Monday, September 28, 2015

Stewards of the earth: a role for humankind

This post was inspired by a meeting held last week in Florence on the subject of the Pope's climate encyclical, and, in particular, by the presentation given there by Father Bernardo. prior of the San Miniato church. I had been thinking about the relation of religion and the environment for some time and, as a comment, I reproduce below a text that I wrote on the interpretation of an ancient Sumerian myth that, in my opinion, describes an ancient ecological catastrophe, not unlike the one we are facing nowadays. Many elements of the ancient Sumerian religion have survived through the millennia and are still with us; in particular the concept that humans have both power and responsibility: they are there to serve the creation, not to use it for their purposes. (h/t Antonella Giachetti)

When I started my career in scientific research, I could hardly have imagined that the Catholic Pope would, one day, teach to scientists (and not just to them) how to do their job. And yet, it seems that we have arrived exactly to this point.

The attempts performed so far to settle the debate on the various disasters befalling on us (and that we ourselves created) have led to nothing. For how many decades have we been trying to get an agreement to avoid the climate change disaster? Now we are putting our residual hopes on the Paris conference of this year, but do you really think that a group of politicians and bureaucrats dressed in dark suits will be able to save the planet?

What we are seeing, instead, is the utter failure of a way of thinking that we call sometimes "positivism" that has its origins in the 19th century with thinkers such as Condorcet, Saint Simon, Comte, and others. At that time, it seemed to be a good idea to use the reason and science to settle all questions. Maybe a good idea, but, in practice, it doesn't work. We know everything about what's happening and why. It is all scientific method and logic. And, yet, the message doesn't pass; we keep destroying everything, including ourselves.

Pure reason doesn't tell us that we should do something to keep alive the other species sharing the earth with us. Pure reason has led us to such absurdity as believing that individual egoism is the best way to manage the earth's commons (this idea is a kind of religion, but an evil one). Pure reason turns the ecosystem into a giant supermarket where you don't even have to pay for what you get (as long as there remains something to get).

We need to take a different view. A view that doesn't see humans as the owners (or perhaps parasites) of the planet, but as stewards of the earth. A view that tells us that humans have a responsibility toward the planet. Without such a view, we'll keep behaving like bacteria in a Petri dish; unworthy of creatures said to have been created "in the image and the likeness of God". I think you don't have to be Christian to take this attitude, and, likely, not even religious or a believer in a transcendent God. But I think you have to have at least a feeling that there exists something, out there, that goes beyond the mere satisfaction of personal desires. It is not even a question of survival, more a question of dignity for humankind.

This is an old idea, the idea that humans are not here to be the masters, but as stewards of the planet on which they live. It goes back to the ancient Sumerians, and, below, I report a paper that I wrote about an ancient Sumerian myth that may describe a plight similar to the one we are facing now.


 From "Chimeras", Aug 23, 2015

Inanna and Ebih: a report of an ancient ecological catastrophe?

Ugo Bardi
Dipartimento di Scienze della Terra – Università di Firenze
Polo Scientifico di Sesto Fiorentino,
Sesto Fiorentino (Fi) via della Lastruccia 3, 50019, Italy


“Inanna and Ebih” is the modern title of a text written by the Sumerian poet Enheduanna around the second half of the third millennium BCE. It describes the conflict between the Goddess Inanna and the mountain called Ebih, which ends with the destruction of the latter. I suggest that the poem may be interpreted as the result of the way the ancient perceived what we call today an “ecological catastrophe,” that is the result of overgrazing and deforestation of a fragile mountain environment.

1. Introduction

The “Inanna and Ebih” poem was composed around 2300 BCE by the Sumerian poetess Enheduanna and it was rediscovered in the 20th Century (1)⁠. The story told in the poem can be summarized in a few lines. We read first that the Goddess Inanna is preparing to do battle against the mountain "Ebih," because the mountain “showed her no respect”. Before attacking, Inanna goes to see the God An, whom she calls “father,” apparently to ask for his help. An, however, is perplexed and Inanna decides to fight alone; eventually managing to triumph over the mountain. This story must have been well known in Sumerian times; so much that several copies of it have arrived to us, written in cuneiform on clay tablets. So, its meaning must have been clear enough for the people of ancient times and they must have found the story interesting enough that they kept copying it many times, apparently also as a standard exercise for young scribes (2)⁠. 

However, for us, "Inanna and Ebih" is hard to classify as a poem, even baffling. The characters, their conflict, and the very fact of a God battling a mountain appear totally alien to our modern feelings. As a story, it is far away from all the modern canons of what we define as “literature” or “poetry.”

The present paper adds some considerations to the understanding of the story of Inanna and Ebih. It is based on the concept that the ancient faced the same physical problems as we do, for instance soil erosion, deforestation, and the like. However, their way to see and describe these problems was much different. So, it may be that the story we are considering describes an ancient ecological catastrophe, the destruction of a forest ecosystem, told in a form that is not easy for us to recognize but that appears clear, once understood. The story also may be an echo of a conflict still existing in modern times: the need to preserve natural environments against the attempt of overexploiting them.

The author does not claim to be able to read Sumerian and the present discussion is based on the versions of the story available in modern languages; that is on the one by Betty De Shong Meador (3)⁠, the one available in the electronic corpus of Sumerian Literature (4)⁠, the version in French by Attinger (5)⁠, and the Italian one by Pettinato (6)⁠. These translations were found to differ in some details, but the overall content was the same.

2. Inanna and Ebih: interpreting the myth

There are several ways to interpret ancient myths. Perhaps the best known one is the “comparative” method, pioneered, among others, by Claude Levi-Strauss (7)⁠. It consists in finding common elements among different myths; as they can be found in different cultures and different ages. These common elements evidence the basic structure of the myth and help understand its general meaning, framing it in its specific context.

In the case of "Inanna and Ebih", we could first look for stories involving Gods engaged in fighting mountains, but such a plot appears to be very rare. A similar plot is the Sumerian text referred to as “Lugal-e,” from the first term it begins with (8)⁠. It goes back to times close to those of Enheduanna, but it is probably later. In Lugal-e, we are told of the divine hero, Ninurta, fighting a demon called “Asag” that turns out to be a “pile of stones”, perhaps to be identified as a mountain with that name. Karahashi has discussed this myth explicitly in comparison with that of Inanna and Ebih, finding several points in common, especially in the terminology used. (8)⁠

Another myth showing some structural similarities is the Greek myth of the Chimera. In this case, the hero is Bellerophon, semi-divine as the son of the God Poseidon and, as a monster, the Chimera has some Chthonic elements, especially in its fiery breath that may lead to identify it with a mountain. Both Pliny the Elder in his “Natural History” and Maurus Servius Honoratus in his commentary to Virgil's Aeneid state that the Chimera has to be intended as a representation of a volcano. We also find a similar interpretation in Plutarch's “Moralia” (3.16.9) where we are told of how Bellerophon cut away a section of a mountain called “Chimera” which was producing a nasty reflection on the plain; which, in turn, dried up the crops. In an earlier work (9)⁠, the author of the present paper proposed that the source of the myth of the Chimera is to be found in ancient East Asian mythology. It is not impossible that one source could be the story of Inanna and Ebih.

Apart from these stories, mountainous monsters are rare in the world's lore. Some mountains were certainly important in religious terms, such as Mount Olympus for the ancient Greek and Mount Fuji in Japan, up to relatively recent times. Neither, however, were deified in the role given to Ebih in the story we are discussing here. We can find occasional stone monsters in modern fiction; for instance in The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien (1937), we can read the description of stone monsters hurling gigantic boulders against each other. Other fantasy chthonic monsters appear in environments such as role playing games. On the whole, however, we can say that a plot describable as “God fights mountain” is very rare both in ancient and in modern lore. Hence, it is nearly impossible to use it as a basis for the comparative method of interpretation of the myth of Inanna and Ebih.

At this point, we could attempt to classify the myth of Inanna and Ebih as an example of the generic theme of a shining hero fighting an ugly monster. There are plenty of ancient and modern myths based on this idea; however, such an interpretation misses some of the elements that make the slaying of Ebih so puzzling. Why is the monster a mountain? Why does it enrage Inanna so much? What are the reasons of Inanna's quarrel with the other Gods? Clearly, there is something more in this story that makes it unlike the traditional hero/monster conflict.

A different line of interpretations of the myth is reported by Delnero (2)⁠. It is based on the idea that the story is, actually, a representation of the conflict existing at the time of the author, Enheduanna, between the Akkadic and the Sumerian elements of the Mesopotamian civilization. It is known that such a conflict existed and other poems by Enheduanna may refer to it. For instance, in “nin-me-sarra” (Lady of bright virtues) Enheduanna appears to describe an insurrection that leads to her being chased away from her temple. The interpretation reported by Meador (p. 181) is that the insurgents were led by a man named Lugalanne, or Lugalanna, possibly of Sumerian ethnical origin, against the Akkadian ruler of the time, Naram-Sin, Enheduanna's nephew (3)⁠. 

There is clearly something in these interpretations and the violence that pervades Enheduanna's texts may well be a reflection of the violence that characterized her times. However, there remains the problem that “Inanna and Ebih” is so abstract in the characterization of its protagonists that, if it really describes a local conflict of Enheduanna's times, it is not clear which side should be identified with which element of the myth. Maybe this interpretation was clear to the ancient Sumerians, but that may be reasonably doubted.

Meador (3) provides a deeper interpretation of the story, seeing the poem as an early version of the Biblical myth of the Garden of Eden; with Inanna as the Sumerian equivalent of Eve/Lilith. Whereas, in the Bible, Eve is punished for her action, in the Sumerian myth Inanna takes the initiative and refuses to submit to the father-God; destroying Eden in the process. Meador also sees the story as a reflection of an ancient conflict between a female dominated pantheon, with Inanna in the role of the Mother Goddess, and an emerging male dominated pantheon, with An as a fatherly figure, ruling the other gods. This conflict is evident in several other Sumerian and Akkadian mythological stories where, for instance, Inanna is pitted against her brother Gilgamesh. This is a very interesting interpretation as it implies that “Inanna and Ebih” is related to even more ancient myths, perhaps going back to pre-literate times. This seems to be hinted in the text, when Inanna is said (in Meador's translation) to “wear the robes of the old, old Gods” (3)⁠. Attinger (5)⁠ and Pettinato (6)⁠ explicitly name these "old Gods" as “Enul and Enŝar” who may be, indeed, Gods of a more ancient age (10)⁠ (p. 53). 

However, even this way of seeing the myth does not explain the meaning of some elements; for instance, if this is the story of a conflict between a mother Goddess and a father God, what is exactly the role of the mountain Ebih?

A different way to look at this myth is the “Euhemeristic” or “rationalistic” way, consisting in explaining the myth in terms of natural phenomenaThis way of interpreting ancient myths was more popular in the past than it is today, but it never went out of fashion. However, modern scholars tend to be much more cautious in explaining (some could say, “explaining away”) the elements of complex stories into banal physical phenomena. When Servius said that the Chimera was a volcano, he may have meant that the ancient were so naïve to mistake a volcano for a lion, but that, of course, is unlikely, to say the least. Rather, the ancient were facing the same physical phenomena as we do and, for them, describing a thunderstorm in terms of actions performed by a God named Zeus was a way to make it consistent with their cultural and mental tools. We do the same in modern times when we ascribe certain events to abstract and perhaps supernatural entities whose existence can be reasonably doubted (e.g. “the free market”).

Regarding Sumerian/Akkadian myths, naturalistic explanations have been proposed by Jacobsen (11)⁠, but not specifically for the story of Inanna and Ebih. However, if we examine the story in light of a possible rationalistic interpretation, we immediately see how the destruction of the mountain hints to an ecological catastrophe caused by deforestation and overgrazing.

In the myth, the Ebih mountain is described as a luxuriant place: fruits hang in its flourishing gardens. It has magnificent trees, lions, wild bulls and deer are abundant, just as wild bulls and grass. Then, we see Inanna attacking the mountain with fire and with a rain of rocks. In another of Enheduanna's poems, translated by Meador as “Lady of Largest Heart” (3)⁠ we read some lines that may refer to Inanna's fight against Ebih:

She crushes the mountain to garbage,
scattering the trash from dawn to dark,
with mighty stones she pelts,
and the mountain,
like a clay pot
with her might
she melts the mountain
into a vat of sheepfat.

It takes little imagination to see that the poem could well be referring here to the degradation of the soil on the slopes of a mountain, turned into mud slipping downhill. Mountain terrains are especially sensitive to soil erosion and the problem is especially severe in hot climates subjected to episodes of heavy rain interspersed with dry period, as it is the case of the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern climate.

Mesopotamia is a flat land, but its inhabitants briskly traded wood and other forest commodities. Today, most of the mountain ranges of Northern Africa and Middle East are degraded and eroded in various degrees. But that was not the case in ancient times and it will suffice to note how the mountains of Lebanon were a source of timber for ancient Sumerians (as recorded in the myth of Gilgamesh and Enkidu), whereas in modern times these regions are nearly completely deforested and eroded (12)⁠. From the available data (13)⁠, it appears clear that the mountains of the Zagros region, which are probably where the “Inanna and Ebih” refers to, were still largely forested in Sumerian times, but it is also clear that they were already being deforested; a slow process that has led to the present condition of serious environmental degradation (14)⁠.

The ancient knew about the problem of soil degradation. McNeill and Viniwarter (15) summarized several elements of the question, reporting that already in 2000 BCE, that is at a time not far from that of Enheduanna, farmers in the Middle East had already developed ways to fight soil erosion. They also report how Roman writers, such as Varro, had a keen interest in soil quality and on the need of avoiding erosion. It is also well known how Plato, in his "Critias" (4th century BCE) describes the erosion and the degradation of the mountains of Greece. An interesting pre-industrial document on this issue was written by Matteo Biffi Tolomei around the end of the 18th Century (16)⁠. It tells of the attempt to maintain the forest cover of the Appennini mountains in Tuscany, Italy, and of how the attempt failed after much debate among those who defined themselves the “modern” party (favoring the cutting of the trees) and the “old” party (favoring, instead, to keep the forest cover). This conflict of a few centuries ago is not framed in religious terms, but, in it, we may perhaps see a reflection of the much older conflict of Sumerian time that may be reflected in the story of Inanna and Ebih.

3. Conclusion: religion as a way to interpret the world

Religion in Sumerian times was certainly something very different than the way we intend it nowadays. However, certain elements of the concept of religion are common to all its forms (see e.g. Thorkild Jacobsen (11)⁠ for an exhaustive account of the characteristics and of the historical development of the Sumerian religious view of the world). A religious view of the world may see beyond the simple, short term advantage of an action (cutting trees), to note the long terms disadvantages (soil erosion). Today, we may see this kind of approach in the recent papal encyclical on climate change (17)⁠ and the Islamic declaration on global climate change (18)⁠. That may have been the point also of the history of Inanna “punishing” the mountain named Ebih, something that may be interpreted as destroying the humans who weren't been careful enough to maintain and sustain its ecosystem.


1. Kramer SN. Sumerian Aythology: A Study of the Spiritual and Literary Achieve-ment in the 3rd Millennium B.C. Memoirs of. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society; 1944.
2. Delnero P. Inana and Ebih and the Scribal Tradition. A Common Cultural Heritage:Studies on Mesopotamia and the Biblical World in Honor of Barry L Eichler [Internet]. CDL Press; 2011 [cited 2015 Aug 8]. Available from:
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9. Bardi U. Il Libro della Chimera. Firenze, Italy: Polistampa; 2008.
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15. McNeill JR, Winiwarter V. Breaking the sod: humankind, history, and soil. Science [Internet]. 2004 Jun 11 [cited 2015 Aug 18];304(5677):1627–9. Available from:
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Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Volkswagen scandal: say goodbye to the internal combustion engine!

By now, I guess that everyone in the world has heard of how Volkswagen cheated consumers by falsifying the results of the emission tests from their diesel engines. It is a true witch hunt unleashed against Volkswagen. Maybe there are good reasons for it, but I think it is also something that should be taken with caution. A lot of it.

I have been a consultant for the automotive industry for some 20 years and I think that I know the way they operate. And I can tell you that they are not equipped for "cheating", intended as willingly ignoring or breaking the law. They just don't do that, they understand very well that the result could be something like what's happening to Volkswagen nowadays; something that could lead to their end as a car manufacturer. On the contrary, carmakers tend to be extremely legalistic and apply to the letter the current laws and regulations.

This said, it is also clear that car makers are there to make a profit and their managers are supposed to "get results". So, if the laws and the regulations are not clear, or do not explicitly say that something is forbidden; then, if that something is supposed to provide some advantage to the company, it may be done.

This is, I think, what happened in this case. It is very well known that the results of the pollution tests made in the lab are always much better than those made on the road. And it is very well known that the performances of cars as measured in standardized tests are always much better than those of real cars. It is all very well known and documented: look for instance here and here. (h/t G.Meneghello).

So, if cheating is so diffuse, why was Volkswagen singled out in this scandal? Maybe they were doing something especially bad, but I would be surprised if they were to turn out to be the only ones using the trick they have been accused to use for hiding nitrogen oxide emissions. Besides, I am sure that, before doing what they did, they checked with their legal department and got some kind of green light: possibly reasoning that if it was not explicitly forbidden it was not illegal. Anyway, I leave to conspiracy theorists the obvious implications that could be derived from this story.

Rather, I would point out something that I learned in my work with the automotive industry. It is that the story of pollution abatement in internal combustion engines is a good example of the diminishing returns of technology. And not just that, it also illustrates very well how good intentions can easily conflict with reality and actually backfire.

It is a long and fascinating story that, here, I can just sketch it in its main lines (*). Anyway, the concept of "pollution" became popular in the 1970s and it quickly became clear that a major culprit were the emissions from car engines. That led to a major debate: some thought that it was necessary to get rid of internal combustion engines and replace them with electric motors, others that it was possible to reduce pollution from engines to acceptable levels. The latter position won (do you remember the "who killed the electric car" movie?)  and that led to a long series of legislative actions, especially in Europe, aimed at the development of less polluting and more efficient engines. On the whole, the results appear to be good (see, e.g. here).

However, what the Volkswagen scandal tells us is that, likely, most of the recent improvements may have been obtained, if not by cheating, at least by a creative interpretation of the rules. An especially telling point, here, has to do with the specific point that led to incriminate Volkswagen: the abatement of nitrous oxides. The problem is especially nasty because it arises from conflicting needs. One is of having low pollution, the other high mileage. To have high mileage, you need to increase the efficiency of the engine, and this can be done using diesel engine instead of the conventional gasoline engines. Diesel engines work at higher temperatures and pressures, and that makes them more efficient. But that makes them also produce more nitrous oxides. It has to do with the thermodynamics of combustion and you should know that if you try to fight thermodynamics, thermodynamics always wins. The problem is basically unsolvable, at least at costs compatible with the price of a normal car. And when you face an unsolvable problem, often the reaction may be to cheat. This is, evidently, what happened with the automotive industry and the results have been exposed by the Volkswagen scandal.

But, if it is true that we cannot win against thermodynamics, it is also true that we don't need to fight against it. A battle against the combustion engine was lost in the 1970s, but the war can still be won: the electric car is making a spectacular return. Electric motors do not produce any gaseous pollution, they are much more efficient than internal combustion engines, and, in addition, they are compatible with renewable energy. What can we ask more? This time, let's try to avoid the mistakes we made in the past.

 (*) this is something that I hope to be able to describe in detail in a new book that I am working at. 


Monday, September 21, 2015

What happened to peak oil? The cycle of a meme and of its antimemes

The result of a Google Trends search for the term "Peak Oil". The fading out of the concept may be due not so much to reasons related to the validity (or non validity) of the concept but, rather, to a memetic phenomenon equivalent to the development of an immune response in the human body. Not all memes have sufficient viral power to entrench themselves in the human mindspace.

Likely, you haven't heard much, recently, about peak oil. If you did, it was only to hear that it was "wrong". Indeed, as you see in the figure above, peak oil had a peak of interest around 2006, a second one around 2008, then it gradually declined.

Why this decline? You might say that it was because the recent drop in oil prices. Maybe, but note, from the figure, that the interest in peak oil started a steady decline just when oil prices went up to reach a plateau at levels over 100 $/barrel. Then, you might say that the decline is because peak oil didn't appear when it was predicted. Maybe, but the record of the "peakist" approach is not bad at all when compared with of mainstream oil pundits. Had any of them anticipated such things as the burst of high oil prices that started in 2005? Did any of them foresee that the oil industry would have had to switch to expensive and difficult resources, that they had always shunned before, in order to keep production from falling?

So, why is peak oil fading away from our consciousness? The problem seems to be that, as a meme (a knowledge unit replicating in virtual space), peak oil just doesn't seem to have a large viral power. Peak oil is not the only case of a loss of interest in some concepts (memes) for no obvious reason. Take a look to the Google trends for "Global Warming." ("climate change" does a little better, but not so much)

So, the planet is going to hell, but people just don't care. Not even a blip of interest, for instance, in 2012, when the Arctic ice sheet collapsed to levels never seen before. The last peak of interest in global warming was created only by the climategate story, and then it was flatland all over.

There are many other examples of peaking and successive decline of various concepts. Take a look, for instance, to "communism"

Of course, the fact that a concept shows a peak of interest doesn't mean that it has to fade away forever. You could identify a peak of interest also in many commonplace concepts such as "electricity." But, here, the interest never faded away and, indeed, electricity remains a normal element of our lives.

Perhaps we could use the concept of "full width at half maximum" (FWHM) as an approximate measurement of the lifetime of these concepts. In this way, we can put together a list of memes and their lifetimes, measured by Google's trends or Google ngrams. This is, obviously, a very approximate set of numbers, they are there just to give an idea of the spread in the lifetime of some memes.

Meme                                approx FWHM, years

Nibiru                                0.3
Andrea Rossi's E-Cat        1
Peak Oil                             5
Global Warming                5
Cold Fusion                       17
Limits to Growth               30
Nuclear Energy                  35
Communism                      50
Electricity                          > 100

The FWHM (time duration) associated with these concepts can be seen as an indication of the capability of a meme to establish itself in virtual space. This depends, first of all, on the capability of the meme to replicate itself rapidly: the meme must be interesting, understandable, and, often, have some relation with reality. Then, if a meme is the equivalent of a gene (or a virus) in biology, then, if there are antigens, there must be antimemes (or, perhaps, "antimems"). This immune response may take the form of "memetic antibodies" which directly fight the invading meme. This is a fight that we see everyday: we call it "debate". As a result, the meme may go viral and infect the infospace of the Internet, or be rejected. In the second case, it may remain in a quiescent state, infecting only marginal areas.

This behavior can be seen in many examples. For instance, the meme of Andrea Rossi's nuclear device, the "E-Cat," flared up rapidly and then practically disappeared, just as rapidly. In this case, there was no need for a strong intervention of the immune system. The meme itself was weak, since the E-Cat simply couldn't deliver the cheap energy that it had promised to deliver. The same can be said of a meme such as the planet Nibiru hitting the Earth. It rapidly disappeared after that it was clear that no such thing was going to happen.

How about the "peak oil" meme? Unlike Nibiru or the E-Cat, peak oil is a serious concept, backed up by a lot of research. However, it didn't really get viral enough to become a mainstream meme. The main problem, here, may have been the choice of the term: "peak oil" conjures a specific moment in time when something exceptional should happen, even though it is not clear what. When people saw that nothing special was happening, they lost interest. The decline of the peak oil meme was helped by the anti-memetic system that created effective antimemes such as "they have been predicting peak oil already for 30 years ago."

About "global warming", we have problems, too: first of all, we propose a concept that people can't perceive in their everyday experience. Then, the immune system has generated strong antimemes that turned out to be extremely effective; such as "there has been no warming during the past 19 years". Indeed, "climate change" has fared much better than "global warming" as a meme. But even climate change is hard to perceive for the public, and it fails to evoke such things as ocean acidification, sea level rise, food supply disruption, and many others.

In the end,  it is all part of the game: the memetic immune system does its job of filtering away memes that are silly, useless, and dangerous. However, like its biological counterpart, sometimes it attacks the wrong targets, a true "autoimmune" genetic reaction. There are memes we badly need to diffuse in the world's infospace: that oil depletion is real and dangerous if we don't do something about it; that climate change is real and it is dangerous, if we don't do something to stop it.

Biological autoimmune diseases are common and dangerous; and the therapy is always difficult. In the memetic case, we are in also in a difficult situation. Maybe there are ways to avoid the slaughter of good memes; but it is not an easy task. In any case, I think that at least one thing is clear from this discussion: memes that have already generated a strong immune response have little or no chance to diffuse. "Peak oil" is basically a dead meme.

We need new memes that describe the same concepts. For instance, we should mention "depletion" rather than "peaking" as a way to describe the gradual loss of high yield mineral resources. Maybe ASPO (the association for the study of peak oil) should be renamed as something like ASOD (association for the study of oil depletion) (*)Maybe we could develop something more creative, such as "oil senility," why not? Then, it has been proposed to replace the term "climate change" with "climate disruption," and that could be a good idea. These are just examples; surely we can think of other possibilities. Just remember one thing: a good virus is a virus that mutates a lot!

(*) But we should be very careful with acronyms. I just discovered that, really, ASOD would not be a good name for an association studying oil depletion!

Monday, September 14, 2015

Fortress Europe: a wall to keep foreigners out?

"..... the buffer zone has disappeared. The geographical transition from civilization to barbarism is now no longer gradual but it is abrupt. To use the appropriate Latin words, which bring out both the kinship and the contrast between the two types of contact, a limen, or threshold, which was a zone, has been replaced by a limes or military frontier. Across this line, a baffled dominant minority and an unconquered external proletariat now face one another under arms; and this military front is a bar to the passage of all social radiation except that of military technique - an article of exchange which makes for war and not for peace between those who give and take it. ..... the cardinal fact (is) that this temporary and precarious balance of forces inevitably tilts, with the passage of time, in favour of the Barbarians." From Arnold Toynbee, ""A study of History." (image above from Wikipedia)

The more I look at what's happening in the world today, the more it seems to me that we are following an already beaten path: we are going along the same way that the Roman Empire followed a couple of millennia ago, only faster. For every event that takes place today, you can find a parallel event that led the old Empire to its end. So, the present refugee crisis in Europe has a parallel in the crisis of the 1st century AD that led the empire to lock itself inside a set of fortifications. Is that the destiny that Europe faces today? Are we going to build a wall to keep the invaders out? A look of what happened to the Romans may tell us something about this point.

It all started in 9 A.D., when three Roman legions were destroyed by a coalition of German tribes in a battle in the forest of Teutoburg. It was an epochal defeat, a sign that something was badly wrong with the Empire that, up to then, had easily defeated every enemy. And, as a consequence, the Romans panicked.

You probably know the story, told by Suetonius, of Emperor Augustus walking at night in his palace, asking the dead general who had led the legions at Teutoburg, "give me back my legions". But that was only a symptom of a general fear that the Barbarians would soon march all the way to Rome.

Fear often leads to overreacting, and there is no doubt that the Romans overreacted. It would take four centuries after Teutoburg before Rome was besieged and taken by a Barbarian army. But, at that time, fear reigned in the Empire. A few years afterward, the Romans invaded Germany again with no less than 8 legions; without accomplishing much more than demonstrating that there was no way for them to conquer and subdue the Germans.  Then, they changed their strategy: if the barbarians couldn't be defeated, they could at least be kept out of the empire.

Border fortifications around the Roman Empire had been existing even before the battle of Teutoburg, but, after the battle, they were greatly expanded and strengthened. The final result was the system of border fortifications around the Empire that we call today "limes" (even though the Romans didn't use that word). A series of walls that started at the Northern border of Britannia and circled the whole Empire, even though not continuously.

Were the fortifications useful? For one thing, it is true that they kept the Barbarian armies at bay for a few centuries. But it is also true that they must have been atrociously expensive. So much that, eventually, the economy of the Roman Empire became engaged in only two activities: cultivating grain and maintaining the border fortifications. Unfortunately, we lack the data we would need in order to quantify these expenses, but I think it can be proposed that the border fortifications were such an economic burden that they were a major factor leading to the eventual demise of the Empire.

The fortifications had another problem; perhaps even bigger: in the effort of keeping the Barbarians out, the Romans had locked themselves in a no-win situation. They badly needed slaves for their agriculture and soldiers for their armies, and this manpower, during the late years of the Empire, would largely come from Barbarian people. But how would Barbarians came in if the borders of the Empire were closed? The wall, in principle, should have kept Barbarian armies out, but let Barbarian workers in. However, the Romans never could convince the Barbarians that it was a good idea for them to come into the Empire to become slaves in the name of the free market. It is possible that the walls were not only too expensive for their purpose, but even counterproductive as they kept out manpower that the Empire desperately needed.

Over time, it became impossible for the Empire to maintain the fortifications and, with the beginning of the 5th century, they were abandoned. According to Gibbon, it was in the winter of 406 AD that the frozen Rhine made it possible for a large number of Barbarians to cross the river and to march into the Empire unopposed in a crisis that resembles very much the flow of refugees pouring into Europe today. A few years later, in 410 AD, Rome was sacked for the first time in the Imperial age by the Visigoths. Then, in 455 AD, Rome was sacked again by the Vandals and, this time, it was truly the end of the Western Roman Empire. For a few decades afterward, some individuals still claimed the title of "Roman Emperor"; but nobody was paying much attention to them. The walls had not helped Rome to survive.

Is this what's going to happen to Europe in our times? Are we going to make the same mistake the Romans made and ruin ourselves by building an expensive wall to stop invaders from entering

Right now, walls don't seem to be in the plans, also because European didn't experience an equivalent of the defeat of Teutoburg (yet). So, it seems that the European governments are seeing the refugees from abroad as cheap manpower that Europe desperately needs - just like Rome did, long ago. But it is also clear that the situation can't remain the way it is for a long time, with millions of refugees pushing at the borders of Europe, chased away from their lands by a combination of wars and climate change. At some point, someone will start panicking and call for a defensive wall.

Modern Europe has seen already a wall separating it in two halves, the one that was called "the Iron Curtain". Also that wall didn't bring good luck to those who built it, whose economy collapsed among other factors also under the weight of maintaining the walls. A new wall to keep North Africans and Middle Eastern people out would probably cripple Europe forever. Will it be built? We can't say, right now, but one thing that we learn from history is that we never learn from history


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)