Monday, June 25, 2012

Making peace with our chimeras

The Etruscan statue known as the "Chimera of Arezzo". It is an ancient representation of the creature called "Chimera" which was killed by Bellerophon, the hero. This post derives from the talk I gave at a conference on the Chimera myth in Florence in 2010. The gist of my talk was that the myth is still very relevant today for us and that we can survive the challenges we face only if we can make peace with our Chimeras. Here is a written version of the talk, where I have added headings for clarity.


Ladies and gentlemen, it is a great pleasure to be here today and, first of all, I would like to introduce myself. I am not here as an archaeologist or an art historian, as the distinguished colleagues who spoke before me. My research is on very different matters; so I am speaking to you just as a friend of the Chimera. And if I tell you that I am a friend of the Chimera, it is because I feel something for it or, put simply, I like it. I like the story so much that I wrote an entire book on the subject. You can see it here, it is titled "The book of the Chimera."  I wrote it mainly because I couldn't find a book like it. You always write the book you would like to read.

So, after so much work, today I could tell you a lot of things about the myth of the Chimera but, as you may know, the art of boredom consists in telling everything. So, I would just like to tell you how this myth may still be relevant for us after thousands of years from its origin. Actually, it could be a lot more relevant for us than you may think. This relevance has to do with the way we communicate with our fellow human beings, how we deal with what we call the "environment," how we relate with everything which is not human on this planet. In this respect, we have been doing everything wrong: we have been destroying our environment as if we were killing one chimera after the other. That has not been a good idea - the environment is what makes us live. We need to make peace with our chimeras. But let me try to explain what I mean.

Origins of the myth of the Chimera

You surely know the story of the Chimera: there was this monster; a mix of lion, goat, and snake. It also sprouted fire from one of its mouths, or perhaps from all three of them. It seems to have been a rather nasty creature and so a hero, Bellerophon, was dispatched to get rid of it. Bellerophon did his job with the help of his flying horse, Pegasus. It can't have been such a difficult task, since the Chimera couldn't fly.

This is the myth; as you see, it can be expressed in just one paragraph and that's is the way it is described in the Iliad: just a few lines. In these terms, it doesn't look like anything special: you could, actually, condense it into a single sentence. Something like, "shiny hero kills ugly monster". But there is much more than this in the myth and let me try to explain why.

The story of the Chimera is very ancient; it is one of the most ancient myths of our civilization. With that name, "Chimera" or "Kimaira," it goes back all the way to, probably, the ninth century BC, about three thousand years ago. It is from that time that we start finding images and descriptions of this weird creature. But the core of the story is much older. With different names, the myth of the fire-breathing lion goes back to the Babylonian and Sumerian civilizations, all the way to the third millennium BC. That is, it goes back to around five thousand years ago and it is probably even older than that. It may very well go back to our Paleolithic ancestors although, of course, we'll never know what stories they were telling to each other in the evening, while sitting around the fire.

The curious thing is that such an old story is still with us, not very much changed. Over these five thousand years, empires and civilizations have appeared and disappeared, languages and writing systems were created and, also, disappeared. But we still know what a Chimera looks like and it is possible that our descendants will still know that in a far away future. Think about that: do you think that in 5000 years from now someone will care who was president of the United States today or who won the national soccer championship?

So, the myth of the Chimera, just as many other myths, has this characteristic of being highly "resilient;" impossible to destroy. It changes in name and in the details, but it persists in its basic form for long, long times. Why is that? If some concepts survive for such long times, there has to be something that makes them survive - something important. Let me try to discuss this point a little.

The Iron Goat.

Now, let me tell you something that I learned from my friend and colleague, Alessandro Fornari who, unfortunately, is not any more with us. He was a "field anthropologist", someone who wouldn't just sit at a desk and write books. He would spend most of his time collecting and preserving folk tales. He had a special talent in convincing old peasant ladies to tell him stories and sing for him old songs.

One of the stories that I heard from Fornari is that of the "Capra Ferrata," the "Iron Goat," that comes from the Appennino mountains, in Tuscany. It is a simple story of a rather nasty monster, but the way Fornari would tell it, well, it became something special. You know, he had learned from his old peasant ladies plenty of trick on how to tell these stories. So, when describing how the Iron Goat appears at the door of the house, Fornari would speak in hoarse voice, as any good monster is supposed to speak. Let me try to do that as Fornari did; something like, "I am the Iron Goat, I have burning eyes and a sharp tongue" (in Italian, it rhymes, "Sono la capra ferrata, dagli occhi di fuoco e la lingua arrotata!"). Well, Fornari was much better than me at telling this story, but I did my best!

This Iron Goat clearly has something to do with the myth of the Chimera. I discussed this point with Fornari himself and he agreed with me. One detail is that, of course, both stories mention a goat as part of the monster. But believe me if I tell you that there is much more in terms of similarities than just the goat: the structure of the story, the settings, the role of the characters, but we'll go back to that in a moment. Right now, let me just note a point: how is it that in the 1950s, in the mountains of Tuscany, old peasants would tell a story that is at least 3000 years old? Is it possible that the story has been passed to us from Etruscan times hopping from father to son? (or, more likely, from grand-mother to grand-daughter?)

Of course, we'll never know, but it might even be: anthropologists have discovered that stories told by word of mouth tend to survive for long times, centuries or more. That doesn't mean that the story of the Iron Goat is five thousand years old, of course, but it does show that some stories tend to be told over and over, in different versions, maintaining some core features. So, in the 1950s the story of the Chimera, or at least a story that was very similar to the one of the Chimera, was being told in Tuscany in an oral version that probably didn't derive from the literary or graphic versions recorded in books. It is a manifestation of the incredible resilience of the main features of the myth; something that we must try to explain.

Myths as viral transmission

Written stories, just as some wines, don't age well. When the story of the Chimera was written down in an age when people had become literate, in Classic Times, the myth was literally torn to pieces. So, Plato tells us of the Chimera only as a useless absurdity. For Virgil, it is a decorative accessory for his poems. There was a Roman writer named Servius Onoratus who said that the Chimera was really the description of a volcano; because it emits flames. About this, I think that if I were to meet Servius someday, in the Elysian Fields, I would tell him something like, "Come on, Servius, don't you think that your ancestors should have been able to tell a lion from a volcano?" But this is how it goes. Once written down, a myth loses much of its consistency, its logic, and also its resilience. It becomes a dead myth; maybe still full of force and fury, but without meaning.

Why is that? It has to do, I believe, with the limits of the human mind. I read not long ago that the memory available in our brain is not larger than a few hundred megabytes. I am not sure about what exactly that means, but it does make some sense: our mental capabilities are extremely limited. Look at my book on the Chimera; it is about 80,000 words. I wrote it, but I couldn't recite it to you without reading it. Think instead of Homer's Iliad. In its English translation it is about 150,000 words. But I am sure that Homer could recite the whole Iliad to you, and not just the Iliad - also the Odyssey and probably more epic poems. And Homer, most likely, couldn't read or write.

So, there is a basic point here. We all have plenty of books in our shelves at home, but most likely we don't know even a single one by heart. It was the opposite for Homer and the people of his time. Now, surely you wouldn't say that people at the time of Homer were smarter than we are. Simply, they had a different way of organizing information in their brains. Not having the kind of external support that we have in the form of books, and now as the Internet, the information that they had needed to be in forms that could be memorized.

Poems such as the Odyssey and the Iliad were made from the beginning with that idea in mind: easy to memorize. Rhyming, of course, was a device used for this purpose, but not just that. The very structure of these poems is made in such a way to be easy to assimilate. If you have had the time to read the Iliad, you'll see what I mean: the story is compact; extremely dense, it has no space for details. Compare the Iliad or the Odyssey with a modern novel and you'll see the difference. Think of Ulysses by James Joyce. Theoretically, Joyce wanted to write something like a modern version of the Odyssey but, gosh, the result is completely different, even though there are connections - maybe. And that's not just a question of Joyce - it is the structure of the modern novel in general that has changed. You could make several modern novels with a single page of the Iliad.

Now, think of the Chimera myth. It was conceived much before the existence of writing. So, it was told in a form easy to memorize and, as such, extremely compact. ; in the Iliad it is described in just a few lines. It was left to the story teller to enliven these few lines by the tone, the expression, the acting, and - possibly - adding extra details. It was just what Alessandro Fornari would do when he told the story of the Iron Goat in his unique way of doing it. He had acquired, I think, some of the capabilities of ancient storytellers!

In modern terms, we could say that a myth is a form of viral communication. It is a fashionable concept, nowadays, but it is a correct interpretation of a common phenomenon, also very ancient. It is simply that, when you transmit a message, it has to be de-codified by the receiver. So, you can send a very compact message that the receiver will "unpack" or "unzip." So, my 80,000 words book is a way to unpack the few lines of description of the Chimera given by Homer and by others. You could say that everything that I wrote in my book was already contained, albeit virtually, in the few lines that Homer wrote.

Being so compact, a real communication virus, the myth is easy transmitted; it does not require a support other than the mind of a peasant grandmother. And when it has taken root in a mind, it stays there because it is memorized as a whole. Just because of this, it is very difficult - almost impossible - to destroy it. It is transmitted generation after generation, always the same, because it is so simple and compact.  I think we could say that the myth is the "atomic unit" of communication. In a sense, we could say that a myth is a "mind sized" piece of information, to use a term invented by Seymour Papert.

The myth's struggle for survival  

Being compact, although important for a myth, can't be sufficient to ensure its survival. Like a biological virus, in order to replicate a myth needs to have the capability of adapting to its host; it needs to be able to utilize the host's reproductive system. In the case of a myth, it needs to convince the host - typically the mind of a peasant grandmother - to retell it. Not all myths succeed in the same way. Perhaps in ancient Greece there were many more myths and stories than those we know nowadays, but those who didn't have this survival ability, didn't survive. There must have been a harsh selection process over thousands of years. So, what is that makes the story of the Chimera so resilient?

You know what makes a good story: there has to be meaning. Typically, that means it is a moral or an ethical issue to be solved. There has to be some kind of conflict, a problem to be solved. That's what makes a good story live.

There are many examples of myths that embody conflicts of considerable complexity. There comes to my mind the story of Antigone, you may remember it. She was killed because she had refused to obey the law that forbade her to bury the body of her dead brother. It is the conflict of human laws and natural laws; an extremely modern myth that would be very interesting to discuss, but let's go on.

On the opposite side, some myths look rather silly. Do you remember the story of Pyramus and Thisbe? The play within the play in Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream?" It is the story of a young couple who end up killing themselves by mistake. Doesn't seem to be a very deep conflict - just an invitation to be a bit more careful! But if the myth survived, there has to be a reason. Maybe it is just because it is so silly; and indeed Shakespeare seems to think of it just in these terms in his play. But, then, you may remember also that another of Shakespeare's plays, "Romeo and Juliet" is based exactly on the story of Pyramus and Thisbe! So it may not be such a silly myth, after all.

Ancient myths are often like that. They may look silly on the surface, but there is always a layer of complexity below. There must be a deep meaning in these ancient stories because they survived a process of natural selection lasting thousands of year. It is Darwin's survival of the fittest translated to mythology.

It is the same for the myth of the Chimera. At first sight, it doesn't look so complex. As I said before, we could compress it into one sentence: "shiny hero kills ugly beast". What kind of ethical conflict is involved with that? It looks like the mission statement of a pest extermination company. But things are not so simple and if that was all what was in the myth, it wouldn't have survived all these millennia. There is much, much more.

The meaning of the Chimera myth

To explain the meaning of the myth of the Chimera, we may go back to the story of the "Iron Goat." The beast, the strange creature, is an emanation of the wilderness that, in the story, knocks at the door and comes inside the house. This is the basic point of the story: the conflict of civilization and wilderness, the problem to be solved. This is what gives meaning to the story.

The problem of the relation of human spaces and wilderness is very ancient and we haven't solved it, even today. We live mostly in an urban environment and we don't expect monsters to be knocking at our door. But the idea is still there and it keeps reappearing: think of a movie such as "Avatar". It is so dense of ancient myths that you would think it was turned in Sumerian times. You see how the roles are cast: there is exactly this contrast: wilderness and civilization. In Avatar, the humans are civilization and the Pandorians are the wilderness. That is what makes the film fascinating; not the battles or the various monsters. The story has a meaning, there is a tension, a conflict to be solved.

So, you see how modern is the myth of the Chimera. At its root, there is this conflict: civilization versus wilderness. The Chimera is the trees we cut to pave the land to build a shopping center. It is the mountains we destroy to get at the coal seams below. It is the people we bomb because we think they are dangerous to us. It is everything we don't want to see, and we want to destroy, while we think we are safe inside our homes. But, in reality, we are not and we know that very well.  The environment is not really something "outside", the environment is all those things that make us live. If we destroy the environment, we destroy ourselves.

These considerations are all there, inside the myth of the Chimera, once you unpack it and you take care of some details that seem to be marginal and, instead, are fundamental. So, in the Iliad that the Chimera is explicitly referred to as "Theon", which means "divine". The Chimera is no mere monster, it is a God. And no mortal can kill a God because Gods are immortal. At most, it is possible to kill the "avatar" of a God. And killing a God - even if just its avatar -  is not something that common mortals can do lightly. It brings misfortune; not rewards. Indeed, Bellerophon ends his life blind and accursed as a punishment for what he has done. So, you see? The story of the Chimera is by no means simple; it is not black and white, not good versus evil. The story is subtle and dense and it carries a lot of meaning that we can still understand if we just spend a little time in exploring it.

Today, we don't listen any more to old stories told by grandmothers. But our minds have not changed from that age and the messages we exchange must still be "mind sized," even though we tend to think that we have somehow progressed beyond that. It may well be that, with the Internet, we are going back to a rapid and "viral" kind of communication which was typical of old story telling. Of course, the Internet, right now, is full of silly and useless stories but we saw how there exists also a natural selection for stories. Silly stories don't survive for long; important ones do. The story of the Chimera is something that may take a new life today if we learn how to tell it. Movies such as "Avatar" may be just such a way. So, there may be hope to convey today the meaning that the ancient myth has been carrying for millennia: if we destroy what we think are monsters, we destroy ourselves. Our only hope for the future is to make peace with our chimeras.

This image by Ferdnand Knhopff doesn't show Bellerophon and the Chimera but rather Oedipus and the Sphinx. But it does not matter, it is the same ancient myth and the idea that the protagonists must make peace with each other (h/t Lino Polegato)


Note: my book on the Chimera exists only in Italian, but you may wish to give a look to my old site on the Chimera myth


Friday, June 22, 2012


For three minutes of relax, watch this video showing some of the things we are trying so hard to destroy (by David Bayliss).

Monday, June 18, 2012

Peak oil: has it arrived?

Last week, at a public meeting, I was asked several times if this famed "peak oil" has arrived or not. People who have heard of peak oil seem to be becoming impatient, but I am afraid we'll have to wait a little longer. Peak oil is not here yet, at least if we intend it as a significant decline in the production of combustible liquids. Does that mean that the predictions based on the Hubbert model were wrong? In a sense, yes: you should know that all models are wrong by definition. Some, however, can be useful if you know how to use them. That's the case of the Hubbert model: it had given us a useful warning that, however, we chose to ignore. Let me explain this point by means  of a summary of a talk that I gave at the conference on the future of energy organized in Basel by the Club of Rome on 16-17 october 2011. A few months have passed since I gave that talk, but things haven't changed much from then.

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. My time today is short, so I'll try to go as fast as possible, limiting myself to a brief discussion on the models that lead to the concept called "peak oil." From that you can make up your mind yourselves on what's happening today to the oil market and how the economy could be affected. 

So, first of all, what is "peak oil"? The term was introduced by Colin Campbell in 2002 to indicate the "tipping point" in the world oil production, that is the point when the historical production maximum is reached and an irreversible decline starts. But the idea of a "production peak" for oil is much older. It goes back to a paper that Marion King Hubbert presented in 1956, where he proposed that the production of crude oil in the United States (more exactly in the 48 lower states) would follow a "bell shaped" curve. Here is the curve that Hubbert proposed

You see that the curve is supposed to have a peak midway, and that is the element that has gained most of the attention today. The date of the peak, in particular, has taken a certain value of prophecy. And there is no doubt that Hubbert got something right. Here is a comparison with the historical data. 

Now, as you can see, the agreement with the historical data of one of the curves proposed by Hubbert is very good. Actually, it is excellent considering the time span involved. It is not so easy to make a prediction that turns out to be so good 14 years afterward! And the prediction continued to be good for many years, until recently, when production showed an increase that moved it away from the Hubbert curve. But, again, that doesn't detract from the fact that Hubbert had clearly predicted that production would run into troubles at a certain point. It did.

So. let's go to "Peak Oil", the worldwide peaking of oil production. In the same 1956 paper where he had estimated the date of the US peak, Hubbert made the first serious study of how long the world's oil reserves would last. It was a difficult task, because the world's oil resources were not so well known at that time, but Hubbert attempted it. So, let's see what were his results:

As you see, the curve for the world has the same shape as the one for the US states and the peak was supposed to occur around the year 2000. In later times, other authors revised Hubbert's study using similar methods. For instance, Campbell and Laherrere in 1998 saw the peak for around 2005. Later on, ASPO (Association for the study of Peak Oil) revised these predictions finding the peak somewhere between 2005 and 2010 (see, for instance, these 2007 predictions).

How do these results compare with the actual historical data? Let's see some data by Euan Mearns, which include not just crude oil, but also condensate and natural gas liquids.

We don't see a peak for the year 2000, nor we see it for 2005. If the peak had been in 2000 or 2005, we should be already seeing a significant production decline. What we see, instead, is a plateau that has been lasting for the past five years or so, interrupting the growth trend that had been the rule from 1983. So, no peak so far, but clearly "something" has been happening with oil production starting with the first decade of the 21st century, considering also the remarkable increase in oil prices of that period. But what's happening, exactly? Where is the peak? Should we expect it soon, or is it delayed for a long time?

I think that at this point we need to pause for a moment. What is exactly a model and what can it be used for? Models come in a variety of forms: formal, informal, complex, simple, aggregated, multiparameter and more. But, no matter what model you are using, one thing that can be said is that if you think it can predict the future, I am afraid that you are going to be sorely disappointed. Complex mathematical models may not be any better than the crystal ball that is part of the toolbox of any self respecting magician. Models are no magic. Models are just tools. And, just as with any tool, you need to know how to use them, otherwise you risk to hurt yourself.

The future is not an easy thing to study. It always fans out in multiple paths as you move onward. So, you use the models not in order to make predictions, but to understand what path you have taken. Without models, you are walking on, blindly, and you have no idea of where you are going. With models, it is like having a flashlight. You may not be able to see far away in the darkness, but at least you have some idea of what you are stepping on. Good models will give you a longer range, less good ones will be more limited. But if you know what your model can do (and what it can't do) then a model can always be useful.

We can apply these considerations to peak oil models. The simplest version, as we said, is Hubbert's one. We could call it a "first order" model as it assumed that the main factors affecting oil extraction are related to geology and that the industry would continue to act as usual, even when facing the peak. But that didn't happen. The market reacted with increasing oil prices and the production system adapted by pouring investments into the exploitation of expensive oil resources that the Hubbert model didn't consider as extractable. In a sense, the future was changed by a "second order" factor: prices. And so we took a different path; we didn't have a peak; not yet, at least. 

But the Hubbert model had not been "wrong;" it had done well within its limits. It had given us a useful warning that we should have expected troubles with oil production during the first decade of the 20th century. We chose to ignore that warning and we were taken by surprise by the price spike that is causing us a lot of troubles. The future always surprises you, especially if you don't have good models.

What should we expect now? Well, we don't need a formal model to understand that the oil industry can keep extracting oil as long as there are customers able to pay for it. The problem is that, with progressive of depletion, extraction costs can only increase as we tackle more and more difficult, dirty, and remote resources. That will be continue to generate high prices. So, we'll have peak oil when we won't be able to pay these prices any longer.

If you like a formal model that takes into account these factors, you may give a look to my "Seneca Model". It generates a production curve like this one:

Seneca, as you may remember, was a Roman philosopher who had noted that "ruin is much faster than progress". The Seneca model is a "second order" model in the sense that it takes into account factors that the simpler Hubbert model doesn't consider.  You see that, in this model, the peak is smoothed out; it appears as a plateau that lasts for a while, similar to what we have been seeing with oil production up to now. Then, we have a precipitous fall, something that I called the "Seneca Cliff".

Is this the future? Possibly; but always remember that if a model is a flashlight, it doesn't show to you more than a dim impression of a number of different paths that the future may take. Don't take the Seneca model as a prediction. We cannot predict the future, we can only be prepared for it.


On the Hubbert model, you may be interested to read these posts of mine

"No Peak Oil Yet? The limits of the Hubbert Model"

"Mind sized Hubbert"

"A simple interpretation of Hubbert's model of resource exploitation",

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Seneca's cliff goes iPad

My post on the "Seneca cliff" has inspired Hannes Rollin to create an App for the iPad that can be used for running the model for different input parameters. I must confess that I don't own an iPad, so I can't test the model, but it seems to me a very interesting idea. So, here is the story, with many thanks for Hannes for his interest in my work.

Guest post by Hannes Rollin

Many of you who are reading this post may be familiar with one or the other of Ugo Bardi's mind-sized models, where he employs system dynamics to illustrate fundamental economic and natural processes in a general way. The model which impressed me the most was the one Ugo called Seneca's Cliff – a very simple model capable of generating an economic decline much faster than previous growth had been, a fact already remarked by Seneca. Hence the name.

I give you a quick summary of the model. You have three stocks (imagine them as containers), namely Resources, Economy and Pollution. Now, a given fraction of Resources is extracted and used to run the Economy. Subsequently, a fraction of the Economy spawns Pollution. The flow is furthermore dependent upon degradation or restoration (negative degradation) of each stock. If you ever asked yourself where the nice curves come from, here is the answer: The content of the stocks is plotted against time.

Ugo tweaked the parameters to give a Resource depletion and Economic activity curve very similar to one of the more famous outputs of the WORLD3 model of the Limits to Growth team. I have set this result as the default settings of the iPad app.

The interesting thing is that the model can evolve scenarios quite distinct from the standard run above. If you model a renewable Resource stock with negative resource loss rate, you get a (potentially infinite) sequence of boom-and-bust cycles similar to H.T. Odum's simulation of locust pests.

Although this run looks catastrophic as well with long periods of almost zero economic activity, it already maintains two highly optimistic assumptions: First, resources are strictly renewable no matter how much strained, and second, that pollution (gray), which spikes sharply according to the initial economic peak, is handled completely by natural self-repair.

It is even possible to create something like a steady-state economy, a slightly meandering stream of low but positive activity. When you play with the app, however, you will see that combinations of parameters leading to such favorable circumstances are hard to find, and the solution is highly unstable – wiggle any slider in any direction, and you are quickly back to extinction or boom-and-bust.

Note that in this run high growth is followed by rapid decline and finally zero
growth (brown). The steadiness of the Economy has its price: economic activity is pretty low compared to the once-in-a-lifetime peak at the beginning, and the Resource stock never again reaches its initial wealth due to continual harvesting. The are many more scenarios this simply excellent model can provide, for instance two or three consecutive peaks of activity, increasing or decreasing, followed by die-off (stable solution) or steadiness (unstable solution).

As an apology, I am certainly aware of the irony of porting a model for the simulation of economic decline to the flagship of techno-narcissistic consumerism, klickibunti self-distraction, and perpetual remote controlling of human resources. But, you know, the spirit speaks in many tongues. There is certainly something to gain by playing with the model rather than merely studying formulas or staring at static graphs. Just like the Pythagoreans presumably played with pebbles to gain a feeling for the relation between triangles and squares, you may develop a feeling for the precariousness of stability and, perhaps, understand how inevitable and fierce a destiny is able to fulfill itself.

This said, I would only wish to add that the app is, of course, free, and anyone who wants to learn the background or extend the model is invited to mail me (Hannes Rollin) at initials at sabik dot de. The Seneca cliff App has recently been approved to App.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Martian Chronicles

Ray Bradbury, author of "Farenheit 451" and many other science fiction pieces, died on June 5, 2012, aged 92. Above, an image by Edward Miller of a Martian sandship as described in "The Martian Chronicles", one of the first novels by Bradbury.

A few days ago, I had a curious mental flash: the image of one of those "sandships" described in "The Martian Chronicles" and the idea that I should have re-read that old story. The day after, I read of the death of the author, Ray Bradbury, on June 5, 2012.

Maybe a small extra-sensorial perception on my part or, more likely, just a coincidence. In any case, it led me to look for that old book that I know I had, somewhere. It took me some work to find it but, eventually, I did. From the piles of books accumulated in the many bookshelves I have at home, there emerged the Italian translation, titled "Cronache Marziane" published in 1954.

I can't say when I read that book for the first time - surely not in 1954 because I was only two years old. I must have read it when I was, maybe, 12 or perhaps I was even younger. Perhaps it was the very first science fiction novel that I read. On re-reading it, I found that I remembered some flashes of the stories it contained. Some are truly unforgettable: sandships chasing each other over the Martian desert, or the robotic house continuing to prepare lunches and dinners even though its residents have been vaporized by an atomic explosion. Bradbury was a great writer, a master in the way he described the landscape, the worlds, the characters. Just read the first story of the Martian Chronicles, the one that describes a Martian family: the details are breathtaking. Pure genius.

"The Martian Chronicles" was published as a complete novel in 1950, but many of the stories it contains are older than that and go back to the 1930s and 1940s. Re-reading it more than half a century after it was written is a curious experience. For one thing, it is so terribly outdated. It is strange to think that just a few decades ago we knew so little about the planets of the solar system that we could really think we could breathe the atmosphere of Mars, that there were really "canals" there, bringing water to cultivated land. Just as we could think that Venus was a planet of hot swamps, complete with dinosaurs and assorted monsters.

And yet, from another viewpoint, "The Martian Chronicles" is also incredibly up to date. The future is, in the end, something that we build every day. The path we follow changes all the time: Mars turned out not to be a place where we can live, and the same is true for Venus, but our drive to find new places has not changed. So, Mars or not, we continue to search, to move, to create new ideas, new places, new views of the world. What makes Bradbury's story so true is its cyclical character. It is a story that has already taken place; in a way it is just a revisitation of the the old Frontier myth with the Martians playing the role of the Indians. It is so modern in how it describes how carelessly humans destroy what they don't understand and how inevitable all that is.

And it is also a story that is taking place right now, although not on Mars. We always keep seeking for something that we don't seem to be able to find and in doing so we destroy everything that we can't understand. So, all stories repeat themselves over and over, all stories are cycles. We keep marching toward the future without remembering that it is a path already taken. It is inevitable.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The other side of the peak

Long term tendencies of waste management

This is a written version of the talk that I gave at the "ASPO-2012" meeting in Vienna, on May 31 2012. It describes my experience with waste management as a way of closing the industrial cycle and attaining long term sustainability. Here, I introduce the concept of "urban gleaning", a high efficiency way of dealing with waste.

All right, ladies and gentlemen, let me start by noting how it has been said in previous talks that sometimes people involved with peak oil tend to focus on problems, neglecting answers. That may be true, but we also must have the problems clear in our mind if we want to find correct solutions. So, let's see a brief introduction on what the problem is; and I mean "the" problem; the gigantic problem that is putting our whole civilization at risk. Here is an illustration of it.

What you are seeing here, the big hole in the ground, is what is left of the abandoned diamond mine of Mir, in Russia. Of course, the hole, in itself, is no big problem (unless you happen to be walking around there by night, drunk). The problem is that the mine is gone - it doesn't produce diamonds any more and most likely it never will. It is an illustration of a very general phenomenon. We have been drilling holes all over the planet to take out minerals. Not all these activities left such spectacular holes, but the problem is always the same. You dig, you take what you want, then there is nothing left.

Now, let me go to the "other side" of the problem. What happens with the stuff we extract from the ground? Well, it goes through the industrial system. It is processed, turned into products, these products are "consumed", that is they are destroyed and thrown away. The end result is, normally, this:

This is, as you see, a classic landfill - the place where we throw away everything we think we don't need any longer. Now, why don't we throw all this stuff into the big hole we saw before and even things out? Sure, we could do that. The problem? If we do that, we may flatten the ground again but we don't get back the mine!

Let me explain, and I'll do that by showing you this image of a giant mining machine (from "somethinginteresting").

See? This huge machine is used to extract coal somewhere in Germany. It is specifically built for this purpose, but I can take it as the illustration of a general concept that I called the "universal mining machine" a few years ago. That is, this machine shows how we extract all kinds of minerals. We collect rock, we transport it somewhere. There, it is crushed and processed. We take the elements we need and we throw away the rest. It is very general, as I said. You could do with any rock, anywhere, because any rock contains tiny amounts - very, very tiny - of all the elements of the earth's crust.  This is the concept of "universal mining machine": if we could turn ordinary rock into useful minerals, then we wouldn't have to worry about running out of anything, ever. Unfortunately, doing all that work takes a lot of energy and resources: large mining machines don't come cheap and universal mining machines would be so expensive that we can't even dream of affording one. Right now, we have enough energy to mine from rocks that contain, typically, about 1% of the mineral we need - we call these rocks "ores". For very valuable minerals, such as gold, we can mine much less concentrated ores, but that's not the general case. If we want to mine from less concentrated ores, then we need much more energy. Clearly, the perspectives of having all that energy available in the future are rather dim, to say the least - unless we are saved by some kind of miracle; energy from Santa Claus or something like that.

The situation doesn't change if you think of mining from waste. Yes, you may have read the term "landfill mining". It is an old idea that periodically reappears. It would be nice if we could do that, but once we go to examine the idea in detail, we see that it is extremely difficult, if not outright impossible. Landfills are places where everything is thrown in, more or less at random. There are valuable metals in the mass, sure, but everything is mixed together and separation is extremely expensive. And even dangerous, because you never know what you can find in a landfill: poisonous chemicals, lethal bacteria, and more. Things don't change so much if you think of the ashes produced by an incinerator. Yes, they contain valuable metals, but everything is mixed together and separation is even more difficult than in the case of landfill waste.

So, we have a very, very big problem; especially if you don't believe in Santa Claus. It is a tough problem because we cannot solve it by brute force. We cannot bomb the problem away, we cannot buy the problem away, we cannot vote the problem away. We can only accept that not all problems have cheap solutions. This one, surely doesn't. We need to be efficient, find the best possible ways and accept the fact that we can't do everything we want just because we think we deserve it.

Once we start thinking in these terms, a possible solution can be expressed using a concept developed by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, shown here.

It is an elegant and compact way to express the concept that the industrial system must be conceived as an ecosystem. You know that the ecosystem doesn't run out of minerals, even though it uses minerals as nutrients for metabolic processes. That's possible because the ecosystem is a nearly completely closed cycle, that is what is "waste" for some organisms is "food" for others. Nothing ever can be 100% recycled, but the ecosystem comes close to that. The tiny fraction that is lost is slowly returned into the cycle by tectonic processes powered by the Earth's hot nucleus. The continents have been colonized by plants some 350 million years ago and plants have been "mining" minerals from the ground for all that time without ever running out of anything.

This is the way life works on this planet and if we want to survive we must learn from that. That is, we must learn that waste is food. Once you have that in mind, then you start understanding how wrong is almost everything we do with our waste. For instance, why do you want to incinerate your food? Why do you want to throw your food at the bottom of a pit and cover it with thousands of tons of dirt? You see, there are lots of things we must learn.

Now, there are many people working on the concept that waste is food although, unfortunately, still influencing only a very tiny fraction of the industrial system. Let me show you an example from a project of a few years ago. So, here is some waste:

You may recognize this car: it is a Fiat "500" that used to be very popular in Italy and that is still popular although, of course, they don't make it any more. The conventional wisdom on how to deal with this kind of waste, old cars, is that you take the car, you crush it into a small cube and then you throw it into the mouth of a blast furnace. In this way, you get the steel back, with which you can make a new car. Is it an illustration of the concept that waste is food? In part, yes, but not really. There are lots of problems with this approach. The main one is called "downcycling."

Downcycling means that the material you obtain from recycling is not of the same quality as the one you started from. In this case, an old car, the problem is that the wreck doesn't just contain iron and carbon, which are the elements you start with when you make steel. It contains other elements: zinc, silicon, chromium, copper, aluminum and more. That means that the steel you obtain has a "memory" of where it came from. Its composition may not be what you want and, indeed, normally you can't use recycled steel to make new cars. Then, there are lots more problems with recycling old cars and the whole process is just very expensive in terms of energy. Not that recycling old cars, in itself, is something bad. It is just limited - like the many schemes of mandatory separated waste collection in place in many towns. These rules are supposed to ease recycling and they do. But the downcycling problem remains; it doesn't matter if it is steel, plastic, glass or whatever. The quality of the recycled product worsen at each cycle and that puts a limit to what you can do.

So, let me go back to the case of the Fiat 500 and let me try to show you what could be a better way of dealing with a very old car.

That's the result of a project we carried out a few years ago. You see? We started from an old car, waste, but instead of recycling it, we reused it. That is, we cleaned it, repainted it, and retrofitted it with an electric motor powered by lithium batteries. The result was a light and efficient electric micro-car. Much less expensive than an equivalent one manufactured in China or in South Korea. And with the added advantage that many of the parts we used were made here, in Europe, and the manpower to do the job was local, too. By the way, the lady you see in the image is not retrofitted. Unfortunately, this process of rejuvenation is something you can do with cars but not with humans!

Our work with the Fiat 500 was picked up by other people and now in Italy you can buy electric retrofitted cars. Unfortunately, we also discovered that reusing old things is very subversive. We were told that what we had done was not the way a good citizen should behave. What the hell, aren't we all consumers? And if we are consumers, it means that we have to buy things new, use them, and then throw them away. That's the way society works; hey, are you against economic growth? And if you aren't an anti-growth fanatic, then what are you doing? Don't you know that, in order to grow, we need to manufacture new things, and if we want new things then we must throw away the old things. Otherwise, how is growth supposed to occur? Really, we received an incredible amount of flak and some recent laws made by the Italian government seem to have been conceived explicitly to discourage the retrofitting of old cars. Maybe I am a conspiracy theorist, but I could tell you a few stories about all this; but let me move on.

So, about being subversive, well, if I have to be subversive I can do much better than rejuvenating old cars. Look at this:

Yes, that is me, Ugo Bardi, together with two Romani ladies (gypsies if you prefer) in front of a pile of steel and iron things collected in order to be recycled. That picture was taken a few years ago, just near my office at the University of Firenze. It was part of a project financed by the Tuscan regional government to help the Roma to find jobs and become financially independent. So, we had the idea of focussing on waste collection.

You know that the Roma have this fame of collecting things, occasionally, even without the permission of the owner. That's commonly said but I am sure that the Roma much prefer to avoid the hassle and the risk of this kind of recycling if they have a chance to do their work legally. If they are given that chance, indeed, the Roma turn out to be efficient waste collectors: what they can reuse they reuse or sell, what they can't, they sell as scrap. Indeed, the local government encouraged the Roma to set up recycling cooperatives - they even provided legal assistance for them. But governments, as you know, are completely schizophrenic. So, some different sections of the government decided that recycling steel was a criminal activity and they sent police squads with machine guns to stop the cooperatives. It is true: it was like a movie; at least as I was told (it involved different groups of Roma than the one I was working with). In addition, each cooperative was fined for a few million euros because the law, apparently, requires that each bit of steel to be recycled must be accompanied by a signed and stamped piece of paper that describes exactly where it came from. Incidentally, the Roma weren't worried that much about all those million euros they were supposed to pay. It is the good side of owning nothing.

So, you see how subversive it can be to suggest that people can make a living by themselves and survive without receiving subsidies from the state. Yet, the idea seems to appeal to some people and it is showing signs of diffusing in the world under the name of "participatory collective waste management". Here is an illustration.

On the left, you see a Brazilian "catador" (waste collector), on the left you have professor Jutta Gutberlet of the University of Victoria, Canada. It is a fascinating story and Prof. Gutberlet has been working on it for years. The catadores of Latin America make a living out of collecting and recycling urban waste (and reusing what they can). It is not a way to become rich, of course, but it seems to be a way to gain dignity and a place in society. Even president Lula seems to have recognized this point - he has to be a big subversive. You see him here with some Brazilian catadores in 2009.

I can tell you that once you start getting into this kind of things, your view of the world changes, and it changes a lot. But what exactly is that these catadores are doing? Does it make any sense? Well, I think yes; I think it makes a lot of sense if we go back to the definition of waste we had seen before. Waste is food, we said, and for these people it is absolutely true: they make a living out of waste. And what they are doing is not even new, it is part of an old and established human tradition that has been with us for millennia. Let me show it to you:

This is a painting made in 1857 by the French painter Francois Millet. It shows gleaners at work. Now, "gleaning" is a word that today has become almost unknown. In my experience, when I ask people those who know what gleaning is are a minority, maybe 10% or so. And yet, the very fact that a specific word exist for this activity means that it used to be very common and that it had a specific purpose in the economy of long ago.

Let me explain. When we say "waste is food" we mean that the industrial cycle must be closed in such a way to make the human economy similar to an ecology: a system that recycles what it uses and never runs out of anything. Now, if you see how an ecology works, you'll note that each organism produces waste. No organism is 100% efficient and it could not be. But what is waste for an organism is food for another one. So, an ecology is created by the collaboration of many species that manage the flux of mineral nutrients in such a way that almost nothing is wasted and almost everything is recycled.

Let's go back to gleaning. Think of harvesting grain in ancient times. It means that a group of peasants armed with scythes would go in the fields mowing and gathering stalks of grain, and wrapping them into bundles. Note that the job of the mowers is not of collecting every spike that falls on the ground. If they were to retrace their steps to do that, they would lose time and be less efficient. It is something well known in economics: it is the law of diminishing returns.

So, the agricultural system evolved in such a way to optimize the yield of the fields by developing a sub-system called "gleaning". Ancient peasants had to deal with a relatively low yield resource: spikes on the ground. Collecting those spikes at a positive yield required a very efficient process. That was done by mobilizing human resources that couldn't be used for the heavy work of harvesting; women, youngsters and old people. It was done without any equipment, without any formality, without orders, hierarchies or social structures. People just walked in the fields, collecting what they found - that's gleaning; it was done not just with grains but with all kinds of agricultural products. It looks simple, but it was extremely important in the ancient agricultural society: it is because because it was so efficient. Gleaning has a fundamental place in the Bible and it is still legal to do it in some places. Not everywhere, though. At the time of Stalin, in the Soviet Union, you were shot in place if they discovered you gleaning. So, you see, even gleaning seems to be somewhat subversive. But it is likely that many of our ancestors have survived because they could glean their food. And so we are here today!

There would be a lot to say about gleaning, but I took is as the paradigm of the way to deal with low yield resources; what we call "waste". We can't deal with waste in the same way as we have been doing with mineral resources. The yield of waste is too low to go at it with giant mining machines. We need specific processes adapted to low yield resources. Processes which are reasonably free from bureaucracy, hierarchies, complex legislation, top-down structures. Processes that should be the result of self organization toward maximum efficiency and that we could call "urban gleaning" or "industrial gleaning". In my opinion, these methods cannot be mandated by law or forced from above. They have to be gradually developed by people, just as in the ecosystem species have gradually evolved in their ecological roles.

There would be much more to be said on this subject, but I think I'll stop here and I hope that I gave to you some waste - er... food - for thought. I would like to conclude with a picture of some Roma children of the group I have been working with.

You see, these children are considered a problem and, under several respect, they are. But they are also a great opportunity. Not because I want to see them as cheap labor for waste collection - absolutely not. It is because looking at these children, cheerful, bright, friendly as they are, you see yourself as a human being and you see the enormous human plight we are facing today. We can't solve anything if we forget that we are all humans and we have to solve problems together. That's the only way we have and I hope it is the road that we'll choose.

Some links

The Universal Mining Machine - by Ugo Bardi.  

The "Cradle to Cradle (C2C) concept

The electric 500 project

Participatory collective waste management. 

Jutta Gutberlet's page.



1. The electric 500 project: Pietro Cambi, Massimo De Carlo, Corrado Petri, Riccardo Falci and others

2. Participatory sustainable waste management: Jutta Gutberlet, Elisabetta Cortelli, Marina Bacciotti and all the families of the Roma camp of Madonna del Piano, in Sesto Fiorentino – Italy

3. Other waste management projects: Antonio Cavaliere, Luca Marcantonio and the whole IRIS group


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)