Wednesday, April 30, 2014

"EXTRACTED" published

My new book, "Extracted" is now on sale. It is an updated version in English of the German version which was published last year. You can get it directly from the editor, Chelsea Green or from the usual sources.

This book was a lot of work, but I must say that I am very happy about the final result and I would like to thank my co-authors, who provided the specialized expertise for the "glimpses" about specific mineral commodities, the staff of Chelsea Green for their highly professional help in editing, and the staff of the Club of Rome for having made the task possible.

The first reactions to the book seem to be highly favorable, which is, I think, a bit worrisome. Fortunately, there has been at least one negative review on by someone who says he feels "insulted" by the book, but nevertheless he gives it three stars out of five!

Here is an example of the reviews received, this one appeared on "Publishers Weekly"

Our massive global mining infrastructure is showing signs of strain, writes Bardi (The Limits of Growth Revisited), University of Florence professor of chemistry, in this insightful if pessimistic description of the industry’s history, operation, and future. All mined minerals including carbon (coal, oil, gas) are unrenewable resources whose supply is already dwindling. Sadly, as with global warming, there are skeptics and denialists who insist that (a) it’s not true, and (b) technology will fix matters. These same opponents state, correctly, that we have extracted a minuscule fraction of the oil, iron, or even gold in the earth’s crust. But they ignore that, as ore quality diminishes and extracting becomes harder, the price rises. For example, platinum (essential in catalytic converters), silver, and oil cost four times more than in the year 2000. They also assume that technology will produce a “universal mining machine,” which will consume ordinary rock, extracting whatever is valuable. Although theoretically possible, such a machine would require immense amounts of energy and leave behind unthinkable quantities of waste. Bardi concludes that things must change, and though his is not an encouraging book, readers will appreciate his intelligent, lucid, and disturbing account of our mishandling of mineral resources. (May)

So, the book seems to have had a good start, we'll see how things will progress. The "official" launch of the book will be in Brussels on June 12.

Friday, April 25, 2014

First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win (Gandhi)

 (image from cleantechnica)

Last week…Oklahoma lawmakers quietly voted to reverse a nearly four-decade-old law that had barred utility companies from charging customers who install solar panels on their homes more than those who don’t. The bill… would have effectively cleared the way for utilities in the Sooner State to force homeowners who install solar panels to pay for both the electricity they buy from the grid and for a portion of the electricity they sell back to it.

The vote marked a rare victory for power companies in their quest to stymie the growth of the rooftop solar industry. It also represented a sharp departure from the wave of well-publicized, big-dollar federal and state efforts currently aimed at making solar energy cost competitive with more traditional energy sources like coal and natural gas…

Then, on Tuesday, to the surprise of pretty much everyone involved, Oklahoma’s Republican governor, Mary Fallin, issued an executive order largely undercutting the provision, dealing an unexpected defeat to major utilities and their deep-pocketed backers—a group that includes the Koch brothers and the American Legislative Exchange Council, a powerful national membership group for conservative state lawmakers.

(h/t Greg Laden)

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Gandhi on solar energy

First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.

First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win. (Gandhi)

First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.
First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.
First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.
First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Tao of electric vehicles

"A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step" (Lao Tzu, the Tao Te Ching)

Myself ad my sweet wife, Grazia, on an all-electric, battery powered motorcycle. No pollution and no noise, and recharging it with my solar panels costs almost nothing. The hell with crude oil!

This post was prompted by something very silly that Bjorn Lomborg said about electric vehicles; something like: "A million electric vehicles would only slow global warming of about one hour." But if a million electric vehicles are not the solution, they would still be doing something good for the climate. And don't forget that to reach one million vehicles you need to start with one. You can see that one in the picture above.

A post in Italian about this motorcycle is here. The light blue thing in the foreground of the picture above is my 1965 Fiat "500" vintage car. Not an electric vehicle, but it could still become one!

Monday, April 21, 2014

The West and Russia: a tit for tat game. Part 3

 By Tatiana Yugay 

The the third post of a series on the crisis in Ukraine by Tatiana Yugay, Professor at the Moscow State University of Economics.

“Preventive war is like committing suicide for fear of death”
Otto von Bismarck

While the U.S. and the EU entertain themselves introducing more and more sanctions against Russia, their target doesn't participate in this petty game. If I were the Western leaders, I would be worried, why Putin does not respond to their attacks? From the recent events, they might know that Putin's silence is a frightening sign. Yes, they are rather nervous that the Russian bear would come to Ukraine and bite off its eastern and southern provinces. At the same time, some of them have been actively provoking Russia, possibly in order to step into a military conflict. Though the atmosphere is very tense there, I strongly believe that Russia won't provide military aid to the east-Ukranian federalists. All this anxiety about Russian possible invasion of Ukraine are caused by the incapability of the West to think strategically and foresee Putin's geopolitical moves, even though they are very obvious.

Russia's U-turn to a multipolar world

Being a Eurasian superpower, Russia, as a two-faced Janus, has been looking to the West and to the East throughout its history. During two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian Janus was looking with hope to the West. Janus's turn to the East has been developing gradually as Russia has gradually realized that the West would never regard the country as an equal partner, but will rather continue treating it as a mere source of raw materials. The recent US hysteria about Putin's letter to the EU leadership has made it particularly clear. Putin has warned the EU about possible difficulties of gas transit from Russia due to Ukraine's $2.2 billion debt to Gazprom. 

Furthermore, the West has become less attractive for Russia from an economic point of view, since it has been weakened by the Great Recession. Meanwhile, the emerging markets have been demonstrating dynamic economic growth. Thus, the imprudent Western sanction policy has served as a strong catalyst for Russia's geopolitical shift to the East. In my opinion, we are observing not only a temporary turn, but a long-term U-turn of Russia toward the East. 
On March 18, the spokesperson for the Kremlin, Dmitry Peskov voiced the Russian position, "If an economic partner on the one side of the globe imposes sanctions, we will pay attention to new partners from the globe’s other side. The world is not monopolar, we will concentrate on other economic partners".
In fact, Russia's new partners aren't that new. Russia has been gradually strengthening economic and political ties with two mighty non-Western clubs - the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and BRICS. According to Alexei Likhachev, Russia's Deputy Minister of Economic Development, “the ASEAN countries are attractive for Russia because their markets are "complementary" to the Russian economy unlike the European ones. Though the trade volume with Europe is significant, European exports don't contribute to the creation of high-tech jobs in Russia. Concentrating on Asia is warranted because exports in this region include high tech machinery and military equipment not only hydrocarbons. Also, Asian markets, unlike the markets in Europe, have a tremendous growth potential and significant synergies with Russian economy”. 

AFP Photo / Sergei Karpukhin

During the past 13 years, Russia has been developing close relations within BRICS organization, consisting of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. Currently, BRICS represents 42 percent of the world’s population and about a quarter of the world’s economy, which means that this bloc of states is an important global actor. Today, in total, there are more than 20 formats of cooperation within the BRICS. In February, the member-states came to an agreement about 11 possible projects of scientific and technical cooperation, from aeronautics to bio- and nanotechnology. Last year, Russia's trade turnover with BRICS has reached $105 billion. One of the most potent Russia's partners, which holds a membership in both clubs (ASEAN and BRICS), is China.

During the Direct Line on April 17, Vladimir Putin, responding to a question about the Russian-Chinese relations, admitted that ”they are progressing very successfully in terms of trust and collaboration, which are unprecedented. This includes political cooperation and our shared views on international affairs and global security, which is the basis for these intergovernmental relations... We have never had such trust-based relations in the military industry. We began holding joint drills at sea and on land, in both China and the Russian Federation. This gives us reason to assume that Russian-Chinese relations will be a significant factor in global policy and will substantially influence modern international relations”.

In 2013, the trade volume between Russia and China has reached $89 billion. Leaders of two states called for annual bilateral trade between the two countries to be boosted to $100 billion by 2015. Meantime, China has already overtook Germany as Russia's biggest buyer of crude oil this year, thanks to Rosneft securing deals to boost eastward oil supplies via the East Siberia-Pacific Ocean pipeline and another one through Kazakhstan. Last year, relations between Russia and China have been actively developing in different fields. In particular, in 2013 the states signed 21 trade agreements, including a new 100 million ton oil supply deal with China’s Sinopec. On October 2013, the two governments signed an agreement to build, jointly an oil refinery in Tianjin, east of Beijing. In addition, China is ready to invest $20 billion in domestic projects in Russia, focusing on transport infrastructure, highways, ports, and airports, and it hoped to increase investment in Russia fourfold by 2020.

However, a millennium deal between the two giants is still to be concluded, though, it is already nicknamed as "Holy Grail" by the media. The Russian Gazprom and the Chinese National Petroleum Corporation (CNOOC) are ready to strike a thirty-year gas deal on supplies of 68 billion cubic meters per year by two routes. Fast growing China desperately needs Russian gas. According to expert assessments, China's demand for gas will reach 300-350 billion cubic meters per year by 2020. China's own production can provide about 115 billion cubic meters. Experts predict that by 2030 total gas consumption in China will exceed the European one, which now makes about 600 billion cubic meters. Russia and China have been negotiating on gas deal since 2004. A stumbling block in the negotiations has been a basic price. Recently a high-level Russian delegation visited China. Following the talks, Chairman of OAO "Gazprom" Alexey Miller stated, "During this round of negotiations, we agreed on all technical issues of the project. Progress has been made in the negotiations on the price of gas. The parties agreed that the contract will enter into force before the end of 2014”. It is expected that the long-awaited contract will be signed during Putin's May visit to China (in Russia, we keep fingers crossed!).

Currently, Russian gas is not supplied to China, though in 2013 Russia’s biggest independent natural gas producer, Novatek, signed preliminary memorandums with CNPC to sell at least 3 million tons of LNG per year between Yamal LNG and PetroChina International. Another Russian company, Rosneft, which is 75 percent state-owned, is vastly expanding its LNG projects to diversify its portfolio, and is focusing heavily on eastern markets, like Japan and China.
Besides the energy sector, the two countries look forward for further partnerships in the defense sphere. It is expected that Moscow and Beijing will sign a $3.5 billion contract on the sale of 100 Su-35 fighters to China ahead of Putin's visit to Beijing in May. In 2014, Russia and China have got a full agenda for bilateral cooperation, which includes not only trade but also such spheres as energy, aircraft building, mechanical engineering, military and science cooperation, tourism, etc. 

The second largest Russia's trading partner within BRICS is India. In 2012, the volume of bilateral trade reached $11 billion, which is rather modest in comparison with China. In 2013 this index slightly decreased. It is expected that in the near future India would sign the Economic Cooperation Agreement with the Customs Union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. In case of joining India to the free trade zone, its trade with the members of the Customs Union and, particularly, with Russia will boost. Traditionally, Russia and India have been closely cooperating in the defense sphere. At that, almost every defense contract provides for creation of joint ventures or licensed production. In 2013, India’s import of Russian weapons reached $4.78 billion. Another industry which attracts India is computer-guided weapons, produced by the Russian Morinformsystem-Agat Concern.

In February, the two states confirmed their plans to boost cooperation in nuclear energy, with the former backing the construction of more units at the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project (KNPP) and other parts of the country. Besides, India and Russia are set to sign an agreement aimed at productive cooperation in many spheres: space and military cooperation, trade, construction of a pipeline from Russia to India, and plans to set up a Joint Study Group to look into the scope of the CECA (Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement) with member-countries of the Customs Union (the Russian Federation, Kazakhstan and Belarus).

Brazil is a much smaller trading partner for Russia. The total trade volume between Russia and Brazil made $5.7 billion in 2013, however, the two states seek to increase it up to $10 billion in the near future. Russia imports Brazilian meat, coffee, sugar, juices and alcohol; and exports mainly fertilizers. However, in December 2012 the states signed a treaty on supplies of Russian helicopters to Brazil.

Farewell to the dollar
Boosting trade relations with non-western partners would inevitably raise a problem of currency for mutual settlements. Up to date, Russia has been using US dollar in its oil and gas trade by default. However, in a situation where the western partners have become less reliable and, moreover, are threatening with trade and financial sanction the instinct of economic self-preservation demands to use more secure means of payment. Since Russia sells its own raw materials, it can change the rules. In 2013, Russian exports of crude oil and oil products accounted for $283 billion, natural gas exports made $67 billion and LNG - $5.5 billion. Taking into account the future gas deal with China and other hydrocarbon projects, Russia can count on a big chunk of the pie on the global fuel and energy market which can be nominated in any type of liquid assets. Besides, Russia is close to entering a goods-for-oil swap transaction with Iran that will give Rosneft around 500,000 barrels of Iranian oil per day to sell in the global market.
Instead of feeding the U.S. with petrodollars, Russia can switch to petrorubles, regional currencies and even gold. In addition to the oil and gas trade, Rosoboronexport, state company specialized in weapon exports, can start trading in rubles. Prominent US trader Jim Sinclair believes that Russia can easily cause the collapse of the US economy. The economist, famous for his forecasts, explains that the strength of the dollar is based on the US agreement with Saudi Arabia that all contracts for fuel deliveries be in the US dollars. Now, Moscow can cancel the petrodollar and bring down a colossus with feet of clay.
As Tyler Durden justly admits, "If it was the intent of the West to bring Russia and China together - one a natural resource (if "somewhat" corrupt) superpower and the other a fixed capital/labor output (if "somewhat" capital misallocating and credit bubbleicious) powerhouse - in the process marginalizing the dollar and encouraging Ruble and Renminbi bilateral trade, then things are surely "going according to plan."

Moreover, BRICS countries have been repeatedly expressing their determination to abandon the dollar in their mutual trade. And it is not a threat which the U.S. can easily ignore. In 2012, the mutual trade between BRICS member states was about $280 billion. Besides, BRICS has an ambitious task to raise the trade volume up to $500 billion in 2015. One more bad news for the buck is in the air. It is expected that in the nearest future China will declare the yuan as a gold-backed world reserve currency. These expectations are heated by China's recent activity in accumulating monetary gold and its huge official international reserves, which reached $3,7 trillion at the end of 2013. China’s central bank may have stocked up heavily on gold in the past few years, and might own about 2,710 tons as of the end of 2013, according to an industry expert. According to Jim Rickards, next April China will shock the world announcing that it has accumulated 5,000 tonnes of gold. 
Besides shifting away from the dollar, emerging markets have been making further arrangements for redesigning the global finance. In order to modernize the global economic system, which now is US&EU-centric, member states have created the BRICS Stock Alliance and are working on launching their own development bank to finance large infrastructure projects. One more direct consequence of ill-considered US sanctions is Russia's strong decision to create its own payment processing system. As a result of financial sanctions imposed by the U.S. on Russian financial institutions over Crimea, Visa and MasterCard stopped processing transactions for several Russian banks. Currently, Visa and MasterCard control about 85 percent of all card transactions in Russia. At that, 90 percent of transactions are carried out within Russia's territory. Recently, Russia’s biggest financial institute Sberbank said the PRO 100 payment system, that’s been in development for a couple of years, will be launched on a massive scale within months. Russian banking community presume that Russia can develop its own digital card payment system in cooperation with China, particularly, on the basis of the UnionPay processing system. When the national payment processing system will be created Visa and MasterCard would lose a big piece of Russia's market.

What really the West is to gain at the end of the play? 
Now it's pretty clear, why Russia doesn't participate in ridiculous sanctions game notwithstanding US never-ending threats. Putin and his partners are busy reconfiguring the global political and economic landscape. The biggest loser will be the U.S. since its brand new American dream or long-declared pivot to Asia would be hardly realized. Partly, because the U.S. has too much bogged down in  Ukraine and, mainly, because Russia but not the U.S. has been pivoting to Asia just now. Obama can enjoy himself building houses of cards from tons of dollars which the FRS has been printing diligently. The EU can lose its loyal and reliable partner and get instead struggling fragments of the Ukraine.


It is clear that the Russian economy would suffer a serious damage if the EU were to introduce a full-scale economic sanctions' regime. However, far-reaching consequences of the above-mentioned geopolitical shifts would more than compensate for this temporary damage. Russian leaders and ordinary people are fully aware of future difficulties and are ready to pay the price for regaining Crimea. When I returned from Italy to Moscow at the end of March, I spoke with a taxi driver who met me at the airport. He was very enthusiastic about the Crimea story and told me that he and his family weren't afraid of any future sanctions. “The main thing is that the Crimea is again ours. We, Russians, are accustomed to difficulties. But we don't want war”. In fact, I've never seen such a unanimity of opinions during all post-communist period. It seems that the Russian people have finally restored its self-esteem and identity. For the first time since the collapse of the USSR, we are proud of our country. I believe that further sanctions would only reinforce these feelings. Following the successful Olympic and Paralympic Games and the peaceful reintegration of Crimea with Russia, Putin's rating has skyrocketed. According to the VCIOM All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center, since the beginning of 2014, Vladimir Putin’s rating has risen 15 percent and stands at 75.7 percent – the highest in the last five years. While enjoying the powerful support of his citizens, Putin can proceed with geopolitical redesigning together with the ASEAN and BRICS partners.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Happy Easter, everyone!

For the Easter of 2014, let me repropose my post on the dynamic modelling of the Easter egg hunt which, for some reason, has been the most successful post ever to be published (in 2012) on the former "Cassandra's Legacy" blog, now known as "Resource Crisis." -Happy Easter, everyone!

Here is a little Easter post where I try to model the Easter Egg hunt as if it were the production of a mineral resource. A simple model based on system dynamics turns out to be equivalent to the Hubbert model of oil production. We can have "peak eggs" and the curve may also take the asymmetric shape of the "Seneca Peak." So, even this simple model confirms what the Roman Philosopher told us long ago: that ruin is much faster than fortune. (Image from uptownupdate)

For those of you who may not be familiar with the Easter Bunny tradition, let me say that, in the US, bunnies lay eggs and not just that: for Easter, they lay brightly colored eggs. The tradition is that the Easter Bunny spreads a number of these eggs in the garden and then it is up to the children to find them. It is a game that children usually love and that can last quite some time if the garden is big and the bunny has been a little mean in hiding the eggs in difficult places.

A curious facet of the Easter Egg hunt is that it looks a little like mineral prospecting. With minerals, just as for eggs, you need to search for hidden treasures and, once you have discovered the easy minerals (or eggs), finding the well hidden ones may take a lot of work. So much that some eggs usually remain undiscovered; just as some minerals will never be extracted.

Now, if searching for minerals is similar to searching for Easter Eggs, perhaps we could learn something very general if we try a little exercise in model building. We can use system dynamics to make a model that turns out to be able to describe both the Easter Eggs search and the common "Hubbert" behavior of mineral production. The exercise can also tell us something on how system dynamics can be used to make "mind sized" models (to use an expression coined by Seymour Papert). So, let's try.

System dynamics models are based on "stocks"; that is amounts of the things you are interested in (in this case, eggs). Stocks will not stay fixed (otherwise it would be a very uninteresting model) but will change with time. We say that stocks (eggs) "flow" from one to another. In this case, eggs start all in the stock that we call "hidden eggs" and flow into the stock that we call "found eggs". Then, we also need to consider another stock: the number of children engaged in the search.

To make a model, we need to make some assumptions. We could say that the number of eggs found per unit time is proportional to the number of children, which we might take as constant. Then, we could also say that it becomes more difficult to find eggs as there are less of them left. That's about all we need for a very basic version of the model.

Those are all conditions that we could write in the form of equations, but here we can use a well known method in system dynamics which builds the equations starting from a graphical version of the model. Traditionally, stocks are shown as boxes and flows as double edged arrows. Single edged arrows relate stocks and flows to each other. In this case, I used a program called "Vensim" by Ventana systems (free for personal and academic use). So, here is the simplest possible version of the Easter Egg Hunt model:

As you see, there are three "boxes," all labeled with what they contain. The two-sided arrow shows how the same kind of stock (eggs) flows from one box to the other. The little butterfly-like thing is the "valve" that regulates the flow. Production depends on three parameters: 1) the ability of the children to find eggs, 2) the number of children (here taken as constant) and 3) the number of remaining hidden eggs.

The model produces an output that depends on the values of the parameters. Below, there are the results for the production flow for a run that has 50 starting eggs, 10 children and an ability parameter of 0.006. Note that the number of eggs is assumed to be a continuous function. There are other methods of modeling that assume discrete numbers, but this is the way that system dynamics works.

Here, production goes down to nearly zero, as the children deplete their egg reservoir. In this version of the model, we have robot-children who continue searching forever and, eventually, they'll always find all the eggs. In practice, at some moment real children will stop searching when they become tired. But this model may still be an approximate description of an actual egg hunt when there is a fixed number of children - as it is often the case when the number of children is small.

But can we make a more general model? Suppose that there are many children and that not all of them get tired at the same time. We may assume that they drop out of the hunt simply at random. Then, can we assume that the game becomes so interesting that more children will be drawn in as more eggs are found? That, too can be simulated. A simple way of doing it is to assume that the number of children joining the search is proportional to the number of eggs found (egg production). Here is a model with these assumptions. (note the little clouds: they mean that we don't care about the size of the stocks where the children go or come from)

This model is a little more complex but not so much. Note that there are two new constants "k1" and "k2" used to "tune" the sensitivity of the children stock to the rest of the model. The results for egg production are the following:

Now egg production shows a very nice, bell shaped peak. This shape is a robust feature of the model. You can play with the constants as you like, but what you get, normally, is this kind of symmetric peak. As you probably know, this is the basic characteristic of the Hubbert model of oil production, where the peak is normally called "Hubbert  peak". Actually, this simple egg hunt model is equivalent to the one that I used, together with my coworker Alessandro Lavacchi, to describe real historical cases of the production of non renewable resources. (see this article published in "Energies" and here for a summary)

We can play a little more with the model. How about supposing that the children can learn how to find eggs faster, as the search goes on? That can be simulated by assuming that the "ability" parameter increases with time. We could say that it ramps up of a notch for every egg found. The results? Well, here is an example:

We still have a peak, but now it has become asymmetric. It is not any more the Hubbert peak but something that I have termed the "Seneca peak" from the words of the Roman philosopher Seneca who noted that ruin is usually much faster than fortune. In this example, ruin comes so fast precisely because people try to do their best to avoid it! It is a classic case of "pulling the levers in the wrong direction", as Donella Meadows told us some time ago. It is counter-intuitive but, when exploiting a non renewable resource, becoming more efficient is not a good idea.

There are many ways to skin a rabbit, so to say. So, this model can be modified in many ways, but let's stop here. I think this is a good illustration of how to play with "mind sized" models based on system dynamics and how even very simple models may give us some hint of how the real world works. This said, happy Easter, everyone!

(BTW, the model shown here is rather abstract and not thought to describe an actual Easter Egg hunt. But, who knows? It would be nice to compare the results of the model with some real world data. My children are grown-ups by now, but maybe someone would be able to collect actual data this Easter!)

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

"Recursive Fury:" the reasons of Frontiers' blunder

As you probably know, the scholarly publisher "Frontiers" recently decided to retract an already approved and published paper ("Recursive Fury") on the subject of conspiratorial attitudes in the debate on climate change. This action prompted the resignation of some of Frontiers' editors, including myself, as I described in a previous post. Here, I return to this subject with more details. 

When I was contacted by the staff of "Frontiers" and asked to become "chief editor" with them, I thought it was an excellent idea. I was attracted, first of all, by the fact that the journal was completely "open access," an idea that I have always favored (I was probably one of the first to experiment with open access publishing in chemistry). So, I accepted the offer with considerable enthusiasm and I started to work on a journal (actually a section of a journal) called "Frontiers in Energy Systems and Policy".

Once an editor, I discovered the peculiar structure of the Frontiers system. It is a giant pyramidal scheme where each journal has sub-journals (called "specialties" in Frontiers' jargon). The pyramid extends to the people involved with the scientific editing: it starts with "chief editors" who supervise "chief specialty editors", who supervise "associate editors", who supervise "reviewers". Since each steps involves a growth of a factor 10-20 in the number of people, you can see that each journal of the Frontiers series may involve a few thousand scientists. The whole system may count, probably, tens of thousands of scientists.

Why this baroque structure? The official explanation is that it makes the review process go faster. In this, the pyramidal structure of Frontiers looks somewhat like a military "command and control" system which is, indeed, designed to speed up the communication/action process. Of course, if you enlist as an editor in Frontiers, you are not given orders by the layers above; nevertheless you are continuously pestered by communications and reminders about what you have to do and you are supposed to pass these communications to the layers below you. All these messages do push you to complete your assignments.

But my impression is that the pyramidal structure of Frontiers was not created just for speed; it had a a marketing objective. Surely, involving so many scientists in the process creates an atmosphere of participation which encourages them to submit their papers to the journal and this is where the publisher makes money, of course. This is a strategy typical of pyramidal marketing schemes, such as "multi-level marketing" I cannot prove that the structure of Frontiers was conceived in these terms from the beginning, but, apparently, they are not alien to use aggressive promoting tactics for their business.

As you may imagine, such a complex system brings many problems. First, the plethora of sub-journals makes the whole Frontiers system look like Borges' Chinese "Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge" - in short, a mess. Then, in the case of very large systems the problem of control is practically unsolvable: see Reagan's "Star Wars" as an example. Maybe Frontiers is not so complex as the old strategic defense initiative, but the problems are the same. Their Internet site is supposed to manage the activity of thousands (or perhaps tens of thousands) of scientists but, in my experience, it never really worked. And managing the whole system must require a considerable number of permanent staff. As a result, publishing with "Frontiers" doesn't come cheap.

So, after nearly one year of work with Frontiers, I was growing more and more perplexed. I had this feeling of being just a cog in a giant machine that didn't work very well and which had the only purpose of making money for the top layers of the pyramid. Please, do not misunderstand me. I am not saying that there is anything wrong with the idea of making money in the publishing business: absolutely not. It is also clear to me that if the publisher is a commercial enterprise, then it is their right to decide what to publish and what not to publish. The way Frontiers behaved with "Recursive Fury" shows this attitude in a crystal clear manner. Their management listened only to their lawyers and they took the decision that involved the lowest financial risk for them. It was not just an occasional blunder, it was the consequence of the decisional structure of the publisher.

Once this point was clear, it appeared also clear to me what the problem was: granted that a commercial publisher can publish what they want, who defends science (and in particular climate science) against special interest groups, lobbies, assorted anti-science groups and single madmen? You can't ask to do that to a commercial enterprise which is (correctly) focused on profit. But you can ask why so many scientists should give their time and their work for free to a commercial enterprise which doesn't appear to be really interested in defending science. At this point, my choice was obvious. I resigned as an editor of "Frontiers." Others did the same for similar reasons.

I hope that these notes help clarify my position in this story. As I said in my previous note, my resignation had nothing to do with the virtues (or the defects) of the paper titled "Recursive Fury." I am not qualified to make a judgment in that field and, anyway, this is not the point. The point I wanted to make - and I hope it is understood - is that we have to react against the climate of intimidation which is engulfing science, and in particular climate science. This climate of intimidation takes many forms and the case of "Recursive Fury" shows that it has now reached also scientific publishing. The problem, here, is not with a specific publisher. It is that we are stuck with a century old model of communication: expensive and ineffective and, worse, easily subverted by special interest groups (on this point, see for instance this post by Dana Nuccitelli).

So, what can we do? Initially, open access seemed to be a good idea to improve on the publishing process, but it is becoming increasingly clear that it may be causing more harm than good. In addition of having generated hundreds of low quality "predatory publishers,"  it is being appropriated by traditional publishers and turned into a way to extract even more money from scientific research budgets.

I still believe in open access publishing, but I think we have a lot of work to do if we want it to become the revolution in scientific communication we hoped it would be. That will take time and, for the time being, we are stuck with a system based on commercial publishers who are not necessarily keen to defend science in this difficult moment. But we can at least fight back if we refrain from publishing with journals which fail to defend science and even walk away from them as editors, as I did with Frontiers. That should give them at least a nudge in the right direction.


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)