Thursday, March 28, 2013

The mind of the denier

In the controversy on climate change, sometimes the debate gets real ugly. Nevertheless, even the most heated exchanges give us a way to learn something. Image above, from Tel Aviv University.

In Italy, we say about food: "what doesn't kill you, fattens you(*)." Transferring this little piece of wisdom to on-line discussions, we could say that "what doesn't sway you, makes you wiser." That is, you can learn something useful even from the nastiest attacks on science in the debate on climate change. Here is one example: a comment actually published in a blog (h/t Alexander Ac).

.... [Climate change] is a social construct, not a scientific theory, and it's meant to transform the society and bring advantages to those who push this idiocy.

As a scientific theory, it's complete bunk. There doesn't exist a glimpse of scientific evidence that the climate could realistically evolve in a harmful way at the global scale in the future that is shorter than the millennium time scale where the ice age cycles gradually become important.

It's immoral for people like you to lie to everyone else. It's immoral for people like you to get salaries for these lies and would-be scientific research that is neither scientific nor research. It's immoral for you to threaten the industrial civilization that's been built for 500 years. It's immoral for you to support political pressures that could prevent the poor people and poor nations from using the fossil fuels, the most reasonable and cheapest resource that decides whether their lives are human or miserable paths towards premature death.

It's immoral for you to contaminate the Internet in general and my blog in particular with your dishonest pseudoscientific gibberish and abuse the fact that hardcore scammers and fraudsters are not being executed quickly yet. It's hypocritical for you to use the achievements of the modern technology including the Internet and combustion engines even though you're superficially fighting against all these things. It's unethical for you to spread all these fearful lies in front of children who can't immediately see that you're despicable untrustworthy greedy lying bastards and who lose sleep because of all the scary shit that you're spitting everywhere.

These were just examples of the reasons why people like you are immoral bastards.

Interesting text, isn't it? But never mind the nastiness; it gives us a glimpse on how the mind of the denier works; at least of that kind of deniers who are active participants of the debate.

Note, first of all, how this text can hardly be the work of a paid disinformer, as it is implied by the often used term "fake skeptic". Most likely, as I argued previously, the author is a true believer. Consider that he posted this comment on his personal blog where he discloses his full name and he even shows his face in the front page. Now, how much would you want to be paid to put your reputation at stake in this way? And who would want to pay you so much?

Then, note how climate science is described as something designed to "bring advantages to those who push it". This is the typical conspiratorial mindset of climate deniers, as described in studies by Lewandowsky and others. It doesn't mean that people who reason in this way are stupid or evil; it is a way they have to process information. Most likely, they inherited from their ancestors a higher than average degree of paranoia which, in the remote past, was useful in some conditions. We may all suffer of paranoia (and we do when we think that deniers are paid disinformers), it is a matter of degree.

In the end, this text is a confirmation of what I argued in a previous post of mine. That is, the more you argue with people who suffer of a conspiratorial attitude, the more you fall into what I called "Desdemona's trap." That is, you are just reinforcing their attitude and convincing them that you are part of the great conspiracy. They feel threatened and they react aggressively. In this case, even with not so veiled death threats ([people like you]... are not being executed quickly yet).

So, how do we react? First, about death threats. In order to be effective, a threat must be accompanied by a credible firepower (rhetorical or real), as any respectable Mafia boss can tell you. Otherwise it backfires. In the climate debate, intimidation has been used with remarkable success to attack climate scientists, as in the "Climategate" case. However, it may well be that the denialist position is gradually losing traction and, as a consequence, rants like this one are backfiring on deniers (and that's a good thing!).

The main point, in the end, is that we are dealing with an attitude characteristic of a small minority of people. Our job is not to argue with them, it is to pass the message to the people (the majority) who don't suffer of the same degree of paranoia. Most people are not active deniers. They are simply in a position of "passive denial" regarding climate change - they know that it exists and it is dangerous, just they can't realize how dangerous and imminent it is. With them, the message can be passed. It takes time, but it can be done.

(*) In Italian: "quello che non ammazza, ingrassa"

Friday, March 22, 2013

Desdemona's trap: facing denial in the climate change debate

 The plot of Shakespeare's "Othello" can tell us something on how to face denial in the climate change debate. In the figure, we see Desdemona in an interpretation by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

In Shakespeare's "Othello" we see a fine example of how easily people's minds can be manipulated. In the play, evil Iago convinces Desdemona, Othello's wife, to plead with her husband for her friend, Cassio. She doesn't know that, at the same time, Iago had planted in Othello's mind the suspect that she was having an affair with Cassio. So, the more Desdemona pleads for Cassio, the more Othello becomes convinced that she is betraying him. The result is a self-reinforcing chain of misunderstandings that eventually leads to disaster.

Othello, clearly, suffered of what we would call today a "conspiratorial mindset". It is not uncommon as a trait of human personality. Jared Diamond, in his book "The World Until Yesterday," maintains that "constructive paranoia" is a survival-oriented genetic trait. Indeed, it may be better to be afraid of a non-existing danger than to walk unaware into a trap. But, if paranoia may have been an asset in the dangerous world of hunters and gatherers, in our world exploiting paranoia has become an easy way to to manipulate people's minds;  governments do that all the time. But governments are not the only players in this game and a paranoid mindset may also be the main factor that generates the commonly termed "denialist" attitude in the debate on climate change.

"Denialism" is a form of refusal to accept reality that occurs in many fields of knowledge, but that takes an especially virulent aspect in the climate change debate. People who actively engage in the denial of the validity of climate science and of its results are often defined as "deniers" or "fake skeptics." They rarely have scientific credentials in the climate field, or even in science in general and their statements are only superficially scientific. They seem to be focused on the idea that scientists are not just in error with their conclusions but rather are engaged in a plot to spread lies about climate in order to gain prestige and money.

Studies by Lewandowsky and his coworkers show that deniers often have a strong conspiratorial mindset; that is, they tend to believe more than the average person in conspiracies such as "chemtrails," "abiotic oil", assorted 9/11 legends, fake lunar landings, and the like. So, it seems that deniers process information on climate change according to the structure of their specific "cognitive mechanism" which is dominated by the conspiracy concept. Their own constructive paranoia is playing a trick on them, bringing them to the conclusion that climate change is a huge conspiracy that sees climate scientists and governments teaming up in order to trick humankind into submission and slavery (1).

That doesn't mean that there are no powerful lobbies spreading disinformation in the web and in the media - they do exist. And we also have evidence of individual scientists and professionals paid to spread lies around. However, there is no evidence that individual climate deniers of the kind who spend time "trolling" on the web are paid for what they do. We can't exclude that some of them could be, but it matters little. Think about that: how much would you want to be paid to help destroying the world (including yourself)? No payment would be enough, unless you really believed that climate change is an evil conspiracy to enslave everyone. Then, the PR companies that manage denial campaigns for the fossil fuels lobby simply exploit this attitude, without the need of actually paying them.

Once we understand the mindset of deniers, we see how easy it is for scientists to fall into Desdemona's trap. Normally, scientists have been trying to use scientific arguments to defend their points, without realizing that the more they plead for the reality of climate change, the more deniers see their beliefs reinforced. For their conspiracy oriented minds, every rational argument brought into the discussion becomes further proof of the ongoing conspiracy (think of Desdemona's situation!).

At the same time, people who have a scientific mindset find the behavior of deniers completely impossible to understand in rational terms. As a consequence, they tend to think that they are facing professional disinformers. That means, of course, falling even more into Desdemona's trap. If these accusations are explicitly expressed (and sometimes they are) deniers will see their beliefs even more confirmed. These contrasting positions lead to a self-reinforcing loop in which the participants from each side become more and more entrenched in their opposite beliefs. 

In the end, Shakespeare's tragedy is playing out in front of us. The fossil fuel lobby is playing the role of Iago; deniers play the role of Othello; scientists play the role of Desdemona, all totally immersed in their different roles. So far, Iago has been winning hands down playing on the naivety of both Desdemona and Othello. If the "debate" (so to say) continues in these terms, the final result can only be, appropriately, a tragedy - in this case for the whole humankind.

So, how do we avoid falling into Desdemona's trap? Well, there are a number of mistakes that we should avoid. The first is to think that we can convince deniers with scientific arguments. It should be clear that it doesn't work: the more you try to do that, the more you fall in the trap. But the true cardinal mistake that you can make when you debate a denier is to lose your temper and use sarcasm, insults or - worse - accuse him or her to be a paid troll. That's the perfect way of falling head first into Desdemona's trap. Think of the impression you give to the people following the debate who are not conspiracy oriented (2) - they will think that you are the evil guy! At this point, it is game over - you lost.

What should we do, then? Well, remember that conspiracy oriented climate deniers are a tiny minority in the world, even though they may be very noisy. So, the target of your action is not them, it is the large majority of people who are not conspiracy oriented and who haven't yet processed the information about climate change in their minds. So, the best is to avoid the confrontation with deniers (unless it is absolutely necessary) and concentrate in diffusing the concept of climate change with the public in general. For instance, let me cite from "DarwinSF"

"Our one-day elementary school project, Climate Change is Elementary, bypasses the usual negative discourse by assuming that every educated person agrees that it is a scientific "fact" that the climate is changing and that man is largely to blame. We do not confront the deniers and skeptics, we circumvent them by taking the school family directly to a vision of a clean and green future. We also focus on working with the innovators, the early adopters, and the early majority, who tend to agree with us. We ignore the late majority and the laggards, or deniers, who will only hold our program back."

See? This is the way to go. Think positive, circumvent denial, focus on reality. It is a battle that we can still win if we understand how to fight it.



(1) There is an interesting question about the conspiratorial mentality of denialists: if they are so worried about being victims of the conspiracy set up by climate scientists how come that they are not worried about the opposite conspiracy set up by the fossil fuels lobby? This is a point that some people think proves they are paid trolls. But this is not necessarily true. As I am citing Shakespeare in this post, I could comment saying that, "Though this be madness, yet there is method in't". My impression is that the "method" lies in the mindset of denialists which is rather coherent in its various facets. Denialists see themselves as freedom fighters, independent thinkers immune to the mind-control machine that governments have set up. As such, they tend to project themselves into the figure of the "lone-scientists-fighting-against-the-establishment" and to place a lot of trust in him (rarely her). That explains, for instance, why people who are sure that oil depletion is a hoax to have us pay higher gasoline prices often fall into ecstatic joy when hearing new promises of free and abundant energy from the lone genius of the day. Indeed, many successful scams are based on the narrative of a lone individual fighting against the establishment. And, getting back to Shakespeare; think of this: how is that Othello suspects Desdemona, but not Iago? Well, because Othello projects his own personality into that of his comrade in arms, Iago, while he can't do the same with Desdemona. We humans are like that: we tend to believe what we think we understand (and Shakespeare understood humans probably better than any other human in history)

(2) Think of another facet of the plot of Shakespeare's tragedy: how the protagonist, Othello, plays the total dumbass of the story - so easily duped into destroying himself and everything around him. And, yet, Othello does not appear to us as a bumbling idiot; no; we see him as a tragic figure we sympathize with. You know why? Because he starts in the play with a big handicap, that of being black in an all-white world. The fact that Othello is black is the crucial point of the plot that, otherwise, would be simply ridiculous. Now, think about deniers in the climate debate: they start with a handicap even bigger than Othello's one. They know little or nothing about the science of climate and yet they have picked up a fight with the best experts in the field. Curiously, this handicap generates a strong psychological effect in their favor: it is called the "appeal of the underdog" (aka the "Sylvester vs. Tweety" effect). You see it used in the movie industry all the time - the final winner of the battle is always the one that looked like the loser at the beginning. So, if you are a climate scientist, be careful at avoiding to place yourself into the role of the evil guy of the movies!


See also the blog titled "Desdemona's Despair", defined as "the clearinghouse for all of the very worst news about the future of life on Earth, such as global warming, climate change, deforestation, overfishing, acidification, oil spills, resource depletion, drought, pollution, overpopulation, dead zones, mass extinction, and doom." The reasons for the choice of the name "Desdemona" are not stated anywhere in the blog, but may well be the same that I described in this post.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Strategies and policies for advancing the environmental agenda

This post, contributed by Max Iacono, starts from the proposals and the ideas in the site "Cognitive Works" with regard to communicating the urgency of the problem of climate change. It develops into is a complex post examining various ways to attain change in organizations, from companies to whole states.

Guest post by Max Iacono

Abstract.  This post attempts to describe succinctly the relevant intellectual territory with respect to both macro and micro types of policies and strategies at both the national and the organizational levels.  It also highlights similarities and differences between "policies" and "strategies".  It does this to encourage those who are environmentally engaged  to consider how their own environmental agendas could be advanced through the range of macro and micro policies and strategies identified, and their many variables.  It also brings attention to some of the generic political and political economy obstacles which both policy-making and "strategy-making" actors and stakeholders typically face in the course of the complex and ongoing multi-actor processes of policy (or strategy) formulation, adoption, implementation and evaluation.  An additional related objective is to provide an introduction and cursory review of the website "Cognitive Policy Works",  identify some of the novel ways it works with policy-making actors and stakeholders, and bring attention to its excellent work on the  "framing" of issues and the tacit "mental models"  which may be in use.  

Outline of the post

1. Introduction
2. Cognitive Policy Works
3. Strategic planning
4. Frame Analysis
5. The realm of policy and strategy
6 . Policies
7. Macroeconomic public policies
8. Sector – level public policies
9. Synergy of multiple policy areas and national public policy frameworks
10. Organizations and their strategies and policies at the organizational level
11. Organizational level macro variables and the Mc Kinsey 7-S model
12. Organisations and their strategies at functional areas of management level
13. Implementing change at national and organizational levels
14. Conclusion

1. Introduction

I was asked by a colleague to review and comment the very interesting website “Cognitive Policy Works” and provide my views and opinions, and so I did.  My analysis and comments follow below.  I would like to state from the outset that these are only my own personal views which I don’t consider necessarily either complete nor necessarily a correct analysis or representation of the site and of its contents. (both of which are very rich and with a good deal of complexity embedded in them).  But I also would like to say that I thought the website and the work which its creators are doing seem very worthwhile and useful to me.  And definitely have a role to play in various areas and aspects of environmentalism. But thinking about the site and its contents also prompted me to consider some other aspects of policy and of its various meanings and domains of application,  which I then did in the second half of this post. Various policies and aspects of policy also can play a constructive role in the environmentalism agenda. 

2. Cognitive Policy Works

The site "Cognitive Policy Works" starts off  with a title and name that I thought engaged in a bit of a play on words.  Cognitive Policy "works" can mean that the site presents some "works," that is some think pieces and articles, or tools and educational materials in "cognitive policy",  in whichever ways such a concept may be defined and understood;  but it also can mean that Cognitive Policy "works" in the sense that it functions and can achieve (or help to achieve) certain objectives.  (including, I believe, various objectives of an environmental nature)

Regarding the second meaning, the site then makes a distinction in one of its readings between "cognitive policy" and "material policy".  I think this is important because "policy"  has a cognitive or intellectual dimension but it also has a practical dimension which has to do with its processes of formulation and implementation.

In other words it is a necessary condition to have the right ideas or understandings, (the so-called "cognitive policy" piece) but this is different from:  a) formulating (and adopting) actual policy and b) implementing (and evaluating) actual policy. Both of which, moreover,  are part of a single ongoing cycle rather than necessarily being two distinct activities which occur in sequence.  And often the entire process is simply called "policy making";  that is, as current policies are being implemented, new revised policies (or the same policies) are being formulated.

The cycle almost never “stops” so that its actors can have time to prepare brand new policies calmly and from scratch, since the old ones (whether explicit or tacit) are always in the process of being implemented, and this with all of their attendant flows of effects, outcomes and impacts.  Please also note that a policy cycle can be conceived in various ways but often includes also policy adoption and policy evaluation stages, as well as an initial broad policy agenda-setting phase,  in addition to the more commonly considered policy formulation and policy implementation stages, for specific policies or policy areas.

And as I understand it,  some of the articles and think pieces and their ideas found on the site "cognitive policy works",  would form an input to the policy formulation process.   Which is itself not a simple "one-time" activity but rather a process with various steps and which takes place over time and typically involves many actors and their groupings.  And these include both those actors who traditionally we may consider as being  “policy makers” (e.g. parliamentarians, cabinet ministers, parliamentary think tanks and special governmental policy and planning units,  and etc.) as well as many others who play various types of roles. (e.g. external think tanks, lobbyists, NGOs, political parties, and also many others) .

But "cognitive policy" also could interest itself with the policy formulation and implementation processes themselves (and their steps) (in addition to the content of various policies) and thereby be able to inform and make a contribution regarding how better to achieve improved policy formulation or improved policy implementation.  (for any policy, or at least for various different specific policies with different contents and objectives).

The site then has four parts each of which features various resources: Strategic Planning, Frame Analysis, Resource Center  (which provides tools and methodologies with which to do those activities covered by each of the other three parts) and Training and Workshops -which  identifies courses, workshops and seminars to train people in how to work with the preceding concepts, tools and methodologies.

The term "Policy" can be understood in different ways and also applies to different contexts.  Typically the word is used to refer to the policies of governments (whether central, regional or local) in which instance it is typically called “public policy”.  If a public policy formulation and implementation process is transparent, responsive to real needs, accountable, and follows the law, and is reasonably well regulated, and its actors are honest and not corrupt, and also are held accountable (democratically and/or bureaucratically) ex-post,  one then often says that the country or region displays so called "good governance".   So public policy plays a role in government and in governing, as well as in governance and its quality.

Private sector entities and N.G.O.s  -and civil society institutions more broadly- (e.g. universities) also can and do have "policies".  National level policy making processes (at the level of a nation or of a province or of a region or locality) have some similar but also some different characteristics from organizational level policies and strategies at the level of organizations or groups.

Coming now to the four sections or parts of the website,  I found the section on Frame Analysis much more interesting (and potentially more useful) than the section on Strategic Planning.

3. Strategic planning

Strategic Planning as a concept and as a practice has been around for a very long time (and much has been written on it) and although it can help the actors who participate in organizational strategic planning processes to understand where they and their organization want to go, most often the plans themselves are "dead on arrival".   Meaning that often something else ends up being done rather than the Strategic Plan which was formulated, and in some instances even formally endorsed by management and adopted.  And this is because both external and internal organizational conditions and contexts are always evolving and changing, and ever more so under current conditions of advancing and accelerating globalization, including also the arrival of its many “game changers”.   But that does NOT mean that such exercises are useless.  I would say the contrary.  They are very useful because they help their participating actors figure out much better what they want and where they stand with respect to various internal or external issues facing the organization.  But then once their ideas meet reality, (which as I just indicated is also often rapidly changing)  the plans often will need to be modified or adjusted with the result that the Strategic Plan and the Strategic (or actual) Execution will end up being different.  

I also can perhaps usefully mention that during a period  (a long time ago) when I worked at the Economic Development Institute of the World Bank  (from 1990 to 1993) the Institute had established a Strategic Planning methodology and a corresponding training workshop series for N.G.O.s  of developing countries and at that time the program was considered an innovation and a pilot program to be tested and then perhaps scaled up.  I was not directly involved with that program but I knew the person who ran it , and we sometimes discussed its interim results.  (which I believe overall were mixed and probably did not bring about sustainable organizational change) But I also am quite sure that the program has since then been revised and upgraded and improved (and scaled) many times. Knowledge Management also has become a key area of interest and activity for the World Bank as a cursory look at the World Bank Institute website quickly will reveal to anyone who may be interested.

4. Frame analysis

Returning now to Cognitive Policy Works with a focus on its relevance to environmental agendas,  personally I found the material on "Frame Analysis" far more interesting (and also far more innovative) because -as the introduction to that section states- "frame analysis reveals spin and manipulation".  And since the areas which we, the readers of Cassandra Legacy, are most interested in always involve PLENTY of spin and manipulation, it is useful to obtain ideas and tools and methods for countering it so that the truth about these issues can reach the wider public and so that -as a result- positive and constructive action can be taken.

So anything that can help make various policy actors (either upstream actors involved in policy formulation or downstream actors involved in policy implementation) see much better their own ideology, their own biases, their own mental models,  as well as of course those of others who may not share them or who they may be trying to influence or convince to take various specific actions, can (at least potentially) be very useful.  Since if one has the wrong understanding or "framing" or "mental model" of a problem or an issue (e.g. climate change)  it is almost impossible to decide to implement effective actions or any meaningful change in that area.

But again the issue is most often not only one of making cognitive changes so that various people will frame important issues in a better or more realistic and productive way, (for instance the reality of climate change, or of peak oil, or of limits to growth and the carrying capacity of the planet) but rather being able to counter the political influences and the interests which bring about those wrong framings and mental models in the first place.

In other words "cognitive policy"' training is not likely to help Fox Channel to "frame" climate change differently (or to receive less funding from the Koch Brothers) nor will pointing out correct ideas necessarily change the behavior and practices of the many so-called  "trolls" who often appear on blogs.

I also am assuming that the people who came up with the website are at least in part a commercial venture and therefore market and sell their various (quite useful) services which they list. And it looks to me like they may have started out with policy as it applies to N.G.O.'s (Oxfam and etc.) and then perhaps "graduated" to providing their services also to private sector entities and to governments.  Or at least to participants coming also from those sectors.  Probably, whether from "developed" countries or from "developing" countries;  which incidentally is itself a "framing" and  a "mental model issue".  That is,  what do we understand by "developing"  or "developed"?; and given the understanding which we may have of that term,  we then might proceed to attempt to bring about further “development” through various national and micro policies in quite different ways.  For instance, does “development” mean creating more industry or does development mean creating more human rights or more gender equality, or much improved education of girls, or more environmental or ecological businesses and fewer polluting ones,   or various other such?  And what kinds of public or corporate policies will favor each type of national development,  and what should be the priorities in various countries at various stages of  their “development”?

And also what kinds of policies are more generally involved in development and how are they made and implemented?

5. The realm of policy and strategy

Roughly speaking we can divide the realm of policy and strategy as follows:  There exist national public policies and strategies (for the 196 nation states and their administrative subdivisions that now exist in the world and which sit at the United Nations) and there also exist a broad range of organizational or company or N.G.O. policies and strategies,  for the very large numbers of such organizations which also exist in the world.   Each of these categories can be further subdivided into “core or macro policies” and “sector or micro policies”.  All of these policies are relevant in one manner or another and to some extent or another to key environmental issues.

Influencing the policy process at organizational levels is considerably easier than influencing the public policy process at national levels but both can be done (or at least attempted).  At the national level, political economy of change issues and  politics are factors which I believe typically cannot be handled by "cognitive policy", or at least not by cognitive policy alone (which deals mostly with having the correct ideas) because good ideas are not sufficient to shift or change the positions of various interest groups which shape and determine actual policy.  But such political economy issues also can exist at the broad organizational level and if you consider your own university as a possible example, (the colleague who asked me to review the website is also a university professor)  I am sure you easily can see how internal university politics and the interests of various actor groups ends up shaping university policies or “strategies”,  or at least easily may end up shaping what is actually done or not done operationally,  or what emphasis is given to what types of activities (e.g. research or teaching or consulting) by the administration and by the faculty, and through such actions or inactions,  also  eventually will shape various educational outcomes.  I chose universities and academic institutions as one example of a type of civil society organization but I believe these kinds of issues apply to all organizations and whether found in the private sector or in the civil society “sector”.  (or for that matter, also in the public sector as some of its many public entities and agencies)

6. Policies

I would now try to define and exemplify the term “policy” a bit better.  I ask readers to remember that this is not an academic treatise on what policy is, or what kinds of policies or strategies exist, -but only a summary-, and that many good articles and literature on policy DO exist and can be consulted by anyone who is interested in learning more about the topic.

I would reiterate the few distinctions I have made above also here. Policies as they exist (or as the term is typically being used) at the national level and policies as they exist or are being used at the organizational level.  (e.g. at the level of a corporation or of a civil society organization or a public agency)

A further distinction is the one between so called “macro” policies which affect an entire country or a region,  and “sector or industry level policies”,  that is, of those “micro” policies which affect  particular sectors, districts, neighborhoods or groups.  I will start off with a basic definition of “public policy” which can be found in the Wikipedia and then I will provide a number of examples and illustrations of each type of policy.  But please note that various other definitions of the term “policy” also exist,  and that different definitions apply to the policies (and strategies) of organizations than those which apply to “public policy or policies”.  

“Public policy is the principled guide to action taken by the administrative executive branches of the state with regard to a class of issues in a manner consistent with law and institutional customs. In general, the foundation is the pertinent national and substantial constitutional law and implementing legislation such as the US Federal code in the U.S. Further substrates include both judicial interpretations and regulations which are generally authorized by legislation.

Some scholars define it as a system of "courses of action, regulatory measures, laws, and funding priorities concerning a given topic promulgated by a governmental entity or its representatives." Public policy is commonly embodied "in constitutions, legislative acts, and judicial decisions.

“A policy at the organizational level is instead defined as a principle or rule to guide decisions and achieve rational outcomes. A policy is an intent, and is implemented as a procedure or protocol. Policies are generally adopted by the Board of or senior governance body within an organization whereas procedures or protocols would be developed and adopted by senior executive officers. The term may apply to government, private sector organizations and groups, and individuals. Presidential executive orders, corporate privacy policies, and parliamentary rules of order are all examples of policy. Policy differs from rules or law. While law can compel or prohibit behaviors (e.g. a law requiring the payment of taxes on income), policy merely guides actions toward those that are most likely to achieve a desired outcome”

7. Macroeconomic public policies

The main widely recognized national level so-called “macro-economic” public policies are (roughly) the following:

- Fiscal policy  (also called revenue policy –or its subset of  “tax policy”-,  and expenditure policy –or budget policy- (including also public investment policy),   and their various component policies. And the two main policies of revenues and expenditures should be viewed together.  Revenue policy usually comes under the Ministry of Finance or the Treasury and budget or expenditure policy (including public investment) usually comes under a variety of core and line ministries and agencies

- Monetary policy (including interest rate policy and money supply policies and etc.) usually comes under the Central Bank which often also enjoys a certain degree of independence from the rest of government.

- Trade policy

- Exchange rate policy

Macroeconomic policies are basically those national level policies which deal with monetary, fiscal, exchange rate, and trade conditions which in turn affect economic growth, employment and inflation.  And with respect to which different national or regional (e.g. EU) monetary and fiscal authorities also may have different objectives or mandates.   Governments typically can shape and determine the four policies above,  which then indirectly shape and affect economic growth, employment and inflation (which are effects).   In other words “the levers” which governments have with respect to employment, inflation and growth are “through” the above core macro policies but also through some of the associated sector policies that now follow:

8. Sector – level public policies

Examples of six  “micro” policies which typically also are quite important are:

- Education policy or policies (for primary, secondary and tertiary education, and for training and development)

- Health policies (publicly or privately provided and also regarding the balance between preventive or curative care,  and the access to health care by various social groups)

- Infrastructure investment policies (for various types of infrastructure that are needed and used for various purposes and national or local objectives in both the infrastructure and the social sectors.

- Research and Development policies  (usually directed at trying to improve medium and long term competitiveness and productivity)

- Active labor market policies typically to better orient and improve the quality and quantity of employment (which as indicated above, is largely a derivative effect of macroeconomic policies)

- Transport sector policies for land, sea and air and for multi-modal transport. (these can be particularly important for supply and value chains and for their logistics but also for the movement of persons and the mobility and flexibility of the labour market)

Please note that other very important cross-cutting policies such as Energy Policy,   Population Policy,  and Communication and Information Policy are not normally considered to be “macroeconomic” policies because they are not directly or strictly speaking “economic”.  Therefore they are not typically listed as part of the above previous “macro economic policies” of a country, that is alongside with fiscal, monetary, trade and exchange rate policies.  But because they typically affect the entire nation and not just segments or sectors or particular areas of it, they nonetheless can be considered to be  “macro” policies, instead of being considered only as some additional micro level policies or sector policies.  

Additionally the presence or absence and the nature of various other:  a) industrial (or industry) policies, b) agricultural policies and c) policies regarding various services (including banking and financial services) also are very important. 

9. Synergy of multiple policy areas and national public policy frameworks

There is clearly also an interaction between these types of sector or micro level policies and what happens at the national level depending on how such sector policies interact with the main macroeconomic policies.    A clear example of this is the effect of the EU’s common agricultural policy both on the fiscal position of various member countries –and the foregone potential alternative use of funds and budgets- as well as on national and global trade balances; (the EU’s CAP contributed to the failure of several “Doha Rounds” ) and another example is how banking sector policies (including those for banking regulation and banking supervision,  or lack thereof) –and the policies and practices of some of the major banks regarding such items as mortgages, derivatives, so called leverage, and reserve capital requirements, have affected the fiscal and macroeconomic stability position of various countries.

Institutions such as the World Bank and in a different way also the IMF construct overall “national policy frameworks” which include all the various public policies –both at the macro and the sector level-, which typically exist or that may apply to a country and to its economy and society and which also try to take into account more holistically how various policies or policy areas may interact to produce various desirable overall effects or avoid undesirable ones. “Poverty reduction strategy papers” are examples of such World Bank national policy frameworks intended specifically to reduce poverty. Such public policy national frameworks also could be designed and implemented in ways that favor other important national objectives such as equity, a reasonable widespread level of prosperity, and environmental sustainability.

As stated earlier each of the above policies and policy areas (both macro and micro) can be thought of as having a policy formulation phase and a policy implementation phase.   In reality typically both these phases are ongoing simultaneously.   Old policies are being implemented and evaluated while new ones are being formulated and adopted.   So the distinction between these phases is often not clear or sharp.  And each phase of policy is developed by many different societal actor groups (acting sequentially or in parallel) who try to influence policy formulation (according to the cognitive policy ideas they may have and/or also according to the various political and economic interests they are trying to represent and favor or promote)  and who then also will assist or hinder policy implementation, and for much the same reasons or motives. 

The politics and the various economic interests and the political economy of these processes, represent what could be called “the politics and processes and the political economy of policy making and implementation”.  And also of “strategy making”  if one is considering the organizational level which I now will discuss a bit more below.

10. Organizations and their strategies and policies at the organizational level

So moving from the national level to the organizational level, one finds various differences in the ways policy is formulated and implemented and also in what is considered to be “policy” and what is considered to be “management”.   And we all often have heard –and whether this is correct or not- that “China is run more like a  corporation” than the Western democracies; so these differences are in fact real and significant.

If one wishes to try to create some similar categories (or a parallel taxonomy of policies) to the one listed above for nations but  for the core and sector / micro policies and strategies of large companies or corporations,  one could perhaps think and proceed as follows:

The equivalent of macro economic policies at the national level could be considered to be the following “core” policies or managerial and ownership strategies at the corporate  or company,  or organizational level :

- The company’s (or the organization’s) basic area(s) of business and its business model(s) and what is often called the company’s “mission”

- The company’s financing strategies (equity, debt, venture capital and other forms of capital and working capital raising, and etc.)

- The company’s human resources management policies and strategies

- Company strategies on the sourcing of materials, equipment and supplies, as well as on the marketing and sales of products and services

- Technology and equipment strategies and policies.

In other words the key “analogous” “macro” or core policies of a company and of organizations which are somewhat equivalent to those of a nation would be (if one were to use the word “policy” in the same way that it is being used when talking about public policy at the level of a country or region (and it is NOT used that way, but I will come to that aspect in a minute) would be (as is the case for the macro policies of a nation) those policies and strategies which determine the fundamental elements and the basic cross cutting operational workings and characteristics of any company,  and which do so company-wide. 

That is, what is the basic business model of the company and what is its mission, where does the company get the money it needs to start and to operate the business, how does it recruit and manage and further develop its people,  how does it handle its inputs and outputs and their respective supply and value chains and logistics, and how does it handle its throughput processes and transform materials, energy, money and know how into marketable products and services?

But let me come straight away to the fact that the term “policies” as used in the term “company policies and procedures” typically has a far narrower and restrictive meaning -which is much closer to “rules and regulations”-  than it is to the meaning of public “policies” since it often refers to such aspects as the company policy on matters like security, or working hours and flexi-time for employees, or other personnel rules and regulations and procedures.  But there exist however also some company –wide “policies” which can affect directly a company’s overall profitability such as a company’s quality assurance “policies” and programs. And typically there also exist such policies on company ethics, human resources, customer service and accounting which equally have company wide-effects and impacts just as macro-economic policies have country-wide impacts.   

Typically, what are called “core or macro policies” at the national level are not called policies at the company or organizational level but rather are called “strategies” or areas of something called either Strategic Management;  or they are the activities that come under the remit of General or “Top” Management and the layer of functional management operating directly below it. And Strategic Management as explained earlier also can be thought of as being made up of two phases i.e. a Strategic Planning phase and a Strategic Implementation phase, which can be thought of as having roughly the same relationship as that described earlier for the national level as Policy Formulation and Policy Implementation.

There is a great deal of literature on both policy-making in nations and strategic management in companies,  and here I am only providing my own personal  summary based on those understandings and notions which I have found useful,  while also trying to draw some parallels and highlighting some differences that I hope will be interesting and thought-provoking.  

11. Organizational level macro variables and the Mc Kinsey 7-S model

Another way of conceiving the main “macro” factors operating in an organization is by using the Mc Kinsey so called Seven S model which views an organization as the interaction and synergy of seven broad (or “macro”?) factors (all of which start with the letter S) and namely its:  Strategy, Structure, Systems, Staff, Skills, (managerial) Styles, and Shared Values (and/or organizational culture).  And please note that in a different way, these same variables also can apply at the level of a nation.  That is, a nation too has a tacit or explicit economic and national development strategy, a certain administrative or governmental structure, certain fiscal and taxation and other systems, appropriately skilled human resources and processes for how to create and develop them, various political and bureaucratic  “styles”, and a national political, social and economic culture. 

And to both of these conceptualizations I also would add an “eighth S” namely the Situation or the context of either the organization or the nation which then will have various external dimensions such as the political, economic, institutional, cultural, competitive, technological and other broad dimensions which affect or interact with either the internal context of the organization (thereby affecting its internal 7S)  or –with respect to the effects of the various dimensions of globalization- will affect and interact with the internal context (and above other 7S) of a nation. 

All of these are of course only “mental models” of organizations and of nations and the actual realities are clearly more complex and also more “organic” and integrated and hence also less amenable to simple reductionist dissections and their categories.  And like any other “mental model”, may have been “framed” correctly, or incorrectly or some situation-contingent combination of these.

12. Organisations and their strategies at functional areas of management level

Finally, to complete the above picture at least conceptually,  the equivalent of  national  “sector level and micro policies” - but at the organizational level-,  could be considered to be the so-called  “functional areas of management” and the respective company strategies for each area.  (e.g. for the marketing and sales strategy) And once again with respect to the formulation and implementation of environmental agendas both macro policies or strategies, and micro policies or strategies -and their several variables listed above- will end up playing a role.

I am listing here only what I consider to be the top ten typical company functional areas of management (each of which also will have a tacit or explicit development and implementation strategy) but there could be others or the ones I listed could be packaged differently in keeping with the preferred organizational structure and functions decided upon by an organization’s management.  And these functions and their strategies can then be “green” or “ecological” or “environmental” in various ways, or not: i) planning ii) research and development iii) technology support (engineering); iv) purchasing and supply logistics v) production (of products or of services); vi) finance and accounting; vii) human resources management and development viii) marketing ix) distribution and sales ; x) administration.   And cross-cutting each of these basic managerial or organizational functions are also the three levels of so-called “organizational behavior” namely those of individuals, groups or teams, and of the organization as a whole. (each  of which then will have their own properties, characteristics and dynamics and various effects on the various functional areas)

13. Implementing change at national or organizational levels

When we think of trying to bring about change at either the national level (or at the global level) or at the organizational or corporate levels  –for instance- in order to implement more climate friendly public policies through better national or local energy policies-  (and down to their narrower specifics such as a carbon tax)  and/ or through improved company strategies which would introduce more renewable forms of energy,  and phase out fossil fuel energy , or implement cleaner production, we are going to come up against at least some of the above “generic policy and strategy”  variables and their respective political-economy-of change realities. Complicating this already highly complex picture further,  is the issue of “framing” also addressed quite well by the site “Cognitive Policy Works”.


The above was a brief summary intended to help readers arrive at their own conceptualizations of the territory in order to better be able to navigate it and influence it towards achieving various environmental goals. 

The  Cognitive Policy Works site is very well constructed and presented and readers who are interested in these topics can consult it here.

For those interested in climate change in particular, (probably the top environmental issue in the world at the moment and therefore likely to be near the top of any environmental agenda, but certainly not the only issue)  they can go directly here:

In addition to the climate change category immediately above other categories also are listed on the website and are available for review -and are certainly worthwhile having a look at-.   And these other categories are -according to the site- those on communication, design science, economy, environment, funding, marketing, news, the political mind, poverty, progressive infrastructure, social movements, and training and workshops.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The World is a Fountain

The world is complex, variegated, convoluted, multi-faceted, interconnected, complicated, circuitous, and more. And, yet, there is a logic in the way it works.

Look at the Trevi Fountain, in Rome, it is complex and variegated, but in the end there is a logic: water always goes down. It is physics: it is the gravitational potential that makes water move.

The same is true for the whole world. Lot's of things are going on, but there is a logic: energy goes down, it degrades, it is a chemical potential driven by the second law of thermodynamics.

So, no matter how complicated the Trevi Fountain is, water always goes down. No matter how complicated is the world, chemical potentials always "go down."

This is the idea at the basis of the paper that I published in "Sustainability", titled "Mind-Sized World Models." as part of a special issue dedicated to the 40th anniversary of "The Limits to Growth"

The term "mind-sized" comes from the ideas of Seymour Papert, who said that models should be simple enough to be understandable, if one has to act on them. On the basis of this idea, I tried to put together simple, "mind-sized", models which can still tell us something of the way the world works. World Models, in short.

So, I build these models as if they were multi-level fountains, one basin, two basins, three basins, and more.

Each basin represents a stock of energy, which is dissipated in steps, going from top to bottom (in energy terms). It is a concept that I already described in a post of mine titled "Entropy, Peak Oil, and Stoic Phylosophy" but that now I examined more in depth.

Now, imagine a multi-level fountain; imagine that it is dry at start. Then put some water in the top basin. It will go down, step by step, until it reach the bottom basin, and then disappear falling on the ground. It is, in the end, what we have been doing with fossil fuels; burning them until they disappear as they become atmospheric pollution.

Here is the model for the "three-level" fountain. It is the one that gives rise to the "Seneca Effect" (When things go wrong, they go wrong fast)

This is the model that originates the "Seneca Cliff" that we may also call "collapse" and that we may experience at some moment in the future.

My paper in "Sustainability" is "open access". Here is the link


Note: there is a tendency, recently, to say that all "free access" journals are hoaxes and that all you have to do to see your paper published in one of them is to pay some money. It may be for some journals, but surely not for all of them. About  "Sustainability", I can testify that submissions go through a very serious review and that it is not easy at all to publish in it. Try and see by yourself. 

Here are some thoughts of mine on "open access" science.


Sunday, March 10, 2013

The dark side of coal

As part of a mini-series on the political and social effects of "peak coal" in Europe, here is a post that I published in 2010 in "The Oil Drum." Other posts published on "Cassandra's Legacy" on this subject are "Peak Coal in Britain" and "Why Italy?".

The dark side of coal - some historical insights on energy and the economy

Detail of Telemaco Signorini's masterpiece "The Riverbank" ("L'alzaia"), painted in 1864. It shows the hard work of five men pulling a heavy barge against the current along the Arno river, near Florence, in Italy. Most likely the barge was loaded with coal. In this post, I start from this image to tell the story of coal in Italy and how the fortunes of the country went in parallel with those of coal well until mid 20th century. (Click on the image for the full painting.)

I have a special emotional relationship with Telemaco Signorini's painting "The Riverbank." The area shown in the panting has changed very little from the time when the painting was made - mid 19th century - and, today, I could take you to exactly that place, in Florence, Italy. It is not far from where I was born and raised; it is the area where my family used to live for generations. Everytime I see that painting (and I have seen the original twice, in two different expositions) I can't avoid the sensation that those men, so hard working, could be ancestors of mine. "The Riverbank" is correctly considered a masterpiece; just look at it and you'll see that it is truly exceptional. Not only the composition of the figures is original; think of the contemporary French impressionists. None of them, great masters as they were, ever painted anything like that. They never seemed to be worried about the social problems of their time as, instead, Signorini was.

So, he shows us the tremendous effort of these five men pulling something unseen, but that can only be a heavy barge. Almost certainly that barge was loaded with coal. It was coal from England that had been unloaded in the port city of Livorno and that was slowly making its way up to Florence.

When "The Riverbank" was painted, in 1864, the age of coal was in full swing. Already in medieval times people had started using coal as fuel but the 19th century saw an enormous expansion of production. It was in 1866 that William Stanley Jevons said in his "The Coal Question" that, "Coal in truth stands not beside but entirely above all other commodities. It is the material energy of the country — the universal aid — the factor in everything we do. With coal almost any feat is possible or easy; without it we are thrown back into the laborious poverty of early times."

But coal had a problem: it was not easy to transport. Coal is heavy; it is unthinkable to cart it for long distances on roads. For this reason, the first railroads were developed in early 19th century expressly to transport coal. But rails were expensive, prone to failure, and the first steam engines were so inefficient that they would use up most of the coal transported unless the distance covered was really short. These early railroads could be used only to move coal from mines to river ports, where coal was loaded on sailing ships called "colliers." Only using waterways it was possible to transport coal over long distances. Gradually, railroads and steam engines became more efficient, but wherever sea and canal transportation was available, it remained always the cheapest way of transporting coal.

In the early times of the coal age, the cost of transportation set a limit to coal diffusion. Only those mines which were near waterways could produce coal and only those areas which were accessible by waterways could use coal. That condition held in most of Northern Europe and it was there that the use of coal grew most rapidly, fueling what we call the industrial revolution. More coal extracted meant more industries, and more industries meant more coal extracted. More coal meant also more steel, and more steel meant larger and more efficient armies. Coal was the origin and the fuel of the British Empire, but Britain's production was so large that there was coal available for export. With British coal, and later German coal, the industrial revolution spred all over Europe, even to countries which had no coal mines. With imported coal, waterways were the necessary and sufficient condition for having industries. But most of Southern Europe and North Africa were cut off from the coal revolution: too dry or too mountainous for waterways.

The southernmost limit of waterways in Europe in 19th century was Tuscany, where the River Arno connected the main city, Florence, to the port city of Livorno. Already in the 18th century, the Arno River had been artificially transformed into a waterway. With this vital line, Tuscany could import coal in large amounts from England and start her own industrial revolution. It was a small revolution compared to that of the Northern European countries, but manpower in Tuscany was cheap, and it attracted capital from the rest of Europe. Just as today manufacturing is exported in the poorest areas of the world, by mid 19th century, Tuscany had become a manufacturing center--with industries mostly created and managed by Northern European businessmen.

The Grand-Duke of Tuscany of that time, Leopoldo the 2nd, was praised by everyone as a good man. He was also a politician and, as such, he tended to promise gifts to his constituency. One of these gifts was the public lighting of Florence. Already in 18th century, a public lighting system based on oil lamps had been installed, but it was dim, limited to a few places, and the lamps ran out of fuel by midnight. In 1845, things changed with the first gas lamps. Those lamps were fueled by a "gasometre", a giant tank where coal reacted with steam to form "town gas" that then was piped all the way to each street lamp (that old gasometre still stands, nearly forgotten, in a public garden in Florence). It was bright light that lasted all night; a revolution. So, thanks to coal, Florence was beautifully lighted at night. But coal had also a dark side: those people whom Telemaco Signorini shows to us laboriously pulling a heavy coal-loaded barge upstream. With time, barges were gradually superseded by the railroad. It is likely that, by the first decades of the 20th century, very few people were still pulling heavy loads upstream. But the nature of the problem had changed: coal was not infinite.

In the 19th century, coal for Italy came mainly from Britain and the commerce of coal was a strong link that connected the two countries. The Italian state had been created in 1861, uniting the statelets which had been ruling the Italian peninsula. It had been, in part, the result of the work of British diplomacy. There were evident advantages for Britain in having a strong Italy as counterweight to the French ambitions of expansion in North Africa. But the creation of Italy had not been just a cold political calculation. There was a genuine liking of the British for Italy and for Italian traditions. In some ways, Italy was a daughter country to Britain. Over the years, the British flocked to Italy; they loved the climate, the people and the relative freedom of the place. Some Italians also moved to foggy Britain, although not as tourists. The invention of fish and chips is claimed sometimes by Italians from the Tuscan town of Barga, who had emigrated to the British islands.

But the relationship of Italy and England went sour with peak coal in England, in the early 1920s. After the first world war, Italy desperately needed coal to rebuild her industries. But Britain could no longer provide coal as liberally as before. Italy started importing coal from Germany, but that was not sufficient: coal consumption in Italy stayed flat between the two world wars. Italy's economy was also dragged down by war debt, and it never really recovered after the trauma of the first world war. All that had political consequences. The sympathy for England and for everything English evaporated in Italy and the Italian press started vituperating Britain and complaining about "the coal issue". D.H. Lawrence, in his "Sea and Sardinia" (1921) tells us that the coal problem was one of the main subjects of conversation among Italians. In 1922, Mussolini and the Fascist party took power, in large part also exploiting the resentment of the population for the bad economic situation.

It is said that Mussolini made the trains run on time. Perhaps it is true, but he could do nothing to create coal that wasn't there. The crisis of 1929 was a bad hit on the Italian economy and - perhaps as a reaction - the government tried to vent the nation's frustration by invading Ethiopia in 1935. There were several official justifications for the invasion - the most common one was that Italy needed "a place in the sun" - a curious justification from a country which has plenty of sun anyway. But, clearly, the invasion was meant to be a slap in the face for Britain. It was a way to tell to the British that the Italians could have their empire, too, that they could do that alone, and that they didn't need no damned British coal for that.

It was a mistake; a colossal mistake. Mussolini hadn't understood that it was coal that made empires, not the reverse. No coal, no empire; it was as simple as that. Conquering Ethiopia, Italy had dissipated immense human and material resources and had gained a bad reputation as the rogue country of the time. All that for a piece of a dry land and the dubious honor for the King of Italy of taking the title of "Emperor of Ethiopia." That land was also strategically impossible to defend, as it would be seen just a few years later.

Britain reacted to the invasion of Ethiopia by stopping the exports of coal to Italy. That, and other international economic sanctions, pushed the already crippled Italian economy on the brink of collapse. The government reacted furiously, pushing a series of measures called "autarchy," the use of national resources only. It was mainly propaganda and some ideas that never worked, such as trying to make shoes out of cardboard and clothes out of fiberglass. The attempt to develop new coal mines could not work as a substitute for imports. The Sulcis mine in Sardinia was the main national source of coal, but it could never produce much more than 10% of of Italy's consumption between the two wars. The lack of coal and the strain of the Ethiopian war weighted on Italy's economy with almost 25% of the state budget dedicated to supporting the costs of the military occupation of the overseas colonies.

Given the situation, events played out as if following a prophecy written down long before. Italy had to rely more and more on German coal and that had political consequences. You can read the story in these paragraphs written in 1940 by Ridolfo Mazzucconi, a popular Italian journalist and writer of the time. Mazzucconi, among other things, had popularized in Italy the concept of "perfidious Albion," that had originated in France at the time of the French revolution. ( from the ASPOItalia blog.)

England ordered, with a repentine action, the suspension of the shipping of German coal directed to Italy from Rotterdam. As a compensation, England offered to replace Germany in coal shipping. But this service was subordinate to conditions such that accepting them would be to be tied to the British political interests and grievously damage our war preparations. The Fascist government responded with suitable roughness; and German coal, which couldn't come any more by sea, found its most comfortable and short road via the Brennero pass. Ths matter of coal was a healty and clarifying crisis of the political horizon. On March 9 and 10 (1940) Ribbentrop was in Rome and the visit gave rise to a clear and precise statement. The axis was intact. The alliance of Germany and Italy was continuing. A few days later, on the 18th, Mussolini and Hitler met for the first time at the Brennero pass and then even the blind were forced to see and the dim witted to understand.
You can read the same story as it was seen from the other side of the Atlantic in this article in Time magazine titled, "Hot Coal". It shows, among other things, how the Allies had completely misunderstood the Italian situation of the time. It is a tradition of fuel producers to use embargoes to try to gain political power over fuel importers but, usually, it doesn't work. In this case, Britain had tried to bully Italy into submission using the coal weapon. It was another colossal mistake that forced Italy to rely fully on German coal. It also fueled even more the resentment of Italians against Britain and that gave to Mussolini sufficient political leverage to push Italy into the war as an ally of Germany.

What followed was, perhaps, unavoidable, but it didn't have to be. It would have been enough to glance at the coal statistics for "the blind to see and the dim witted to understand" as Mazzucconi tells us. At that time, the size of a nation's economy could only be proportional to the amount of coal consumed and, by this measure, Italy couldn't even remotely match Britain. In 1940, despite having passed the peak, Britain still produced more than 200 million tons of coal per year and used most of it for its national economy and for that of the British Empire. Italy, instead, consumed just a little more than ten million tons of coal per year. The British economy was twenty times larger than the Italian one. The "blind and the dim witted" ones were all in the Italian government who grossly overestimated the military potential of the country. They were still thinking that a war was fought by peasants armed with bayonets. They had completely missed the dark side of coal.

It is said that history repeats itself; the first time it is a tragedy, the second is a farce. After the tragedy of the first world war, the second had some elements of farce. Mussolini often looked like a clown during the war and Italy took some truly farcical decisions, such as that of sending a small force of bombers and fighters to join Germany during the Battle of Britain. The absurdity of the idea wasn't so much in seeing outdated Italian biplane fighters desperately trying to battle Spitfires and Hurricanes, but in the very concept that Italy was trying to bomb a country that had been her traditional ally: Britain. There is a tradition for fuel importing countries to bomb exporting ones, but even Mazzucconi himself, with all his rethoric about the "Perfidious Albion" seems to be perplexed about this idea when he tells us of the bella fratellanza "good fellowship" between Italy and Britain. In the end, it didn't matter how clownish Mussolini looked and how stupid his military decisions were--there was nothing farcical in an unprepared army sent to its destruction and in a whole country destroyed and humiliated. It was the dark side of coal, again.

Time has passed; coal is not "king" any more. The countries destroyed during the second world war have rebuilt their economies using crude oil and natural gas. The dark side of coal, today, seems to play out more in terms of environmental damage: coal is the fuel that generates the most greenhouse gases for the same energy generated. Coal mining has also become a hugely destructive activity with "mountaintop removal" becoming a commonplace method to get at the coal seams. But coal is not any more a global commodity that leads to wars, as it was until mid 20th century. That role has been taken over by crude oil. The descendants of those men who pulled coal-loaded barges upstream in 19th century now drive shiny cars powered by oil and work in front of computer screens. But the problem of oil is the same as it was for coal: it is not infinite and there is not enough of it for everyone. It is now crude oil that makes and destroys empires. History repeats itself again and it will do that until we have fossil fuels to burn.

There are a lot of references that I used to compose this text. I'll give you here some extra data.
  I published another paper on the subject of coal in Europe on the "ASPO neesletter" n. 73 of january 2007. You can find it here: A figure taken from this paper shows the British coal production, here:
A quantitative figure showing how coal imports to Italy varied over time can be seen here, taken from a paper by Walter H. Voskuil "Coal and Political Power in Europe" published in Economic Geography, Vol. 18, No. 3 (Jul., 1942), pp. 247-258

A post in Italian that I wrote on this subject can be found at . It is a discussion of the role of coal in Italy between the two wars. If you can't read Italian, you may find it interesting for the illustrations.

You can find data about coal production in the Sardinian Sulcis mines at this reference (In Italian). The fact that Italy spent 25% of its budget in maintaining her overseas colonies can be found at this reference


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)