Saturday, December 31, 2016

The next ten years: how desperate can we become?

With the year's end, it is tradition to make predictions for the next year. In this case, I looked for something that would take a longer timespan as a target and I found something published in 2015. It can be used to learn how bad some predictions can be and how desperate we are becoming.

Do you remember the predictions of the 1950s? The time when scientists and science fiction authors alike engaged in describing to us how bright the future would be? There was no shortage of wonders that were presented to us at that time. Space travel, energy too cheap to meter, robotic home helpers, anti-gravity, a cure for cancer, increased human lifespan, and much more. It is disheartening to think of how little of all that fluff actually materialized. Overall, in terms of problem-solving, the performance of science during the past 50 years of so has been comparable to that of the Iraqi army in 2003 in terms of military effectiveness.

A taste of how desperate our situation has become can be gained by taking a look at an article published in 2015 by Peter Diamandis. A little more than a year after it appeared, it can be used to understand not only how bad a prediction can be, but also how desperate we have become.

The article by Diamandis falls flat from its very first line; when he says that "in accordance with Moore's Law, we'll see an acceleration in the rate of change." But, as we know, Moore's law was declared officially dead in 2016, and it was known to be terminally ill a few years earlier. So, Diamondis starts from an overoptimistic premise but, even so, it is surprising to see how unappealing are his predictions.

In the article, all the wonders predicted in the 1950s have disappeared and all what Diamandis can do is to line up a list of internet-related gadgetry whose usefulness can only be limited or debatable - or even defined as negative. Yes, in the future we'll probably have more people connected to the Internet at faster speeds, but then what? Can more Internet connections lead us to "perfect knowledge"? (prediction n. 3). Diamondis was writing before the "fake news" story became a widely recognized issue, but it was there and it is remarkable how he could miss so badly that quantity is not the same as quality! Then, there is the "trillion-sensor economy" (prediction n. 2) that probably means what we call the "Internet of Things". Not an impossible target but, as for many other things, are we really sure it is a good idea? What if the hyperconnected world goes to the blue screen of death? The other predictions are not much better, for instance about the overhyped "3D printing".

It looks like we are becoming increasingly desperate. We expected from science solutions for the climate and the resource crisis. We expected knowledge, wisdom, health, and abundance. All we got were 140 characters and it seems we'll have to be happy with that.

Monday, December 26, 2016

The Train for Berlin: Can Railroads Replace Planes for Long Distance Travel?

This November, I went by train from Locarno, in Switzerland, all the way to Berlin, for the conference of ASPO Germany.  The trip lasted more than 11 hours and it involved four different trains, it was the longest daytime trip by train I ever took in my life. It was one of the several tests I have been performing during the past few years to see how and how much I could avoid using planes for traveling within Europe. (Above: crossing another train in Switzerland).

There doesn't exist a sustainable fuel that can power a passenger plane; at least not at the same price and for the same performance we can obtain from fuels derived from fossil hydrocarbons. While airlines dream of impossible "green planes," we need to find something that can take people from a place to another without emitting greenhouse gases, at least over medium-long distances. Maybe, one day, we'll develop a new generation of solar powered airships but, for the time being, the good, old trains look like the best option. Trains run on electricity, so they are directly compatible with solar and wind energy. They don't even need rubber tires or bitumen for roads - both produced from fossil fuels. So, I have been experimenting for quite a while with traveling by train in Europe and let me report to you about this experience.

First: the good news. During the past few years, the development of on-line services has made enormously easier to plan long distance train trips. The European railroads have also improved their ticket sales interface and you can now buy fully electronic tickets from one single national site for a multi-country trip. This is a big improvement. For instance, up to a few years ago, if you wanted to board a Swiss train, you had to have a physical ticket issued in a Swiss station or, if you didn't live in Switzerland, you had to have it shipped to you by mail, which was both slow and expensive.

Then, many railroad networks have now an on-board Wi-Fi system. That's a big plus because a long trip by train becomes actually a chance to do some work in holy peace - something that you can't do on a plane, where you can't even recharge your laptop (and not even open it, if you travel in economy class). In the image you see real-time travel information on a German intercity train.

Still, there is a lot of work to do to improve the service of railroads. For instance, in Switzerland, trains have no Wi-Fi (maybe because motion sickness is almost guaranteed if you travel in the Alpine region). Even in Germany, with all their hi-tech, the connection during my travel to Berlin worked only for the first half hour and then it died for the rest of the trip (and they wanted me to pay 6 euros for it!). In the picture, you can see that I was reading Epictetus on the train, a stoic philosopher who helped me survive the lack of an Internet connection! But, surely, that can be improved: in Italy, for instance, the Wi-Fi connection in the high-speed trains comes for free and it normally works very well.

Then, there remain two fundamental problems with long distance rail trips: one is that night trains are becoming an extinct breed in Europe, the other that the high-speed trains are not conceived for long distance travel.

First, sleeper trains. Theoretically, they are a very good idea: you travel overnight, while you sleep, and you arrive in the morning, ready for business or for sightseeing. This kind of trip may be considered also as something romantic if you can share the compartment with a significant other (assuming that neither of you suffers from motion sickness). Of course, sleeping in one of these trains is not the same thing as sleeping at home: the paradigm of the sleeper train is the 6-passenger compartment, hot and poorly ventilated, that can give you a feeling of what must have been like to be deported to a concentration camp during the second world war. But, even if you book a place in a single or a double compartment, the price is not unreasonably high if you think that you are saving the cost of one night at a hotel.

Unfortunately, there are big problems with sleeper trains. One is that they are old, poorly kept, and don't smell so good. In my personal experience, they are also often delayed (two hours of delay the last time I went to Paris). Then, all the romanticism of the experience goes away when, in the morning, you are served a pure cardboard croissant and a cup of coffee that looks and smells like crude oil. Apparently, the fasts of the old "Orient Express" are past and forgotten. As a final outrage, I can report how, while traveling from Italy to Paris, I was awakened at 2 a.m. by the Swiss police who wanted to check my bags. Imagine that your plane from London to New York is stopped midway by the Icelandic police and made to stop in Rejkiawick so that they can check your bags!

But the main problem with sleeper trains is another one. When you arrive in the morning to your destination, you badly need a shower, but your hotel won't let you into your room before 1 p.m. (that is, if you are lucky, because some hotels won't let you in before 3 pm.). The problem is even worse with your trip back home. Your train leaves at, maybe, 11 p.m., but your hotel will unceremoniously kick you out of your room at 12 a.m. (and they can be quite nasty if you ask them for an extra half-hour). Then, maybe you have some business or sightseeing in the afternoon but then you are stranded in a foreign city with your bags and with nowhere to stay except in an unappealing waiting room in a train station. No wonder that these trains seem to be disappearing from the European railroad network.

Then, there are high-speed trains; wonderful machines that could compete with planes even for relatively long trips. At a speed typically over 200 km/hour, a train could cover the ca. 1500 km from Rome to Berlin in some 6-7 hours. Of course, you should add the time for a few stops along the way and the fact that not the whole network allows for high speed. Still, you could likely make it in less than 10 hours. That's reasonable for a comfortable daytime trip, where you can relax and work while you travel. But, in practice, there is no way to get to Berlin from Rome or Florence in a single day. My train trip to Berlin started from Switzerland; it was less than 1,000 km and it took more than 11 hours; an average speed of less than 100 km/h. The reason is that I had to change three times and that involved considerable idle time in stations (image: a coffee shop in Bellinzona, Switzerland. Nice place, and they had good Italian espresso coffee, but it was a lot of lost time)

So, despite the recent improvements, there still a lot of work to do before railways can become competitive with planes in Europe. Something that could make sleeper trains more practical would be the possibility of renting rooms in hotels for half a day at a reasonable price. That makes a big difference in comfort: I remember having done that in St. Petersburg, in Russia, while waiting for the night train for Moscow. But, in Western Europe, renting a room by half-day or by the hour remains something that hotels don't want to do, perhaps because they are afraid for their reputation. Things might be changing and some internet sites have appeared that offer this service for business travelers.

But the real problem with sleeper trains is that they are in direct competition with low-cost airlines and, as things stand today, trains can't just compete. Airlines offer a faster service for the same or lower prices. Only a serious carbon tax could change things and make sleeper trains competitive, but that doesn't seem to be coming fast.

The future looks more favorable for high-speed day trains. The main problem, here, seems to be related to planning. So far, national railway companies have been planning their schedules only at the national level, also because of the limited interoperability of the railway networks. In some ways, it seems that railroads are still operating as they did at the time of the first world war; when people thought that an enemy invasion could have been slowed down by making the national rail gauge different from that of neighboring countries. Different gauges in Europe still exist in Russia and in Spain and the railways operate different voltages AC and DC, varying from 750 to 25,000 volts. Also, the signaling systems vary from country to country. The result is that, for instance, high-speed Italian trains cannot run in Germany or in France, and the reverse is also true.

Nevertheless, progress is being made and the latest generation of high-speed trains is built with interoperability in mind. Soon, these trains should be able to roam the whole European network. What is lacking here, mainly, is a serious push from the European Government to convince national railroads that connecting the main European capitals by high-speed trains is important and useful. But the EU has done very little in this sense, so far. One more failure for them (they seem to collect failures as some people collect stamps or butterflies). There used to be a European Railway Agency, but something must have gone wrong with it because it was closed down and there is now a brand new European Union Agency for Railways. We can only hope they will do better than their predecessors.

So, is there hope that we'll be able to take again long travels by train in comfort and style in Europe, as it could be done in the 1930s? Could we revive the fasts of the old "Orient Express"? It is surely possible, but it will take some work and some strong political will. That will be absolutely necessary if we want to adapt European travel to the objectives of the 2015 Paris treaty. In the meantime, the most adventurous of us will still do their best to shun planes in favor of trains. (image below, the Italian FrecciaRossa high-speed train, photographed at the central station in Florence. Allow me a small display of national pride if I say that it is the best train I have ever traveled on - expensive, though!)

Friday, December 23, 2016

A Merry-Enough Christmas to everybody

2016 has not been a good year for many reasons, one is that Leonard Cohen left us. So, I thought a good way to celebrate this Christmas was to put up an old rendition of "Silent Night" that Leonard Cohen sang in 1979, together with Jennifer Warnes.

Maybe it won't be a great Christmas, this year, but it can still be a merry-enough Christmas.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

There is only one culture: bringing back science into the fold of humanism

Yesterday, I was invited to give a talk at a public meeting on the usual themes: climate change, resources, pollution, and the like. This time, a question I received from the audience caused me a small enlightenment that I am describing here as I remember it (h/t Lorenzo Citti for having organized this interesting meeting) (image source)

Thanks for this question - it is a very interesting question: "are we teaching enough science to our children?" And I can tell you that it is much more than an interesting question, it caused some small earthquake in my mind. Truly, I had a flash of understanding that I had never had before and right now I completely changed my view of the world. It happens to me: the world changes so fast and I do my best to follow it.

Your question is so interesting because it has to do with the idea that there are two cultures: a scientific one and a literary one. As a consequence, some of us think that instruction is unbalanced in one or the other direction: maybe we teach too little science to our children, maybe too much. The whole idea goes back to someone named Snow who proposed it in the 1950s. He was not wrong, I think, but there were problems with the idea. The concept of the two cultures can be intended as meaning that we need somehow to bridge the gap that exists in between. Or, and I think that's what happens most often, it can be interpreted as meaning that one of the two cultures is superior to the other. That can generate a competition between the two and divide people into two different tribes: literates and scientists.  We are very good, as human beings, at dividing ourselves into separate tribes fighting each other. And that's bad, as you can imagine. Actually, it is a disaster. Snow was a scientist and he decried the scientific ignorance of literates. On this, he was right but in the long run the result was that literates despise scientists as illiterate boors and scientists despise literates as feebleminded ignorants.

Now, I had been thinking about all this and, as I said, today I had this flash that focused my mind on a concept. I think we have to say this clearly: this story of the "two cultures" is an idiocy. It must end. There is only ONE culture, and that's what we may call "humanism," if nothing else because we are all humans. That is, unless someone in the audience today is an alien or a droid. In such case, would you please stand up? No......? Apparently, we are all humans in this room and so we call our culture "humanism" (or, sometimes, "arts and humanities")  How else would you call it?

So, there is really no reason for considering modern science a separate culture rather than part of the human culture that we call humanism. I am saying this as a scientist: science is part of what I would like to call human "sapience", what the ancient called "sophos"; that we translate as "wisdom" "sapience," or "knowledge." The term philosopher just means someone who loves sapience. And that's what we are; scientists or non-scientists, the very fact that we are here today, engaged in this discussion. means that we love knowledge: we are all philosophers. And that's a good thing to be; sapience is what makes us human and that's why we speak of humanism.

So, why do science and scientists sometimes pretend to be a separate branch of knowledge? Well, it has to do with another concept that comes to us from the Greek philosophy. It goes under the name of techné that we may translate as "craftsmanship" and that originates the modern term "technology". Here lies the problem.

Five minutes ago, someone asked me about hydrogen powered cars. I answered that they have been a complete failure and that was it. But I ask you to go a little more in depth with this question. Why do many of us think these things are important: hydrogen cars, a hydrogen powered economy, and lots of strange things we hear as proposed by scientists and that are said to be able to "solve our problems." Why is that? There is a reason and it goes back to a period in history when scientists found that they were able to devise some clever gadgets: you remember the "atomic age", right? It started more or less from there. Then there was the space age, the information age, and so on. There was this great wave of optimism when we really thought that science would bring us a new age of happiness and prosperity - it was the triumph of technology over everything else. The triumph of techné over sophos.

That period of optimism is still with us: anything that you say that disputes the sacred cow of economic growth is answered with "the scientists will think of something." Climate change? Resource Depletion? Pollution? Not really problems if you have the right gadget to solve them. And this brings, sometimes, the question "do we teach enough science to our children?" It is a result of the opinion that, in order to solve our problems, we need more gadgets and that, in order to have more gadgets, we need more science and that, in order to have more science, we need to teach more of it to our children. I think this is not a good idea. I think we have too many gadgets, not too few. And all these gadgets either don't work or cause more problems than those they are supposed to solve. Think about that: we wanted flying cars and we got killer drones, we wanted freedom and we got body scanners, we wanted cheap energy and we got Fukushima, we wanted knowledge and we got 140 characters, we wanted a long life and we got Alzheimer. The more gadgets we have, the worse the situation becomes.

Don't get me wrong: I am not saying that technology is bad in itself. We all live in heated spaces, we use electricity, when we have a headache we take an aspirin, and we use a lot of useful devices in our everyday life. I am not telling you that we should run to the woods and live as our stone-age ancestors - not at all. Being good craftsmen is part of being human. It is just that this fascination with gadgetry is generating multiple disasters, as we have been discussing today: from climate change to all the rest. One of these disasters is the decline of science, with scientists often turned into those raucous boors who feel they have to send out a press release every month or so to describe how their new gadget will save the world.

It can't work in this way. We need to take control of the technology we use, we need to stop being controlled by it. And I think the first step for retaking control is to bring science back into the fold of humanism. I am saying this as a scientist and as someone who loves science - I have been loving science from when I was a kid. Modern science is a beautiful thing; well worth being loved. It has been telling us so much that's worth knowing: the history of our planet, the origin and the fate of the universe, the thermodynamic engines that make everything move, and much more. We need to see science as part of the human treasure of knowledge and we need to love knowledge in all its forms. And, as I said at the beginning, someone who loves knowledge is a philosopher and that's what we can all be and we should be; because it is our call as human beings. If we want to save the world, we don't need gadgetry, we need to be what we are: human beings.

See also this comment on my "Chimeras" blog

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Supporting everything that smells bad: Donald Trump's new energy policy promises to be a disaster

Michael Klare has published an extensive comment on "Tomgram" about what appear to be the current policy choices by Donald Trump on energy and he correctly notes how contradictory they are. Basically,
The main thrust of his approach couldn’t be clearer: abolish all regulations and presidential directives that stand in the way of unrestrained fossil fuel extraction, including commitments made by President Obama in December 2015 under the Paris Climate Agreement.
In other words, Trump seems to be locked in a market-only vision of the problem, thinking that physical realities have no role in the extraction of fossil resources. On this, he is surely not alone, but the problem is that deregulation is not so important as Trump seems to think. It was not because the market was over-regulated that oil prices spiked up to $150 dollars/barrel in 2008 and kept hovering at around $100/barrel from 2011 up to late 2014. And it was not because oil production was suddenly deregulated that prices collapsed to below $40 in 2015. The oil market, as all markets, suffers from instabilities that may be, sometimes, cured by regulations. Eliminating all the regulations may well cause further price swings and wild oscillations, rather than increase production.

If oil companies are in trouble, right now, is because the oil prices are too low, not because oil extraction is over-regulated and Trump's policies - if they were to work - may damage the fossil fuel industry even more. That, in itself, would not be a bad thing - especially in terms of the effects on climate. The problem is that Trump's ideas to revitalize the fossil fuel industry may not be limited to deregulation, but could involve actively discouraging renewable energy, a policy that, for instance, the Italian government has been successfully applying during the past few years.

So, why does Trump want to do such a thing? Here, we can only imagine what passes in the mind of a 70-year old man who is not known to be especially expert in anything. Klare puts forward a possible explanation as:
To some degree, no doubt, it comes, at least in part, from the president-elect’s deep and abiding nostalgia for the fast-growing (and largely regulation-free) America of the 1950s. When Trump was growing up, the United States was on an extraordinary expansionist drive and its output of basic goods, including oil, coal, and steel, was swelling by the day. The country’s major industries were heavily unionized; the suburbs were booming; apartment buildings were going up all over the borough of Queens in New York City where Trump got his start; cars were rolling off the assembly lines in what was then anything but the “Rust Belt”; and refineries and coal plants were pouring out the massive amounts of energy needed to make it all happen.
And don’t forget one other factor: Trump’s vindictiveness -- in this case, not just toward his Democratic opponent in the recent election campaign but toward those who voted against him. The Donald is well aware that most Americans who care about climate change and are in favor of a rapid transformation to a green energy America did not vote for him,
Given his well-known penchant for attacking anyone who frustrates his ambitions or speaks negatively of him, and his urge to punish greens by, among other things, obliterating every measure adopted by President Obama to speed the utilization of renewable energy, expect him to rip the EPA apart and do his best to shred any obstacles to fossil fuel exploitation. If that means hastening the incineration of the planet, so be it. He either doesn’t care (since at 70 he won’t live to see it happen), truly doesn’t believe in the science, or doesn’t think it will hurt his company’s business interests over the next few decades.
This interpretation by Michael Klare may or may not be correct but it underlies a basic problem: elections give power to people on the basis of their promises, but nobody really knows how they will behave once they have power in their hands. The world's history is full of leaders who had mental problems of all kinds or even just had a vision of the world that was completely out of touch with reality. The result was normally unmitigated disasters as leaders, in most cases, refuse to learn from their mistakes. And not just that, they tend to double down, worsening things.

About Donald Trump,as I discussed in a previous post, nobody can know what's going on inside his mind. All what I can say is that America may badly need God's blessing in the near future.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

The Worst Mistake a General Can Make: the Pickett Charge of the Oil Industry

The Pickett charge took place in 1863, during the battle of Gettysburg, and it ended as a defeat for the confederates. Years later, when asked why the charge failed, General George Pickett is reported to have replied: "I've always thought the Yankees had something to do with it." It seems that the worst mistake that a general can make is to forget that there is an enemy. It seems to be the mistake that the oil industry is making: forgetting that there is such a thing as climate change.

At the conference, I sit in the audience in the session dedicated to fossil fuels. The person speaking is the representative from Exxon. She looks confident when she starts speaking at the microphone. Her talk is given in a rather droning tone, it is clear that she is used to these presentations.

I have in my hands a handout that was distributed before the session started and I see that she is closely following the data and the figures presented there. Most of the data are extrapolations of future trends in the production of fossil fuels. I still have the handouts that they gave to me at the conference, but it is easy to find the report on the Web. Here is how it is described:

Every year, a core team in ExxonMobil produces the acclaimed The Outlook for Energy: A View to 2040. Based on historical data, current developments, trends, and assumptions about the future (e.g., how energy efficiencies will improve, the number of cars on the road going forward), the ExxonMobil team projects demand and supply for all energy sources, including fossil fuels and renewables, and the resulting global energy mix. 

and here is a snapshot of their main predictions to 2040:
As you see, everything keeps growing except, thank Lord, coal, but it contracts of only about 0.2% per year. The rest, it is all growth.

And so I watch the presentation coming to a close: the gist of it is that everything is well and will be well. We will keep growing oil and gas production, the economy will keep growing, and that's they way things have been and will be. The term "climate change" is not even mentioned. Then, the talk is over and there follow a few polite questions before passing the microphone to somebody else. I vaguely think of rising up and saying something like "but don't you think you are forgetting something with your projections?" But I don't, of course. I just keep sitting where I am, unable to do anything except shaking my head.

It was at that moment that the story of the Pickett charge came to my mind. Did general Pickett realize that he was sending his men to charge in the open against the well-defended wall of Cemetery Ridge? Did he really forget that there was an enemy, there? So, did the lady from Exxon forget that there is something called "climate change" out there? Did the people who prepared the report ever think about that?

I don't think they did. If you look at the Exxon site, they have several pages dedicated to climate change. It is all vague talk where they say, yes, it is important, yes, we are doing something, and yes, we understand, and yes, yes, yes, we know about it, but we will keep extracting and burning because it is our job. And, no, we won't show you quantitative data on the consequences of what we are doing.

So, let me show something quantitative: a little graphic that my coworkers recently prepared.

Graph by Ilaria Perissi and Sara Falsini

You see the black circles: business as usual; not very different than the Exxon Scenario. The colored dots mark the trajectories that we have to follow if we want to stay within the global carbon budget for no more than 2 degs of temperature increase. The trajectories assume a constant percentage yearly decline and, of course, the more we wait, the sharper the decline has to be. It is already so sharp to be unthinkable if we were to start in 2030. Then, if we wait too long, it will be simply impossible: at the BAU rate, we run out of the carbon budget in 2042. This is, more or less, the temporal limit of the Exxon analysis. If we follow their extrapolation, in 2040 we'll have zero carbon budget left. And they truly believe in their extrapolation. They don't think that such a thing as "peak oil" exists

It is the Pickett charge again: there is an enemy there but the oil industry keeps charging as if there were none.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

The Trump Effect: is Climate Change Denialism on the Rise?

The results of a search for "climate hoax" on Google Trends 

Google Trends shows a remarkable spike in the interest for the coupled terms "climate" and "hoax". Does that mean that people are becoming more skeptical about climate science? Or simply more interested in the subject? On this point, Google Trends tells us that there has been no special change in the level of interest in the general subjects of climate change and global warming. The interest is specific in the coupling of "climate" and "hoax." And, if we couple the terms "climate", "hoax" and "Trump" we see that there is a clear correlation.

So, it seems clear that the rise of Donald Trump has emboldened science deniers, who are more active than before. Qualitatively, it is a trend noted also by "DeSmog" and others. That doesn't necessarily mean a change in the distribution of the opinions on the danger of climate change, still deadlocked in what I termed "trench warfare in the climate wars". Instead, The election of Donald Trump may lead to an even sharper polarization of the US public opinion on climate. Most likely, the virtual trench warfare will continue for quite a while, and we can only hope that it won't become real warfare.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

John Glenn (1921-2016): the End of an Era

John Glenn was the first American to orbit the Earth, in 1962. It was the start of the adventure that led to the lunar landing in 1969; only seven years later. It was an age of enthusiasm and of great expectations; a time that, today, looks remote. The conquest of space may have been made possible by the high energy yield of fossil fuels that made us rich. But it is a wealth that we don't have anymore; the depletion of the high yield fossil resources is making us unable to afford the kind of extravagances that were possible decades ago. So, the death of John Glenn may signal the end of the cycle of human spaceflight. 

On this occasion, I thought I could reproduce a post that I published on Cassandra's Legacy in 2015. It may not be unrelated to the general decline of the concept of human spaceflight that the Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti was criticized in Italy on the basis of the idea that women should stay home and have children. And also because she is probably a witch.

The last astronaut: the cycle of human spaceflight is coming to an end (Feb 9, 2015)

Smart, dedicated, competent, polyglot, and more; Samantha Cristoforetti seems to have been invented for a "Star Trek" episode. She is shown here at the International Space Station, where she is staying at the moment of publication of this post. Cristoforetti may not be the last astronaut to orbit the earth, but it is possible that the end of what was once called "the space age" will not be far away in the future. (image credit: ESA/NASA)

I experienced the enthusiasm of the "space age," starting in the 1960s, and I am not happy to see the end of that old dream. Yet, the data are clear and cannot be ignored: human spaceflight is winding down. Look at the graph, below. It shows the total number of people launched into space each year. (The data are from Wikipedia - more details.)

As you see, the number of people sent to space peaked in the 1990s, following a cycle that can be fitted reasonably well using a bell-shaped curve (a Gaussian, in this case). We have not yet arrived at the end of space travel, but the number of people traveling to space is going down. With the international space station set to be retired in 2020, it may be that the "space age" is destined to come to an end in a non-remote future. 

The shape of the cycle can be seen as a "Hubbert curve." This curve typically describes the exploitation of a non-renewable resource; fossil fuels in particular, but it also describes how economic activities are affected by a diminishing availability of resources. In this case, the shape of the curve suggests that we are gradually running out of the surplus resources needed to send humans into space. In a sense, the economics of human spaceflight are like those of the great pyramids of Egypt. These pyramids were expensive and required considerable surplus resources to be built. When the surplus disappeared, no more were built. The shape of the pyramid building curve was, again, Hubbert-like.

This result is not surprising, considering that we are reaching the planetary limits to growth. In part, we are reacting to the diminishing availability of resources by replacing humans with less expensive robots, but sending robots to space is not the same as the "conquest of space" was once conceived. Besides, the decline of space exploration is evident also from other data, see for instance this plot showing the budget available to NASA (from "Starts with a Bang").Note how the peak in human spaceflights coincides with the peak in the resources destined to space exploration.

If space exploration is directly related to the availability of resources, it is also true that, from the beginning, it was not meant to be just a resource drain. The idea of the  conquest of space involved overcoming the limits of the earth's ecosphere and accessing the resources of the whole solar system. Some of the concepts developed in this area were thought explicitly as ways to avoid the dire scenarios laid out in the 1972 study, "The Limits to Growth." Proposals involved placing giant habitats at the Lagrange libration points, where no energy was necessary to keep them there. The idea gained some traction in the 1970s and, in the figure, you see an impression of one of those habitats - the "Bernal Sphere."(image credit: NASA)

Today, we can't look at these old drawings without shaking our heads and wondering how anyone could take them seriously. Yet, these ideas were not impossible in themselves and, in the 1970s, we still had sufficient resources to make it possible some kind of human expansion into space, even though not on the grand scale that some people were proposing. But we missed that occasion and we much preferred to invest our surplus in military toys. Today, we can't even dream of colonizing space anymore. 

The space age is not completely over, yet, but it is becoming more and more difficult to sustain the costs of it. Right now, the Russians are still willing to launch to orbit West European astronauts. But how long will they continue to do so while Western Europe is enacting sanctions devised to cripple the Russian economy? Samantha Cristoforetti, brave and competent Italian astronaut, may well be a member of the last patrol of humans orbiting around the earth for a long time to come. 

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Italy's Referendum: the Great Defeat of Matteo Renzi, as commented by Leon Tolstoy

Matteo Renzi, Italy's prime minister, portraited as Napoleon Bonaparte on the front cover of an Italian magazine of a few years ago. For some reason, successful leaders tend to embark in risky enterprises that put their leadership at stake and, often, they fail utterly. It happened to Napoleon with the invasion of Russia and it happened to Matteo Renzi with the recent constitutional referendum that ended up with a disastrous defeat for him.

There is a clear parallel between the results of the Italian constitutional referendum of Dec 4th, 2016 and those of the Brexit referendum and the defeat of Hillary Clinton in the US. In all cases, we saw devastating failures for the mainstream media. People refused to listen to the messages beamed to them. They had the feeling of being swindled and probably they knew that, when you start suspecting that you are being swindled, you probably are. And they reacted accordingly.

Something is deeply changing in the world. Top-down, government-controlled propaganda has been used with great efficacy for more than a century, but now it is being defeated by bottom-up, viral information that ebbs and flows in the Web. Is it a good thing?  For sure, the defeat of the Empire of lies is a good thing, but it is also true that the  opposite of a lie is not necessarily the truth. All we can say is that it is happening and that the old ways don't work anymore.

On this point, perhaps it is worth re-reading Tolstoy when he describes the surprise that Napoleon felt at the battle of Borodino, during the Russian campaign, when he, too, found that the old ways didn't work anymore.


Alexander Tolstoy: "War and Peace", Book 10, Chapter XXXIV

Napoleon was experiencing a feeling of depression like that of an ever-lucky gambler who, after recklessly flinging money about and always winning, suddenly just when he has calculated all the chances of the game, finds that the more he considers his play the more surely he loses.

His troops were the same, his generals the same, the same preparations had been made, the same dispositions, and the same proclamation courte et energique, he himself was still the same: he knew that and knew that he was now even more experienced and skillful than before. Even the enemy was the same as at Austerlitz and Friedland- yet the terrible stroke of his arm had supernaturally become impotent.

All the old methods that had been unfailingly crowned with success: the concentration of batteries on one point, an attack by reserves to break the enemy's line, and a cavalry attack by "the men of iron," all these methods had already been employed, yet not only was there no victory, but from all sides came the same news of generals killed and wounded, of reinforcements needed, of the impossibility of driving back the Russians, and of disorganization among his own troops.

Formerly, after he had given two or three orders and uttered a few phrases, marshals and adjutants had come galloping up with congratulations and happy faces, announcing the trophies taken, the corps of prisoners, bundles of enemy eagles and standards, cannon and stores, and Murat had only begged leave to loose the cavalry to gather in the baggage wagons. So it had been at Lodi, Marengo, Arcola, Jena, Austerlitz, Wagram, and so on. But now something strange was happening to his troops.

Despite news of the capture of the fleches, Napoleon saw that this was not the same, not at all the same, as what had happened in his former battles. He saw that what he was feeling was felt by all the men about him experienced in the art of war. All their faces looked dejected, and they all shunned one another's eyes- only a de Beausset could fail to grasp the meaning of what was happening.

But Napoleon with his long experience of war well knew the meaning of a battle not gained by the attacking side in eight hours, after all efforts had been expended. He knew that it was a lost battle and that the least accident might now- with the fight balanced on such a strained center- destroy him and his army.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Climate science communication: trust begets trust

With more than 50.000 students, the University of Florence, in Italy, is a huge organization with plenty of problems. But it is also an ancient and prestigious university that, sometimes, manages to do something right. Recently, it organized an information day on climate change for its employees that was remarkably successful, showing that trust begets trust. 

Why are we failing at communicating the danger of climate change? Maybe people don't have enough information? (This is the "information deficit" model). Or maybe they have too much information? (This is called the "cultural cognition" model). Or maybe they are not getting the right information? Or there is something else that's wrong?

Without going into the details of the debate, let me tell you of an event that was an eye-opening experience for me. It made me understand that there is such a thing as an "information deficit" problem, but also that things are not as simple as that. I think that more than an information deficit, there is a "trust deficit" that blocks communication. It is not enough to tell people how things stand: we need to generate trust. And trust begets trust. But let me tell you the story.

This year, the University of Florence decided to offer to its personnel - the employees working in the administration or in services -  three "information days" on matters related to sustainability. One of these information days was dedicated to climate change and was held on Nov 9th, 2016. I was one of the organizers, so I followed the event from the beginning. 

The first point is that this was supposed to be a class; not a vacation day: there would be several talks for a total of about eight hours and we planned them as real, university-level lessons. We had climate modeling, paleoclimatology, climate negotiations, communication, mitigation, adaptation, and more. It was communication directed to non-scientists, but the speakers were all specialists in their fields and they made no attempt of sweetening the pill or of trivializing the subject.

To be honest, I wasn't sure that it would have worked. I was afraid that people would take the initiative as an excuse for a day of vacation; that they wouldn't show up, or show up and disappear shortly afterward. Or, if they were to stay, they would be bored to death and sleep throughout the day. I was even expecting that some idiot in the audience would stand up and say something like "don't you see how cold it is today? Climate change is a hoax!"

But nothing like that happened. With a certain surprise on my part, the aula magna of the University of Florence was crammed full with some two hundred people, mostly university employees, but also students and faculty members. Most of them bravely sat through the 8 hours of talks, a remarkable feat (at some moments, some of them had to stand because there were not enough seats available). And not only they sat in the room; they listened to the talks. After much experience with public talks and lessons, I can sense whether the audience is attentive or not, and they were. They were not sleeping. Actually, I detected some closed eyes, occasionally, - it is normal. But, on the whole, I would say that they were more attentive than many of my students.

We made no attempt of a formal evaluation of the results of this initiative, but I think I have sufficient informal feedback to be able to tell you that the message got through. Many people were not just interested, they were amazed. They had no idea that climate science was such a deep, wide, and fascinating field. They had never realized the extent of the threat we are facing.

For me, as I said, it was an eye-opening experience that made me re-evaluate everything I knew about scientific communication. It made me understand how remote climate science is for the people who, really, suffer from an information deficit problem. Most people who are not scientists get their information from the mainstream media (MSM) and there are two problems with that: one is that they only get snippets and glimpses, drowned in the general noise of the news. The other, perhaps more important, is that they correctly mistrust the MSM. Yet, where else can they get information from? It is truly a deadly combination: bad information from a mistrusted source: any wonder that nobody is doing anything about climate change?

And here comes the university; an institution full of problems but that's supposed to exist in order to create science and culture, not to make money. Because of this, it enjoys a certain prestige and, this time, it used it to do something right. It told to its employees, "we value you, so we offer to you our knowledge about climate science for free. We trust that you will appreciate it." And the employees responded by reciprocating the trust and appreciating this gift. Trust begets trust.

I think this experience has a general value. It agrees with a fact that is described, for instance, by Ara Norenzayan in his book "Big Gods". Simply stated, people will believe a message if (and only if) they believe the messenger. So, no wonder that people are not much moved by the messages on climate change that they receive by the MSM - not only they are receiving a garbled message, they don't believe the messenger. But when they receive the message from a trusted institution and from people who, clearly, are doing their best to inform them, then they understand. It is not a question of volume, not a question of sweetening the pill, not a question of public relation strategies. It is a question of trust.

And here lies the problem: we have squandered so much of the trust that the public had in its sources of information that we live squarely in an "Empire of Lies". Will we ever be able to restore trust? Perhaps not impossible, but very, very difficult. Still, what the University of Florence did was a step in the right direction. Maybe it can be replicated and then, who knows?

I would like to thank all those who participated in this information day as speakers or organizers, in alphabetic order. 

Adele Bertini
Marco Bindi
Francesca Bigi
Federico Brocchieri
Stefano Caserini
Gianfranco Cellai
Sara Falsini
Alessandro Galli
Giovanni Pratesi
Luca Toschi 

Thursday, December 1, 2016

The Peak Oil Election

The peak for conventional crude production arrived between 2008 and 2011. It seems that we passed the peak for "all liquids" in 2015, even though it will take some more time to be sure that an irreversible decline trend has started. Of course, reaching the peak has generated a vehement denial that the peak even exists. In this article, Eugene Marner comments on how and why the presidential elections completely ignored the hard facts of the declining net energy supply from fossil fuels.  (Image from "The Victory Report")

From  The Daily Star, by Eugene Marner

Here in the USA, we held an election recently that left most surprised, many dismayed, and many others eager to explain what happened, why it happened and what we do now. Lots of deep thinking and heavy breathing have gone into those analyses and I don’t mean to compete here with students of history and politics. I would, however, like to offer what I think may be an important part of the context for recent events, a context that is defined and enforced by geology and physics. I suggest that the election of 2016 can be called the Peak Oil Election, although the issue certainly never came up in public.

Back in November 2000, The Daily Star published a guest commentary in which I wrote about peak oil, the moment when global production of oil reaches its maximum and starts its inevitable decline. I had hoped to rouse people to think about the grave consequences that would ensue when oil, the key resource that fuels and supports our civilization, is no longer widely and cheaply available. Clearly that didn’t work very well, as most people still don’t have any idea what peak oil means, much less that its consequences are unfolding around us right now. No doubt our media, always complicit in a corporate agenda (oil companies are big advertisers), have not done much to inform the public but, more alarming than the blithe disregard of the population at large, is the apparently total cluelessness of both the two major presidential candidates and most of their advisers and entourages as well as the Congress. The Army Corps of Engineers issued a report back in September 2005 called Energy Trends and Implications for U.S. Army Installations that sounded the alarm about peak oil coming soon but that didn’t get much attention, either.

The economy is widely acknowledged to be the critical factor in most elections. Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, like most politicians everywhere, talked and continue to talk about “economic growth.” Voters can forgive scandals, bigotry, nastiness, stupidity and just about everything else but, when they see their standard of living falling, their jobs vanishing, their children with no future (and sometimes with nothing to eat), they blame politicians, rightly or wrongly. Politicians usually pretend to have solutions that almost always involve some path or other to “growth.”

Although none of us alive today can remember a time when economic growth was not part of our expectation for the future, such growth has only been conceived of for about the last 200 years. Until fossil fuels became the energy that powered the Industrial Revolution, economies grew by making war on their neighbors and taking their wealth. That was the stuff of history: empires rose on the principal of capturing territory and exacting tribute and eventually collapsed under the weight of their military costs and the expense of hauling all the loot back home.

Europeans had nearly exhausted the resources of their corner of the Eurasian landmass when Columbus came upon what was called the New World. Of course, it was just as old as every other place and, contrary to the persistent mythology, was not empty but chock full of animals, plants and, yes, many millions of human beings living in complex cultures. For the next three centuries, first the Spanish and Portuguese and, soon after, the Dutch, French and English crossed the Atlantic to subdue, conquer, and kill off the inhabitants in order, in traditional imperial fashion, to steal their stuff. Europe became rich again. That was how growth was done before about 1800 and the beginning of the fossil fuel age.

From the beginning of the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution was powered by coal, which was dirty but had much higher energy content than wood and charcoal, the main fuels that humans had used until then. In 1859, a hustler who called himself “Colonel” Edwin Drake drilled the first commercially viable oil well in Titusville, Pennsylvania and the petroleum age began. Oil is an incomparable fuel: at the beginning it was easily extracted, easily transported and, best of all, a single gallon of oil contains as much energy as a fit man working hard for three months or about 700 men working for an hour. One gallon. That huge amount of energy suddenly available is what gave rise to what we now call “economic growth.” More production and consumption requires more energy inputs and oil made it possible. But on a finite planet, nothing can go on forever and, by the 1960s, oil companies were finding less new oil each year than we were burning. Thus, about 40 years later, peak oil. Coal and gas will continue to be available for a while, but both will start to decline within a decade or two. Both already have serious financial problems, and neither one can do what oil does.

Let me return to why I called this the Peak Oil Election. Neither candidate spoke about it. Perhaps they don’t know about it. Or if they do, don’t want to believe it. Or maybe no politician can get elected by promising that the economy will continue to contract and energy supplies become ever scarcer. It was the Peak Oil Election because peak oil defeated both of them. Without increasing energy consumption, there can be no economic growth and, without increasing supplies, there can be no increase in energy consumption. The so-called renewables are hopelessly dependent upon fossil fuels for manufacture, installation and maintenance and are much less energy-intensive than fossil fuels.

The fact is that because oil production cannot be increased, economic growth is now over. Donald Trump’s promise to bring back coal production, increase all fossil fuel extraction and rebuild manufacturing are simply not going to happen, not because of Trump but because policy is no longer in charge. From now on, geology and physics call the shots. The remaining oil is too expensive to get to and extract. Oil companies can’t make a profit at a price that customers in a contracting economy can afford to pay. The growth game is finished as will be soon the multitude of financial frauds that, starting with the peak of United States oil production in 1970, have come to comprise much of our economy.

We need a new sort of politics and economy: local, cooperative, community-based, low-energy, conservationist, non-polluting, an economy that sustainably supports biological needs and health, rather than pursuing riches. I don’t think any politicians are going to do that for us; we need to do it for ourselves.

In Genesis 3:19, God instructs Adam that his punishment for disobedience will be “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.” Apparently, humans didn’t like that very much, as all of history reveals them trying to get around that decree by any means possible: forcing others to do the work (slavery), getting rich and hiring others to do the work (wage slavery), or by burning oil (energy slavery). The time is here again for community cooperation, for low-tech solutions like the power of oxen, horses and mules, for relatively inexpensive simple technologies that can be made locally, like hoes, scythes, and pitchforks, and for the sweat of our faces. This isn’t a matter of virtue but of necessity; a simpler life is coming whether or not we choose to embrace it.

Eugene Marner lives in Franklin.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Tiffany's fallacy: the mineral pie is shrinking, and most of what's left is in the sky

Audrey Hepburn in the 1961 movie: "Breakfast at Tiffany's." From the title of the film, I take the concept of "Tiffany's fallacy": it is not enough to see jewels on the other side of the window to have them. You have to pay for them. The same is true with mineral resources. There may be plenty of oil reserves on paper, but if you want them, you have to pay for their extraction. What follows is a slightly modified excerpt from my upcoming book "The Seneca Effect." 

In the debates that deal with energy and fossil fuels, it is rather common to read or hear statements such as “oil will last for 50 years at the current rate of production.” You can also hear that “we still have one thousand years of coal” (Donald Trump stated exactly that during the US presidential campaign of 2016). When these statements are uttered at a conference, you can sometimes hear the sigh of relief of the audience, the more pronounced, the surer the speaker appears to be. This reaction is understandable if the assessment of a long duration of fossil fuels were to correspond to what we can expect for the future. But can we, really?

The essence of propaganda, as it is well-known, is not so much telling lies, but presenting only one aspect of the truth. That's true also for the depletion debate. Saying that a certain resource will last decades, centuries, or more is not a lie, but not the truth, either. These numbers are based on only one aspect of the problem and on highly simplified assumptions. It is the concept of “reserves to production ratio” (R/P), a number that gives you a duration in years of the resource, supposing that the amount of reserves is known and that extraction will continue at the current rates. Normally, the results of these estimates have a comfortable ring to it. According to the 2016 BP report, the global R/P ratio for crude oil calculated for “proven reserves” was around 50 years, that for natural gas about the same, whereas coal was found to have an R/P ratio of more than a hundred years. If the “possible reserves” are added to the estimate, coal turns out to have an R/P ratio of the order one thousand years or even more.

Most people understand from these data that there is nothing to be worried about oil for at least 50 years and, by then, it will be someone else's problem. And, if we really have a thousand years of coal, then what's the fuss about? Add to this the fact that the R/P ratio has been increasing over the years and you understand the reasons for a rather well-known statement by Peter Odell, who said in 2001 that we are “running into oil” rather than "running out" of it. In this vision, extracting a mineral resource is a little like eating a pie. As long as you have some pie left, there is nothing to be worried about. Actually, the peculiar pie that's crude oil has the characteristic that it becomes bigger as you eat it.

If that sounds too good to you, you are right; this optimistic vision that sees mineral resources as a pie is also firmly placing it in the sky. Just to raise a nagging question, let me cite a report that appeared in 2016 on Bloomberg (not exactly a den of Cassandras), titled “”Oil Discoveries at a 70-year low”.

The data show that the amount of oil discovered during the past decades is way below the amount that's being produced, an assessment that is not changed by some recent, much publicized and overemphasized, discoveries. The situation is about the same with most mineral resources; the R/P ratios keep producing reassuring values: decades of availability, at least. But the number of discoveries keeps diminishing, well below the replacement rate that would be needed to keep production ongoing. See, for instance, this figure, courtesy of André Diederen

So, what's going on, here? If these resources are there, how come that we can't find them? Is this a conspiracy of the oil companies to keep oil prices high? A hoax that the Greens propagate in order to get people to vote for them? An attempt by a cabal of evil scientists who are aiming at obtaining research grants for their depletion studies? If one of these is the case, the coalition of these mighty powers seems to have been especially inept because the past few years have seen oil prices collapsing. But the crude oil world is especially ripe with conspiracy theories; including the one that sees oil as “abiotic” and being continuously formed in enormous amounts in the depths of the Earth – a “fact” that everyone would know were it not for the conspiracy of the oil companies, the Greens, the scientists, etc. That's just one of the many legends pervading the Internet. Just one more expression of our teleological approach to problems that consists in finding evil human agents for explaining them.

But there is no cabal, no hoax, no conspiracy in the estimates of oil and of other mineral resources. The problem is that using the R/P data to assess the future of mineral resources is misleading and it may easily lead you to a dangerous feeling of complacency. It is something that I call “Tiffany’s fallacy”. You probably remember the 1961 movie “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” that features the character played by Audrey Hepburn having breakfast while looking at the jewels on display in Tiffany’s windows. There is no doubt that there is plenty of gold on the other side of the glass, but it would be a fallacy to assume that one is rich just because of that. To get that gold, one must pay for it (or use dangerous and risky methods to get it). That’s the problem with the industry statistical estimates of “reserves.” These reserves are there, probably, but it takes money (and a lot of it) to find them, extract them, and process them. And it is not just a question of money, it takes material resources to extract minerals: drills, trucks, rigs, and every sort of equipment, including transportation and, of course, people able to use all of it. These are things that cannot simply be printed or obtained by magic financial tricks such as “quantitative easing”.

Mineral resources are nothing like a pie that you can eat until you have some of it. They are more like Tiffany's jewelry that you may get only if you have the money to pay for it. And the price of any commodity is directly related to its cost. It costs money to produce anything and nothing is produced if it can’t return a profit when it is sold on the market. So, in the case of minerals, extraction costs keep increasing because, of course, we extract the cheapest resources first. At some moment, we may find that we cannot afford anymore to pay for these costs. And when something costs more than what you can afford, you may as well say that you "ran out" of it, no matter what you read in terms of reserves that should exist somewhere underground.  The mineral pie is shrinking and most of what's left is in the sky.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Peak Oil in a Fact-Free World: the New "Oil Bonanza" in West Texas

Sometimes, I have the feeling of living in a fact-free universe where the laws of physics hold only if you believe in them. (image)

So, the USGS comes out with a press release that the media immediately diffuse in terms of a great discovery: 20 billion barrels, somewhere in Texas in a place called "Wolfcamp".  Bloomberg multiplies the number by the current oil price and comes up with a title that reads: "A $900 billion Oil Treasure," for a piece that tells of "bonanza" and of "the gift that keeps on giving". USA today speaks of "The Largest Oil Deposit Ever Found in the US". And how about the comments? Just a few examples.

As our new President will do - DRILL BABY DRILL!!! Energy independence - that sure has a nice ring to it. Middle finger to Middle East arabs.
I remember in the late 70's when scientists said we would be running out of oil by the late 90's. I wonder where those scientists are working now? Climate change?
They are constantly finding more reserves. President Trump will open up more land and ocean for safe drilling. Something the Obama administration had no clue how to do..
but of course the Radical Left, determined to return all of western civilization to the hunter-gatherer society of 10,000 years ago will do all it can to prevent this once great nation from becoming energy dependent and permanently kicking the barbarian raghead arab oil nations out of this country.

Great fun, and all fact-free! But let's suppose, for once, that facts mattered. What should we say about the "Largest Oil Deposit Ever Found in the US"? One point is that nothing new was "found;" the Wolfcamp formation was well known and already being exploited. The USGS just made a new estimate; probably valid within the assumptions made; but it is just that: an estimate. It doesn't mean that these resources have been discovered (note that the USGS explicitly says "undiscovered.") So, what all this means is that, statistically, these resources should be there, but nobody can be completely sure and it wouldn't be the first time that these estimates turn out to be optimistic. (in this case, the round number "20" is more than a little suspicious).

But never mind that; let's assume that these 20 billion barrels are there for real. How does this amount stack up in comparison with the world's oil situation? Here are some data, taken from Bloomberg (not exactly a den of Cassandras).

Let's compare these data with the world's oil consumption that, according to "Index Mundi," is today a little more than 33 billion barrels per year. So, you see from the figure that, during the past decade at least, we have been consistently burning more oil than we could discover. Now, if there had been other major discoveries this year, they would have been trumpeted enough that we would know of them. So, adding the 20 billion barrels of the Wolfcamp formation to the meager total of 2016, probably, we still don't reach a total of 33 billion. In the end, all that we can say is that, for this year, oil discoveries were just a little less, rather than much less, than what the world has consumed. These would be the news, if facts mattered.

But, that's not even the point: the essence of depletion is not how much of it there is, it is how much it costs to extract it. Here, Arthur Berman notes that Bloomberg had calculated the value of this "treasure" at $900 billion as if "if the oil magically leaped out of the ground without the cost of drilling and completing wells; if there were no operating costs to produce it; if there were no taxes and no royalties." Then, Berman calculates how much it would cost to extract all this "bonanza" of oil and concludes that, at the current prices, it would result in a net loss of some $500 billion. 

So, aren't you happy to live in a fact-free world? You can keep thinking that it is enough to poke a few holes in the ground to see it gush out in never ending abundance because, as everyone knows, it is really "abiotic." Sure, and you can also walk on thin air, as Wile E. Coyote can do as long as he doesn't realize he does.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Jay Forrester: the man who saw the future

Jay Wright Forrester (1918-2016) may have been the source of inspiration for Hari Seldon, a fictional character in Isaac Asimov's Foundation series. In Asimov's novels, Seldon develops "pyschohistoric equations" that allow him to predict the impending collapse of the Galactic Empire. In the real world, Forrester developed "system dynamics equations" that allowed him to predict the impending collapse of the modern human civilization. The predictions were ignored by the Imperial powers of both the fictional and the real universe.

Jay Forrester, one of the great minds of the 20th century, died at 98, a few days ago. His career was long and fruitful, and we can say that his work changed the intellectual story of humankind in various ways, in particular for the role he had in the birth of the Club of Rome's report "The Limits to Growth"

In 1969, Forrester was a faculty member of the MIT when he met Aurelio Peccei in Italy. At that time, Peccei had already founded the Club of Rome, whose members were worried about the limits to the natural resources that the Earth could provide. They were trying to understand what the consequences would have been for humankind. From what Peccei wrote, it seems clear that he was seeing the situation mostly in Malthusian terms; thinking that the human population would have been growing until reaching the resource limits, and then stay there, kept in check by famines and epidemics. The main concern of Peccei and of the Club of Rome was to avoid human suffering by ensuring a fair distribution of what was available.

The encounter with Forrester changed this vision in ways that, perhaps, neither Peccei nor any of the Club members would have imagined. In the 1960s, Forrester's models were already well advanced. Based on a completely new method of calculation that Forrester had dubbed "system dynamics," the models were able to take into account how the many variables of a complex system interacted with each other and changed in time.

The result was the study that the Club of Rome commissioned to Forrester and to his research group: simulate the future of humankind over a time range of more than a century, all the way to 2100. Forrester himself prepared a complete study with the title "World Dynamics" that was published in 1971. A group of Forrester's students and coworkers prepared a more extensive study titled "The Limits to Growth" that became a true intellectual revolution in 1972.

Forrester's system dynamics provided results that proved that Malthus had been an optimist. Far from reaching the limits to growth and staying there, as Malthus had imagined, the human civilization was to overshoot the limits and keep growing, only to crash down, badly, afterward. The problem was not just that of a fair distribution of the available resources, but to avoid the collapse of the whole human civilization. The calculations showed that it was possible, but that it required stopping economic growth. That was something that nobody, then as now, couldn't even imagine to do.

You know how things went: I told the story in my book "The Limits to Growth Revisited". Forrester's work was mostly ignored, but the better known "The Limits to Growth" study was not only rejected; it was actively demonized. The legend of the "wrong predictions" of the study was created and it spread so much that it is still widely believed. Yet, the intellectual revolution that was the creation of System Dynamics never died out completely and, today, world modeling is returning. We need to study the future in these times of great uncertainty. It is difficult, unrewarding, and often leading us astray. But we must keep trying.

Perhaps of Forrester's unknown achievement was of having inspired Isaac Asimov for the character of "Hari Seldon" in the famous "Foundation" series that Asimov wrote starting in the 1950s. We have no proof that Asimov ever met Forrester or knew his work, but they both lived in Boston at the same time, so it is at least possible. Then, Hari Seldon and Jay Forrester share similar traits: both are scientists who develop powerful methods for prediction the future. Seldon develops a field known as "Psychohistory" while Forrester developed "System Dynamics." In both cases, the equations predict that civilization will undergo a collapse. In both cases, the scientists are not believed by the Imperial authorities of their times, fictional or real.

In Asimov's story, Seldon goes on to create "Foundation" a planet where the achievements of civilization are kept alive and will be used to rebuild a new civilization after that the collapse of the old one. The plan succeeds in Asimov's fictional universe. In our case, the real Earth of the 21st century, nobody seems to have been able to create a safe haven for the achievements of civilization that we can use after the collapse. Seeing how things stand, maybe it is the only hope left?

But, maybe, Asimov wasn't directly inspired by Forrester for his Hari Seldon. Maybe he was just inspired by the archetype of the wise man that, in human history, has been played by people such as Merlin, Laozi, Kong Fuzi, Prince Gautama, Socrates, and many others. Perhaps Jay Forrester deserves to be listed among these wise men of old. Perhaps, the wisdom that Forrester brought to us will come handy in the difficult future that awaits us.

Forrester's achievements are many besides those of World Modeling. He developed a completely new magnetic computer memory that became the world standard, he developed a complete programming language (called "dynamo"), he is the originator of several fundamental ideas in system management: the "bullwhip effect," the concept of "Urban Dynamics"; of "Industrial Dynamics" of the "leverage points" in complex systems, and much more. A true genius of our times. 


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)