic contraction and more unemployment, with the result of lower tax revenues and there will be a general tendency to pay more in subsidies - at some moment there will be talk of reducing the unemployment subsidy and the minimum salary. All that in a context where basic goods will see an increase in price while the non basic ones will become cheaper while stocks are being liquidated, to return to high prices, later on. In the end, we'll become poorer, much poorer....

The sun is darkening, the wave is obscuring it, it is here already. I wanted to write somewhere a number of truths in the midst of so many lies as we are being told now. What is being done to countries are not "rescues", they are liquidations; they are not "changes in government for technocratic governments", they are coups that give control of the state to our creditors; it is not austerity, it is increasing financial ruin; it is not order, but repression, it is not for the common interest, but for the private one; it is not returning to growth, but it is the road to poverty; there is no growth, but the end of growth. We are left only with the poor satisfaction that these waves will arrive, eventually, also to Berlin and to New York.

The water is arriving already.



Postscript: This post is not about energy, indeed, but I wanted to write it.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Why is economic growth so popular?

When the new Italian Prime Minister, Mr. Mario Monti, gave his acceptance speech to the Senate, a few days ago, he used 28 times the term "growth" and not even once terms such as "natural resources" or "energy". He is not alone in neglecting the physical basis of the world's economy: the chorus of economic pundits everywhere in the world is all revolving around this magic world, "growth".  But why? What is that makes this single parameter so special and so beloved?

During the past few years, the financial system gave to the world a clear signal when the prices of all natural commodities spiked up to levels never seen before. If prices are high, then there is a supply problem. Since most of the commodities we use are non-renewable - crude oil, for instance - it is at least reasonable to suppose that we have a depletion problem. Yet, the reaction of leaders, decision makers, and economic pundits of all kinds was - and still is - to ignore the physical basis of the economic system and promote economic growth as the solution to all our problems; the more, the better. But, if depletion is the real problem, it should be obvious that growth can only make it worse. After all, if we grow we consume more resources and that will accelerate depletion. So, why are our leaders so fixated on growth? Can't they understand that it is a colossal mistake? Are they stupid or what?

Things are not so simple, as usual. One of the most common mistakes that we can make in life is to assume that people who don't agree with our ideas are stupid. No, there holds the rule that for everything that exists, there is a reason. So, there has to be a reason why growth is touted as the universal cure for all problems. And, if we go in depth into the matter, we may find the reason in the fact that people (leaders as well as everybody else) tend to privilege short term gains to long term ones. Let me try to explain.

Let's start with observing that the world's economy is an immense, multiple-path reaction driven by the thermodynamic potentials of the natural resources it uses. Mainly, these resources are non-renewable fossil fuels that we burn in order to power the whole system. We have good models that describe the process; the earliest ones go back to the 1970s with the first version of "The Limits to Growth" study. These models are based on the method known as "system dynamics" and consider highly aggregated stocks of resources (that is, averaged over many different kinds). Already in 1972, the models showed that the gradual depletion of high grade ores and the increase of persistent pollution would cause the economy to stop growing and then decline; most likely during the first decades of the 21st century. Later studies of the same kind generated similar results. The present crisis seems to vindicate these predictions.

So, these models tell us that depletion and pollution are at the root of the problems we have, but they tell us little about the financial turmoil that we are seeing. They don't contain a stock called "money" and they make no attempt to describe how the crisis will affect different regions of the world and different social categories. Given the nature of the problem, that is the only possible choice to make modelling manageable, but it is also a limitation. The models can't tell us, for instance, how policy makers should act in order to avoid the bankruptcy of entire states. However, the models can be understood in the context of the forces that move the system. The fact that the world's economic system is complex doesn't mean that it doesn't follow the laws of physics. On the contrary, it is by looking at these laws that we can gain insight on what's happening and how we could act on the system.

There are good reasons based in thermodynamics that cause economies to consume resources at the fastest possible rate and at the highest possible efficiency (see this paper by Arto Annila and Stanley Salthe). So, the industrial system will try to exploit first the resources which provide the largest return. For energy producing resources (such as crude oil) the return can be measured in terms of energy return for energy invested (EROEI). Actually, decisions within the system are taken not in terms of energy but in terms of monetary profit, but the two concepts can be considered to coincide as a first approximation. Now, what happens as non-renewable resources are consumed is that the EROEI of what is left dwindles and the system becomes less efficient; that is, profits go down. The economy tends to shrink while the system tries to concentrate the flow of resources where they can be processed at the highest degree of efficiency and provide the highest profits; something that usually is related to economies of scale. In practice, the contraction of the economy is not the same everywhere: peripheral sections of the system, both in geographical and social terms, cannot process resources with sufficient efficiency; they tend to be cut off from the resource flow, shrink, and eventually disappear. An economic system facing a reduction in the inflow of natural resources is like a man dying of cold: extremities are the first to freeze and die off.

Then, what's the role of the financial system - aka, simply "money"? Money is not a physical entity, it is not a natural resource. It has, however, a fundamental role in the system as a catalyst. In a chemical reaction, a catalyst doesn't change the chemical potentials that drive the reaction, but it can speed it up and change the preferred pathway of the reactants. For the economic system, money doesn't change the availability of resources or their energy yield but it can direct the flow of natural resources to the areas where they are exploited faster and most efficiently. This allocation of the flow usually generates more money and, therefore, we have a typical positive (or "enhancing") feedback. As a result, all the effects described before go faster. Depletion can be can be temporarily masked although, usually, at the expense of more pollution. Then, we may see the abrupt collapse of entire regions as it may be the case of Spain, Italy, Greece and others. This effect can spread to other regions as the depletion of non renewable resources continues and the cost of pollution increases.

We can't go against thermodynamics, but we could at least avoid some of the most unpleasant effects that come from attempting to overcome the limits to the natural resources. This point was examined already in 1972 by the authors of the first "Limits to Growth" study on the basis of their models but, eventually, it is just a question of common sense. To avoid, or at least mitigate collapse, we must stop growth; in this way non renewable resources will last longer and we can use them to develop and use renewable resources. The problem is that curbing growth does not provide profits and that, at present, renewables don't yet provide profits as large as those of the remaining fossil fuels. So, the system doesn't like to go in that direction - it tends, rather, to go towards the highest short term yields, with the financial system easing the way. That is, the system tends to keep using non renewable resources, even at the cost of destroying itself. Forcing the system to change direction could be obtained only by means of some centralized control but that, obviously, is complex, expensive, and unpopular.  No wonder that our leaders don't seem to be enthusiastic about this strategy.

Let's see, instead, another possible option for leaders: that of "stimulating growth". What does that mean, exactly? In general, it seems to mean to use the taxation system to transfer financial resources to the industrial system. With more money, industries can afford higher prices for natural resources. As a consequence, the extractive industry can maintain its profits, actually increase them, and keep extracting even from expensive resources. But money, as we said, is not a physical entity; in this case it only catalyzes the transfer human and material resources to the extractive system at the expense of subsystems as social security, health care, instruction, etc. That's not painless, of course, but it may give to the public the impression that the problems are being solved. It may improve economic indicators and it may keep resource flows large enough to prevent the complete collapse of peripheral regions, at least for a while. But the real attraction of stimulating growth is that it is the easy way: it pushes the system in the direction where it wants to go. The system is geared to exploit natural resources at the fastest possible rate, this strategy gives it fresh resources to do exactly that. Our leaders may not understand exactly what they are doing, but surely they are not stupid - they are not going against the grain. 

The problem is that the growth stimulating strategy only buys time (and buys it at a high price). Nothing that governments or financial traders do can change the thermodynamics of the world system - all what they can do is to shuffle resources from here to there and that doesn't change the hard reality of depletion and pollution. So, pushing economic growth is only a short term solution that worsens the problem in the long run. It can postpone collapse but at the price of making it more abrupt in the form known as the Seneca Cliff. Unfortunately, it seems that we are headed exactly that way.

This post was inspired by an excellent post on the financial situation written by Antonio Turiel with the title "Before the Wave" (in Spanish).

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The empty Earth

And here is my new book, just published on Nov 15th. The Italian title sounds like, "The Emptied Earth", but in English it sounds better to me as, "The empty Earth." In any case, I think you can imagine from the title what the book is about. It is the history of mining on this planet; it starts from the first flint mines dug in limestone more than 10,000 years ago, arriving the modern mining rush that is, literally, emptying the earth of its mineral treasures accumulated over billions of years of geological activity.

I am sorry that most of you won't be able to read this version, but I am working at an edition in English planned for March of next year (not the same book, it will be a version reworked for the international readership). For those of you who can read Italian, you can find a description of the book at the site of the Editor and also on my Italian blog.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


On the left, Marion King Hubbert (1903-1989), originator of the "Hubbert Model" of oil production. On the right, Mario Monti (1943-), prime minister of the Italian government. They seem to share a certain style and both of them have been defined as "technocrats". 

Marion King Hubbert had foreseen many things correctly in his career, mainly about oil production. But he had also joined a group called the "technocrats" who proposed that technical experts should run governments. Maybe he was right also in this prediction, as the recent events in Italy may indicate.

Professor Mario Monti has been appointed by the President of the Republic as the new head of the Italian Government, replacing the democratically elected, but disastrous, Silvio Berlusconi. I am not sure of whether Mr. Monti likes to be defined as a "technocrat,"  but the term fits his present job very well. Is this the start of a new trend? It is too early to say but, who knows?

Big Gav has an interesting post on "peak Energy" about the rise of Mario Monti in Italy .

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Strauss Kahn's downfall: "Peak Males"?

To the question "what is best in life?" Conan answers, "crush your enemies, see them driven before you, hear the lamentation of the women" (from "Conan the Barbarian", 1982). This kind of macho style was probably out of fashion already in Atlantean times; surely it is even more so in our times. So, the downfall of powerful "alpha males," such as Silvio Berlusconi (and, earlier this year, Dominique Strauss Kahn) may be a sign of an ongoing change: this kind of aggressive leaders may be outdated.

Modern political leaders seem to have evolved over the years with the ability of leading people into battle. Have you ever been close to a high level political leader? They beam charisma all around. They are aggressive, self assured and often display a strong sex drive - they may well be serial womanizers, like Berlusconi and Strauss Kahn. But we may not need them any more: the development of robotic warfare may spell their demise. With robots doing the fighting, controllers can sit comfortably in air conditioned rooms and drink coffee while they kill people at the push of a button. It is another kind of warfare: more like pest extermination than the kind of glorious activity that war used to be. The people engaged in this activity don't need to be macho types a la Conan and, for them, being serial womanizers is definitely a disadvantage. For Berlusconi, at least, it was the case, although not the only reason of his downfall.

So, in analogy with the concept of "peak oil" we might think of a peak followed by a decline for the presence of this kind of males at the top levels of governments. Perhaps, we can call it "Peak Males."

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Peak oil narratives

In examining the debate on global warming and on peak oil, I came to the conclusion that the elementary unit of communication in the public discussion is always a story - a narrative of some kind. In other words, we tend to interpret reality in narrative terms, as you can understand by just a glance to the titles of any newspaper.  

I argued in a recent post that the remarkable success of the denialist position in the climate debate is due to the development of a fictional narrative that describes how a group of evil scientists manipulated the temperature data in order to persuade the public of a non-existent global warming. This narrative is so seductive for human perception that it is almost impossible to fight it using just data. There are other examples; one is the case of the "wrong predictions" that the Club of Rome is often said to have proposed with the 1972 study "The Limits to Growth". It is a stubborn narrative which turns out to be almost impossible to demolish by simply showing that the pretended "mistakes" don't exist.

So, people tend to be attracted more by pleasant fables rather than by inconvenient truths. That doesn't mean that truth needs to be unpleasant, negative, or apocalyptic. However, if we want to pass our message to the public, data alone are not enough; scientific results must be presented in ways that take into account the human side of the problems. How to succeed in this task is an open question, but Antonio Turiel, who keeps the blog "The Oil Crash", has examined it in a recent post titled "running away from reality dedicated to the "Chemtrails" legend. 

As you may know, chemtrails are said to be the result of a heinous plot that involves the use of planes to spread poisons that appear as white stripes in the sky. Obviously, there exist no data that could even vaguely imply that the well known "contrails" generated by flying planes are anything more than harmless water vapor. Nevertheless, the narrative of the "chemtrails" concept is seductive in suggesting that our troubles are the result of the action of an evil group of enemies of humankind acting behind the scenes. Again, trying to contrast this fictional account by means of data results ineffective. 

If you can read Spanish, the post "Running away from reality by Antonio Turiel is well worth reading. Here, I am translating a section of it, the one where he examines the narrative behind conspiracy theories and compares it with the one behind the peak oil concept. 

Running away from Reality 
by Antonio Turiel. Nov 5, 2011


.... In the end, the proposer of the chemtrails idea sees a heroic narrative, a bold struggle against a demonic power, all-knowing and almost all powerful, which, once defeated, will originate a new order. Nothing new, then, with respect to the ancient story of Hermes who, sword in hand, cut off the head of the hundred eyed monster. From what we can see, we didn't progress so much from Hellenic times.

This narrative is completely equivalent to the one of the defenders of "free energies" (in fact, they are often the same people). We commented here the absurdity and the lack of basis of free energies (surely in English "Free Energy" is an ambiguous term which means both "free" as well as "at no cost", which in the end is the way we pretend to live; at full speed we did as up to now). What is interesting now is to see how the psychological mechanisms are the same of the case of chemtrails and this explains the fact that the believers in these two theories are the same. These two groups also coincide with the defenders of the great world conspiracy of the Illuminati and the New International Order.

I am not sure of all the details of these conspiracy theories but, essentially, the idea is that there exists an occult group of rich and powerful people who form a council that takes decision to determine the destiny of the world and who have a demonic plan to submit us to endless slavery. Actually, this idea is sufficiently absurd: it is obvious that the rich and the powerful conspire to maintain their situation of privilege and influence in an illegitimate way our representatives, subverting the meaning of democracy. But they do it in full view of everyone, without hiding and, in the end, without feeling shame because in any case they arrive to believe that it is the best, or the correct thing to do. To do it, they don't need an oak table in a dark cavern with a goat head hanging from the wall.

On the other hand, although some of these powerful entities or people may have plans for anticipating the coming chaos, I doubt that all of them have developed the same diagnosis of the problems and of the relative solutions. And, in the end, it is not obvious that they can implement their chosen plans, since there are always uncertainties in the human factor. Would their militias be always faithful? Will the political leaders keep to their assigned directives? Will the people remain submissive? History demonstrates that it is impossible to keep people submissive all the time, all of them. But, again, the heroic narrative of the fight against these great villains who stole our well deserved past prosperity, which we will recover if we defeat them, is much more attractive than the vulgar and mediocre reality.

Economists and politicians, on their part, fall in the same practice of self-deception, looking for a kind of reasoning that is more attractive than realistic. For instance, they speak of restarting growth, despite the fact that this economic crisis will never end; of accepting sacrifices now in order to obtain a future prosperity when, in reality, each adjustment is leading us to the catabolic collapse; of plans of rescue necessary to restart the economy, when in reality these are only useful to plug the holes of big banks; or of policies favoring employment which in reality are the degradation of the conditions of workers, etc. And the fact is that, again, our leaders look for a heroic narrative in which, thanks to their determination and their statesmanship, they will be able to return to the earlier situation, that is to a state of endless growth.

In contrast with this kind of description, the narrative of the Oil Crash is much more gray. It is not black as it is sometimes said. The Oil Crash is not the end of humankind; not, at least, if we don't want it to be such. The oil crash is not the narrative of an apocalypse; but it really is a narrative of humiliation. Because it consists in accepting that human beings have limits, that for once it is impossible to win. And this, for the Homo Invictus who surged from the industrial revolution, who always prospered during the past two centuries, is difficult to accept. This is the real problem with the Oil Crash: the arrogance of modern man. It is better for our ego to believe that there is a villain controlling everything than to accept that the situation is out of the control of any human being, no matter how evil.  The problem with the heroic narrative is not just that it is wrong; it is that it is leading us to disaster.

Read the whole post (in Spanish)

Monday, November 7, 2011

ASPO-Italy 5: beyond peak oil

Toufic El Asmar, researcher at FAO and vice-president of ASPO-Italia, speaks at the 5th meeting of the association in Florence. Climate change and agriculture featured prominently in the discussion. 

Peak oil is behind us. That much seems to be clear from what was said at the 5th meeting of the Italian section of the Association for the study of peak oil (ASPO) held on Oct 28 in Florence, Italy. Already in the first talk of the meeting; the one given by Ian Johnson, secretary general of the Club of Rome, the emphasis was not on oil, but on the financial problems that the world is facing. This point was also made by Nicole Foss of the blog "theautomaticearth" who spoke of the impending total collapse of the world's financial system.

Another point that was extensively debated at the meeting is how the peak is driving the oil industry to extract and process polluting and inefficient resources, and how this is causing a worsening of the climate change problem. That was the reason that had led ASPO-Italy to organize this meeting jointly with "Climalteranti," a group of Italian climate scientists. At least half of the talks at the meeting were specifically dedicated to climate change and the climate question was present in practically all discussions. Recent data indicate a big jump in the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, confirming that this trend is ongoing.

Peak oil is also affecting agriculture, as reported by the vice-president of the association, Dr. Toufic El Asmar, who is also a researcher at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome. The problem is not yet on the radar of most people who deal with sustainability, but it is clear that it is enormous. Agriculture, as it is structured today, cannot survive without fossil fuels and the damage caused by climate change might be devastating,

Another point that was much discussed at ASPO-Italy 5 was the problem of communication. How to transform our models into policies? That turns out to be an extremely difficult problem. Not that we didn't work on it. Pietro Cambi, member of ASPO-Italy, estimated in his talk that about one person in three in Italy has been exposed at least once to the peak oil message during the past five years as a result of the work of ASPO and of related associations and people. It is a remarkable result considering that ASPO-Italy is an association of volunteers that operates on minuscule financial resources. Yet, the impact of our message is not appearing; not yet, at least.

For instance, the politicians of the Regional Tuscan Government did their best to steer clear of the ASPO-Italy meeting, despite the fact that it was held near the central building of the Tuscan Government and that it was a high level international meeting that saw the presence of several high level scientists. The only exception was Mr. Mauro Romanelli, Regional Councilor for the Green Party; evidently more enlightened than most. In Italy, as everywhere else, it seems that the magic word that solves all the problems remains "growth." Being seen in the company of Cassandras and catastrophists must be still considered as a good way to ruin one's political career.

In the end, it seems that peak oil has generated a strong reaction of the industrial, financial and political system. It has caused a movement to counter depletion by investing more resources in extraction, despite the increasing costs and the resulting environmental damage. Ian Johnson made this point clear in his talk. Years ago, when he was vice-president of the World Bank, they had estimated what the price of oil should be to make renewable energy competitive in the market. But, when that price level was reached, what happened was that oil companies abandoned all their programs in renewable energy to concentrate on new oil sources. No matter how dirty and expensive these resources may be, it is still possible to make a profit, provided that the industry doesn't have to pay for the costs of pollution. Which is, unfortunately, the case.

What we are seeing is a tremendous effort to maintain extraction levels at least constant, even at the cost of wrecking the world's economy and the planetary ecosystem as well. It seems to be a classic example of what I called the "Seneca Effect", that is the trading of some more years of near stability in exchange for a faster decline, later on. So, we are reacted to peak oil in the worst possible way.

The meeting was organized mainly by Luca Pardi, who is also the new president of ASPO-Italy. He replaces Ugo Bardi who has served as president for eight years. The meeting was co-organized with the Climalteranti group and sponsored by Mr. Mauro Romanelli, Tuscan Regional Councilor for the Green Party, who provided the prestigious "Sala delle feste" of "Palazzo Bastogi" in Florence, where the meeting took place. 

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Peak oil people

Some time ago, Colin Campbell had the idea of collecting the biographies of people who had worked on Peak Oil with ASPO. The result is this book which was recently published in Ireland. It contains also the biography of yours truly; Ugo Bardi. I don't know how interesting you could find it, anyway it is there. Here is the link

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Burning the skeptics: a false flag campaign against the concept of man made global warming

You may have seen the disgusting "no-pressure" video of last year, where global warming skeptics were made to explode in a burst of blood. Now, there comes a new one, similar. It is "Combustible," where we see a climate skeptic catching fire, turning into ashes, and leaving only his eyeballs on the sidewalk. "Combustible" is just slightly less disgusting than "No Pressure" was and perhaps a bit more subtle. Here, the hapless skeptic burns by itself, whereas in the earlier movie we actually see environmentalists pushing the kill button. But the message of both movies is exactly the same: environmentalists are murderers who enjoy seeing people suffering. Indeed, "Combustible" was understood in this way in the comments to it at the WUWT site

Who made this crap? Apparently, it was created by a professional advertising agency, "Realm." But there is a problem here: even if it does it "pro bono", an advertising agency acts on the basis of a request from a customer. An agency, in itself, doesn't have the competency to devise a campaign from scratch. Indeed, when Realm created an environmental ad in 2009 it was for a real and traceable environmental association, Earthshare of Georgia. But for the "Combustible" video there is no such traceable sponsor. At the end of the movie, you can read "" But, at present, there doesn't exist a site with that name and the link only leads you to Bill Clinton's climate initiative, where (obviously) you find no trace of this video. WUWT suggests that the video originates from WWF, but, again, the the link provided only leads to an announcement of an open position and there no trace of this video in the whole WWF site. Another link  supposed to identify the sponsors leads only to a speech  of President Obama on climate change. It is a game of mirrors: there is no way to know who is behind this video.

So, how come that this video is "orphan" in the sense that it cannot be linked to any known (or even newly born) environmental organization? I think the most obvious explanation is that "Combustible" is a fake environmental movie. It is, actually, a false flag video designed to smear the environmental movement, depicting its members as murderers. Of course, if we reason in scientific terms, there is no way to prove this statement. In scientific terms, whatever cannot be proven must be considered dubious. However, there is a old rule which may not be scientific but which I think applies to the present case (and to "No Preessure" as well). It says that when you start feeling that you are being cheated, most likely you are.

In a previous post of mine, I was noting how the skeptic position on climate change is based mainly on narrative: fancy stories designed to distract people from the reality of the scientific results. I argued that the main narrative behind skepticism is that global warming does not exist; it is only a hoax created by a group of evil scientists who manipulated the data in order to keep money flowing into their fat research grants, as demonstrated by the Climategate mails. But that is not the only story told by skeptics (charitably defined in this way). Videos such as "Combustible" and "No pressure" are part of another narrative created with the purpose of painting environmentalists as a group of monsters who want to destroy most of humankind in order to create their green utopia. It is nothing new; the same lie was used against the 1972 study "The Limits to Growth" whose authors and sponsors were presented as planning to exterminate most of humankind. It is pure fiction, of course, but it is an effective weapon to undermine the credibility of the environmental movement and of climate science.

The people who conceived these videos, whoever they are, are clearly willing to use any means available for their purpose. They are obviously adept at the task and well financed, too. Against this kind of attacks, we are facing a difficult battle: it is hard to fight comfortable narratives with inconvenient truths. But it is also true that these spin campaigns can backfire. The minimum we can do is to expose these tricks when we see them appearing. Eventually, truth will win.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Narrative and science in the debate on climate change

The remarkable success of the anti-science position on climate change is due in large part to the development of a successful narrative plot that casts scientists as evil schemers against the public. The attempts made by scientists to respond with scientific evidence to the attacks have not been a success. Recently, the work of the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) group has provided some further insight on the mechanisms of this conflict.

In the "Aeneid", the Latin poet Virgil tells us all the details of Cassandra's unsuccessful attempt to fool Ulysses's plot of introducing a wooden horse full of Greek warriors inside Troy's walls. The Trojans were not stupid; they were fooled by a trick. On the beach in front of their town, they didn't find just a wooden horse but a distressed Greek soldier, naked and bound. The Trojans believe him when he tells them that he is a victim of Ulysses and that he was left there as a sacrifice for the Gods. He tells them that the Greeks had admitted their defeat, leaving the wooden horse on the beach as an offering for the Gods before sailing toward home. The Trojans take the wooden horse inside the city and that will be their end.

This story is, of course, a piece of fiction, but not just a fairy tale. Virgil was a genius of literature and the Aeneid is a masterpiece of all times. The story of the wooden horse shows us all the elements of the human way of preferring fiction to facts. The Greek traitor triumphs because he tells the Trojans a good story that contains what they want to be told: that they have defeated the Greeks and that the Greeks are evil. Virgilio even goes on to show us how the scientific method is not enough against a good story. He tells us of how a Trojan, Lacoon, hurls a javelin against the horse demonstrating that it is hollow from the noise that is heard. But that's useless. Stories are just too powerful to be overcome by just facts. 

That we are deeply dependent on fictional elements in our perception of reality is nothing new. We see it again and again in the political debate; all based on fiction. The successful politician is the one who is able to cast reality in the form of a good story; identifying the bad guys and proposing their punishment (at present, the bad guys seem to be the scientists). It is the plot of basically all fiction: bad guys fight good guys and the good guys win; it is so simple as that. Fiction appears to be actually becoming reality in the sense that it is acted upon as if it were reality (read this if you are not convinced).

The case of the "BEST" (Berkeley earth surface temperatures) study tells us something of how the debate on global warming is cast in fictional, rather than scientific, terms.  The BEST study had a considerable media resonance, especially because of previous declarations of skepticism of the lead scientist of the team, Richard Muller. The study was also sponsored by institutions that had previously supported the denial of the standard interpretation of the climate data. But when the BEST results came out, they confirmed the previous result. That is, that the Earth is warming.

Gobal warming skeptics were clearly taken by surprise by the BEST results and their reaction tells us a lot on their way to approach the question. I had expected that they would fall in good order to their second line of defense; that is to saying that, "yes, global warming exists, but it is not caused by human activity". Instead, they reacted with a vicious counterattack against the BEST study and its authors, with Richard Muller turning almost overnight from hero to traitor and being vilified in all possible ways (see, e.g., this image). Anthony Watts, of the blog "Watts up with that," had initially declared about BEST that "I’m prepared to accept whatever result they produce, even if it proves my premise wrong." But when the results came out he changed his position and his site is publishing almost daily attacks against Muller and the BEST study (see, e.g. this one).

It was already clear that the debate on global warming was not a scientific debate, but it is starting to be clear now how remote from science the position of the skeptics is. Their whole interpretation of climate science pivots around a single narration. It says that a group of evil scientists manipulated the temperature data in order to show a warming that doesn't exist. They were caught red-handed when their private emails were made public in what we call the "Climategate" scandal. 

You see how this story has all the elements needed to triumph over facts. It tells people what they want to hear: how the bad guys (the scientists) were defeated and that there is nothing to worry about global warming. No wonder that the denial side doesn't want to abandon this narrative. It would not be the same thing for them if they were forced to battle climate science on the question of whether warming is caused by human activity or not. That becomes a battle of facts vs. facts as there is no equivalent fancy story that tells us of how evil scientists are (actually, there is one: it tells how scientists ignored the data showing that the "medieval warm  period" was warmer than the present time. But this is a far less effective story than the Climategate one).

There are so many elements that show that the Earth is warming that it is almost unbelievable that skeptics can have so much success with their denial. It is not so much because they are especially smart; it is mainly because scientists are poor communicators and have neglected the importance of the emotional content of the message. So far, scientists have been assuming that all they had to worry about was facts and their scientific interpretation - this is the way the IPCC reports are made. Someone else, then, would build a narrative on the scientists' work. We are discovering that the world doesn't work that way; not any more, at least.

Narrative is a powerful way of conveying messages. It exploits channels already open inside the human mind. It is through narrative that you can call up the good that exists in human beings; their capability of working for a good cause, of acting together, of helping those in need. Just think of the Gettysburg address and you'll see how a real leader can use a powerful narrative approach for a good purpose. We have plenty of ways to develop a narrative that is not in contrast with science. And we have the most wonderful story of all to tell; it is the story of an entire planet that spans billions of years and which we are just beginning to understand.

Note: this post was published also on ""


The BEST study may also do something more for us: it may provide us with a specific counter-narrative to be used against the "Climategate" one. If you ever were engaged in a debate on global warming, you surely were confronted - at one moment or another - with someone saying "but I heard that climate scientists had confessed that they had manipulated the data." Up to now, all you could do to counter this statement was to use facts; you could only answer, "there is no evidence that scientists manipulated the data". But that is pitting facts against fiction and, as we saw, fiction wins. With the "BEST" results, now you can say something like, "you know, the same people who said that scientists had manipulated the data commissioned a study that was supposed to prove that. And, funny, the result if that study was that the data were good! The Earth is really warming". Isn't it a good story to tell? 

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Future of Energy and the Interconnected Challenges of the 21st Century

Guest post by Francois Cellier

Francois Cellier is senior researcher at the ETH in Zurich, Switzerland. He is known for many contributions in the field of modelling and perhaps the readers of this blog know him for his work with "The Oil Drum". Cellier was present at the meeting on Energy of the Club of Rome in Basel on which I reported earlier on "Cassandra's Legacy". Here, he presents a more detailed report. As a personal comment on this post, I note that Francois may appear very pessimistic when, at the end of his post, he ask the question "Are we merely a club of old men (and a few women) crying on each other's shoulders?" I think Francois' intention is not to imply that it was a meeting of old men as, instead, there were several young people attending and giving contributions. The point is, I think, is that we must never feel too old to believe that we can make a difference! 

The Future of Energy and the Interconnected Challenges of the 21st Century

François E. Cellier
Department of Computer Science
ETH Zurich
CH-8092 Zurich

Email: FCellier@Inf.ETHZ.CH

The Club of Rome, in collaboration with the Dept. of Environment and Energy of the City of Basel, Switzerland, recently convened a two-day international conference entitled The Future of Energy and the Interconnected Challenges of the 21st Century. The meeting was held October 17 and 18, 2011, at the Hôtel des Trois Rois in Basel. The conference -by invitation only- brought together a group of about 30 scientists from around the globe to discuss issues relating to resource depletion (Peak Oil) and climate change. Also present was a delegation of the Basel City government including the mayor and the minister for energy as well as several members of parliament.

This report summarizes some of the outcomes of our discussions.


In Basel, the Club of Rome was given a warm welcome. Basel is by far the most environmentally conscious city of Switzerland. To illustrate my point: Basel reduced its per capita energy consumption between 1991 and 2010 from 5.4 kW to 4.0 kW, a reduction by a whopping 26%. This is a highly impressive figure. The average energy consumption in Switzerland is currently at 5.4 kW, down from 5.5 kW 10 years ago.

Basel has both topographic and political advantages over other cities and regions in the country. On the one hand, Basel-City is the smallest of our Cantons. It essentially consists of the city only. Thus, population density is very high, and public transportation systems are excellent.

While the average number of cars per 1000 inhabitants in the country currently lies at 514 cars, there are only 320 cars per 1000 inhabitants in Basel. Most of the houses in the inner city were built long before the advent of cars, and consequently, they rarely come with garages. There are a good number of public parking garages in the city center, but they are expensive and time-limited, and the residents usually have no parking lots anywhere close to their homes. Thus, in many cases, owning a car in Basel creates more of a problem than being of benefit. About 60% of the workforce comes to work by public transport, and only 30% come to work using private cars. The remaining 10% either walk, or ride to work by bike. Real estate is very expensive due to the limited space available, and therefore, there are few gas stations in the city. Car owners usually fill their vehicles outside the city limits, and as a result, their fuel consumption is not counted in the energy statistics of the city, which to some extent, distorts the picture.

In addition, Basel has political advantages. As in most high-income countries in the Western world, our city governments tend to be a bit more progressive, a bit more energy- and environmentally conscious than municipalities in the countryside. This is true for throughout Switzerland. In contrast to Basel, however, which is a city-state, other metropolitan areas are surrounded by a hinterland that is often more conservative and exerts considerable influence on the city and cantonal politics. The Basel-city government is able to pass any local legislation that suits them without facing opposition. The more conservative neighboring Basel-Countryside is a separate Canton and has no say on city regulations.

Yet, while these advantages may explain the lower energy consumption in Basel as compared to the Swiss average, they fail to explain the rapid decrease in energy consumption over the past 20 years. To this end, a number of different incentive schemes have been introduced step-by-step.

  1. At present, most homes in Switzerland continue to be heated by oil, while Basel is actively promoting the connection of private homes to a centralized district heating network. Centralized district heating is much more efficient than individual oil heating, because much of the heat used by the district heating network is waste heat from the waste incineration plant and other industrial plants in the region, which essentially is available for free. Any additional heat that needs to be generated by burning fuel is produced with higher efficiency, because industrial oil burners can be operated cost-effectively at higher temperatures than single-dwelling oil burners. In Basel, the percentage of central oil heating systems in private homes has decreased significantly, and the electrical resistance heaters advocated in some areas of Switzerland no longer exist at all.
  2. Then there was introduced an "energy levy" of some 5% that is being used for energy modernization programs and for upgrading older, less energy-efficient buildings, for subsidies of solar thermal installations, and generally for subsidies of investments in renewable energy systems of all kinds.
  3. In addition, inhabitants of Basel pay an additional 5 Cents incentive tax per kWh of consumed electricity. This tax is reimbursed to all households and companies in the city as a lump-sum payment of CHF 75 per year and is also being used to reduce payroll taxes of companies located in the City-State.
  4. Finally, Basel was the first city in Switzerland to introduce cost-covering feed-in tariffs for solar. These stipulate that the public electricity company must buy all electricity generated by photovoltaic systems and CHP (combined heat and power) plants at a standardized cost of production. Home owners offer their roofs to the local electricity company and to private investors, such as solar co-operatives, virtually for free. At the current time, the costs for this arrangement remain slightly above the market price for conventionally generated electricity. The electricity company is allowed to pass on the incurred costs to its customer base, leading to an increase in price of approximately 0.4 Cents per kWh. At present, Basel has already more than 3 MW of installed photovoltaic power. The Basel feed-in tariff model is expected to be adopted shortly throughout Switzerland. Similar legislation is in place in Germany and has, in past years, led to a veritable explosion in installed photovoltaic power.

The price of photovoltaic systems is dropping rapidly. One kg of silicon for a photovoltaic system cost as much as $500 on the spot market in 2008. The price has meanwhile dropped to $40 and may soon be as low as $5-10. This decrease is caused less by cheaper raw materials than by increasing efficiency in the production of crystalline silicon. Modern fluidized-bed reactors are considerably more energy-efficient than the previously used Siemens process, and as a result, the EROEI of photovoltaic systems is improving. Grid parity may be reached by 2012.

If you are interested in reading the exposé by Basel parliamentarian Rudolf Rechsteiner on these and related topics, you can find it here.

The Swiss National Parliament recently passed legislation pertaining to the fact that no additional permits for new nuclear power stations will be issued in the future, and the five currently operational nuclear power stations will need to be phased out over the coming 20 years. At this time, Switzerland generates approximately 35% of its total electricity through nuclear power. Yet, extrapolating from recent experiences in Germany and recognizing that photovoltaic systems can be deployed rapidly, Basel parliamentarians at the meeting were optimistic that the loss of nuclear power will be able to be compensated for by an increase in photovoltaic systems and other renewables in a timely manner. Additional pump storage reservoirs may be required for load balancing and other reasons, but the loss of nuclear power does not necessarily lead to electricity shortages in Switzerland.

The attendees at the meeting concurred that the supply of conventional oil will soon no longer be able to meet demand, i.e., Peak Oil, if it hasn't occurred already, is imminent. Switzerland, which consumes about 2/3 of its total energy in the form of fossil fuels, will need to reduce its energy consumption. Yet, even the gradual loss of fossil fuels must not necessarily lead to a catastrophic breakdown (at least not immediately). About half of our oil consumption is caused by central oil heating systems, and a huge potential exists for improving the energy efficiency of our buildings. Technology is already available that allows us to construct buildings that are energy neutral, i.e., that generate as much energy as they consume. Historic structures, of which there are many in Switzerland, may not lend themselves to easy upgrading; nevertheless, a lot can be accomplished to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels for space heating.

Undoubtedly, in the near future, we will no longer be able to take our SUVs to the nearest gas station whenever it suits us, but Switzerland features one of the densest public transportation networks on the entire planet. While other Western countries in the 20th century systematically dismantled their public transportation systems (under the constant and growing influence of the oil companies), Switzerland consistently modernized and enlarged its public transportation network. In the future, we may need to limit the use of our cars to shorter trips, e.g. to the nearest train station. A reduction in available gas may thus represent more of a discomfort and nuisance than a true disaster.

Unfortunately, these assumptions only hold true if we postulate that the rest of the world will be able to cope equally well with the consequences of diminishing oil reserves, which is anything but certain. Peak Oil means Peak Food. Even now Switzerland is unable to feed its population of 8 million people. We currently import about 60% of our food.

While world population will likely peak long before 2050, it is by no means a given that the Swiss population will have peaked by then as well. If Switzerland continues to outperform its neighbors economically, the already enormous pressures caused by immigration will continue to increase. A recent survey in Germany revealed that 10% of all Germans questioned expressed the opinion that they would consider moving to Switzerland – not because they like Switzerland better than Germany, but for purely economic reasons … and Germany is among the richest nations in Europe.

How will we feed additional immigrants if even now our arable land has shrunk drastically due to increased urbanization? How will we keep our own industrial base operational even with sufficient locally generated energy if the economies of the nations around us are faltering due to energy shortages? For these and other reasons, Peak Oil may still turn into a disaster for Switzerland.

In addition, concerning the issue of anthropogenic climate change, most attendees expressed a much more pessimistic outlook. Certainly the energy crisis will bite us long before climate change takes its toll. However, energy issues can be dealt with after the fact in a reactive mode, even if it is uncomfortable, while the "sins" committed today with respect to the continuing emission of greenhouse gases are expected to lead to irreparable damage fifty years from now. For this reason, anthropogenic climate change represents a challenge that needs to be dealt with pro-actively in the here and now, and there is no discernible political will to do so. Despite being cognizant of the fact that inactivity now may lead to a veritable catastrophe 50 years down the road, elected officials still opt for the coming long-term disaster over short-term inconvenience. Large segments of the population are lacking awareness of the coming disaster, and politicians are prepared to ignore it because unpopular decisions taken by them now will jeopardize their future reelection due to their constituents' poor comprehension of the issues at hand.

Some of the exposés presented were outright alarming. According to Ian Dunlop, a senior member of ASPO Australia and a member of the Club of Rome, unless we start reducing the CO2 emissions right now at a rate of 9% per year, we will be unable to stay within the 2oC increase in temperature considered safe by the IPCC. As this clearly will not happen, we are almost certain to end up with a rise of at least 4oC within the 21st century. Yet, an average increase of 4oC worldwide translates to a rise of 6oC in central Europe, and an increase of 8-12oC in the Arctic.

The melting of the glaciers will dry up rivers and the disappearance of the Greenland ice will lead to a rise of the sea levels by 7 meters. Coastal areas, including a large number of major cities, which are presently home to roughly a third of the world population, will be flooded. Coastal regions will be devastated by hurricanes of unseen proportions, while regions further inland will experience increased desertification. Such change may lead to a die-off scenario where the total world population would shrink rapidly.

According to Dunlop, measures to drastically decrease CO2 emissions would need to be taken within the next 5-6 years to prevent disaster. Thereafter it will be too late. The massive technological and social changes needed to accomplish these goals may entail a war-like setting where everyone is cooperating because there are no alternatives. Yet, as the effects of climate change will not affect us in major ways for another 30-40 years (some effects are already in evidence, as shown by the escalating number of extreme events around the world over the past decade in particular that have already claimed many lives), there is no political will whatsoever to tackle the problem, even if this should mean the end of the world as we know it.

CO2 emissions are inextricably linked to the burning of fossil fuels. For this reason, Peak Oil and anthropogenic climate change are not two separate issues. They must be addressed together. Mankind may choose to ignore one or the other, but cannot do so without risking serious consequences.

Our Western democracies served us well for the past centuries. They offered us freedom and prosperity to a degree never seen before. They also turned out to be more robust than the alternative model embraced by Eastern Europe in the 20th century. While countries that had implemented communist social systems were slow to change, our market economies proved to be highly adaptive to a changing environment.

However, we never before faced a situation where our decisions literally affected the survival of our civilization 50 years in the future, and it remains to be seen whether our political system is able to effectively deal with such a "stress test," or whether our political structures will force us to helplessly submit to our own destruction and that of our planet.

As it stands, the most cooperative and constructive government in terms of dealing with the brewing "perfect storm" ahead may be the Chinese government. Western governments are, at this point, run by representatives that are mostly lawyers (and in-officially by bankers and CEOs of multinational corporations). By contrast, the Chinese leadership consists primarily of engineers. They do understand models and are perfectly capable of reading and interpreting charts. They do everything in their power to help mitigate the coming disaster (and they can afford to do so, because they don't need to fear for their re-election), but their problems are formidable. The Chinese cannot reduce their per capita energy consumption now, and they will not be able to do so for a good number of years to come. The average Chinese citizen remains very poor, compared to their European or American counterpart. China needs to consume more energy to improve the desperate living conditions of a large segment of its population. China is currently burning lots of coal for electricity generation. They are fully aware that this adds significantly to the world's CO2 emissions. According to Prof. Wenying Chen of Tsinghua University, China currently does not see a way around it, as the Chinese are unable to generate enough electricity by other means. Yet, the Chinese leadership is willing to listen and is receptive to any suggestion that will help them reduce their CO2 emissions.

One last note: The Copenhagen meeting demonstrated once again that the top world leadership is incapable of addressing this highly urgent problem, although an immediate prescription for decisively reducing CO2 emissions may be necessary to save our civilization. It was mentioned that it is much easier to deal with politicians at the local level. City mayors and regional governments may have both the will and the means to positively contribute to a local solution. Good examples are likely to have a signaling effect and may convince governments of neighboring areas to adopt successful strategies seen elsewhere. Basel is a good example of that. However, will such a decentralized approach be sufficiently effective to save our planet in time from destruction?

I am very grateful for having had the opportunity to participate in this meeting. It turned out to be an eye-opener in more ways than just one. Yet, after two days of intensive talks, I am asking myself, what have we accomplished? Where is the outreach? Are we merely a club of old men (and a few women) crying on each other's shoulders over spilled wine? What can we do to make a difference?


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