Monday, March 28, 2016

The climate wars: trench warfare or blitzkrieg?

In a previous post, I examined more than 25 years of Gallup polls in the US and I came to the conclusion the climate debate is stuck in a trench warfare condition. Apparently, the percentage of Americans who say they are "worried" about climate change is today nearly the same as it was in 1989.

After the publication of that post, I received a comment that cited the results of a recent study of the social media sponsored by "The Global Commission on the Economy and Climate" that seem to be indicating a different trend. Here is the main result of that study;

Clearly, something has changed in 2014 that has led to a remarkable change in the discourse on the relation of climate and economic growth, with a very large growth (around 700%) of people having an attitude defined as "positive" toward climate change. At first sight, it looks good: this is not trench warfare, it is a true blitzkrieg.

However, it is also something that has to be taken with great caution. Note that the question that was examined in the analysis was very narrow; strictly limited to whether one believes that climate change and economic growth are compatible. The analysis didn't examine whether the messages indicated that people were worried or not about climate change, or even whether they believed it existed and was caused by human actions. And the "negative" opinion expressed in a fraction of the messages might well have been expressed by people who were very worried about climate change; so much that they thought (reasonably, in my opinion) that economic growth can only worsen things. 

Indeed, the goals and the approach of the group of people who call themselves "The New Climate Economy Commission" seems to be very limited. In one of their reports, they state.

The Global Commission on the Economy and Climate is a major international initiative to analyze and communicate the economic benefits and costs of acting on climate change. Chaired by former President of Mexico Felipe Calderón, the Commission comprises 28 former heads of government and finance ministers and leaders in the fields of economics and business. The goal of the New Climate Economy is to shift public discourse away from the costs of climate action to one focused on how economic growth and climate action can be achieved together

This group is said to be "commissioned by seven countries – Colombia, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Norway, South Korea, Sweden and the United Kingdom," but there are few details on what were the terms of the financing were and which agencies provided it. The page where they could provide more details on these questions is not accessible to the public. Apparently, anyway, the idea is that, since economic growth is good by definition, then it will also solve the climate change problem. Which is debatable, to say the least.

Nevertheless, we have here an interesting result that indicates that the debate on climate is not necessarily stuck forever and that, at least, there is a growing interest in the issue. It also shows that we have remarkable capabilities of studying trends in the debate not just on the basis of the old style opinion polls, but by analyzing complex trend on a vast network of social media. So far, I haven't been able to find an equivalent study that would ask questions such as, for instance, what is the percentage of people believing that it is urgent to act against global warming. That may come in the near future and then we'll be able to see if trench warfare in the climate wars is really transforming itself into a blitzkrieg.

h/t Jeremy Leggett

And BTW, this is the 500th post published on the Cassandra blog!

Friday, March 25, 2016

Centennial of the death of Ishi, the last of the Yahi indians

A hundred years ago, on March 25, 1916, Ishi died in San Francisco. He was the last of the Yahis of California, exterminated over a period of a few decades, starting with the great "gold rush" of mid 19th century.

The story of the Yahis, as well as of many other Indians of California, is still actual: it is the story of how the search for mineral resources leaves behind a trail of death and destruction. In Ishi's times, it was because of gold; in our times, it is because of crude oil and other minerals that we consider even more important than gold. Human attitudes don't seem to change so much in these things and will probably remain unchanged as long as there remains something to be extracted on this planet.

A few years ago, I wrote a brief story of Ishi for my daughter Donata (in Italian, here)

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Trench warfare in the climate wars: no victory in sight

Image from "ThinkProgress"

The latest data from Gallup about how much Americans worry about global warming are nothing less than amazing. Today, we are exactly where we were more than one-quarter of a century ago. And yet, climate science has progressed, temperatures have been rising, the ice has been melting, the sea level has been rising, and plenty more evidence of dangerous global warming has accumulated. But the curves go up and down while the average remains constant; no long-term trend is apparent. It looks like trench warfare during the first world war. Mighty battles, lots of casualties, but neither side is winning.

In a sense, it is not surprising. I have been following the climate debate for several years and I can say that it is not a debate - it is a war. And in a war, you don't debate using rational arguments, you take sides. It has to do with the extreme polarization that is taking hold in most Western societies (and it is increasing!). When it comes to discussing major issues, such as global warming, people are not debating; they are only making statements of identity. And it is normal that we are not going anywhere: neither scientific data nor anti-science spin campaigns (*) can move people who have chosen the side they belong to.

However, it is also true that trench warfare in the first world war didn't last forever. At some point, one of the two sides couldn't take it anymore and had to concede. Could something like that occur for the climate war? Possibly, yes. Indeed, many of us have been hoping for an event so major and so evident that the danger of global warming could not be denied anymore; the equivalent of a "decisive battle" in war. But even facing extreme events, reality can always be denied when ideological polarization takes hold. For the time being, we remain locked in trench warfare.

(*) At least, it is a consolation to note that all the money that was spent by the fossil fuel lobby for those spin campaigns was wasted.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

How the greatest technology ever developed backfired on us

Natural selection was probably the factor that led the Irish Elk to develop oversized antlers: they were a beneficial feature for the males in the sexual competition game. However, the weight of the antlers was also a burden and it has been argued that it was one of the reasons, perhaps the main one, that led to the extinction of this species, around 7,000 years ago. In the case of humans, we may consider language as an evolutionary advantageous feature, but also as something that may turn out to bring negative consequences very much like the elk's antlers: the tsunami of lies we are continuously exposed to.  Image from Wikipedia

Language is the real break of humans with everything else that walks, crawls, or flies on the earth. No other species (except bees) has a tool that can be used to exchange complex information among individuals in terms, for instance, of where food can be located and in what amounts. It is language that creates the human "ultrasociality," it is language that allows us to get together, plan ahead, get things done. Language can be seen as a technology of communication of incredible power. But, as for all technologies, it has unexpected consequences.

We all know that the sound that we write as "deer" is associated with a specific kind of beast. With this symbol you can create sentences such as "I saw a deer near the river, let's go hunt it!" But, when you create the symbol, in some ways you "create" a deer - a ghostly creature that has some of the characteristics of real deer. You can imagine the deer, even if there is no real deer around. And this symbol has a certain power, maybe you could make a deer appear by pronouncing its name or drawing its symbol on a cave's wall. It is the principle that we call "sympathetic magic", perhaps the oldest and most basic form of magic.

Creating a virtual deer is a useful thing if the correspondence with real deer is not lost. The problem with language is that this is not always the case. The deer you are talking about may not exist, it may be an illusion, a mistake, or, worse, a ruse to entrap and kill an enemy of yours. This is the origin of the concept we call "lie." You can use language not just to collaborate with your neighbors, but to deceive them. We have evidence that our ancestors faced the problem from the earliest written records we have. In some ancient Sumerian tablets that go back to the 3rd millennium BCE (*), we find that among the "me" (the powers) that the Goddess Inanna stole from the God Enki, one is "to utter words of deception".

The question of lying is crucial for human survival. The deer your friend told you was near the river disappears into virtual space: you cannot say whether it was real or not. The stupendous technology of language, developed over hundreds of thousands of years, destroys itself with the unintended consequence of lying.

All technologies have unintended consequences, all are amenable to some kinds of technological fixes. Fighting lies requires evaluating statements and who is uttering them. The simplest way to do it is to base the evaluation on trust. We all know the story of "the boy who cried wolf," probably as ancient as homo sapiens. In its various versions, it says, "if you lie once, you won't be believed again". And it works; it has worked for hundreds of thousands of years and it still works. Think of your current circle of acquaintances; those people you personally know and have known for a certain time. You trust them; you know that they won't lie to you. It is for this reason that you call them "friends," "buddies," "pals," and the like.

But that works as long as you maintain your relationships within a small group and we know that the size of a circle of close relations doesn't normally go beyond some 150 persons (it is called the "Dumbar number"). Within this size, the reputation of each member is known to everyone else and liars are easily identified and contrasted (or even expelled). The problem came when people started living in large cities and states. Then, most people would interact with a much larger number of people than the comfortable Dumbar number. How can we tell if someone you never met before is to be trusted or not? In this situation, the only defense against swindlers is indirect clues: the way of dressing, the way of speaking, the physical aspect; but none is as effective as the trust in someone you know well.

But that was nothing in comparison to what came along with the age of the mass media. Then, you would read things, hear things, see things in the media, but you really had no clue on where these communications came from, nor you could check whether the virtual reality in front of you corresponded to the real world. As mass media expanded their reach, the people controlling them discovered that lying was easy and that they had very little to lose in lying. At the receiving end, there were people confused and unable to verify the information they received. The media could easily tell them lies that would go undiscovered, at least for a while. Think of the story of the "weapons of mass destruction" that Iraq was supposed to be developing before the invasion of 2003. In this case, the lie became obvious after that no such weapons surfaced in the invaded Iraq, but the liars had obtained what they wanted and they suffered no ill consequences from their action. It was at that time that an aide to Donald Rumsfeld is reported to have said, "now we can create our own reality." A triumph of sympathetic magic, indeed.

Then, the Internet and the social media came and they democratized lying. Now everyone could lie to everyone else simply by sharing a message. Truth didn't come anymore from the trust in the people who were transmitting it, but from the number of "likes" and shares a message received. Truth can't possibly be the same as virality, but it appears to have become exactly that in the general perception: if something is shared by a lot of people, then it has to be true.

So, today, we are lied continuously, consistently, and gleefully by about everyone and just about everything. Half truths, pure inventions, distortions of reality, word games, false flags, skewed statistics, and more are the communications we face every day. The tsunami of lies that's crashing upon us is nearly unimaginable and it has consequences, dire consequences. It is making us unable to trust anything and anyone. We are losing contact with reality, we don't know anymore how to filter the innumerable messages we receive. Trust is a major issue in human life; not for nothing, the devil is said to be "the father of lies" (John 8:44). And, indeed, what the anthropologist Roy Rappaport called "diabolical lies" are those lies that directly tamper with the very fabric of reality. And if you lose track with reality, you are lost yourself. That that may be what's happening to all of us.

Some of us find it easiest simply to believe in what they are told by governments and lobbies; others move into a generalized mistrust of everything; easily falling victim of opposite lies. Diabolical lies are fractal, they hide more lies inside, they are part of bigger lies. Consider an event such as the 9/11 attacks in New York; it is by now hidden behind such a layer of multiple lies of all kinds that what really happened that day is impossible to discern, and perhaps destined to remain such forever.

So, we are back to the "boy who cried wolf" issue. We are the boy, we are not trusting anyone, we are not trusted by anyone, and the wolf is here for real. The wolf takes the shape of global warming, of resource depletion, of ecosystem collapse, and more, but most of us are unable to recognize it, even to imagine that it could exist. But how to fault those people who have been cheated so many times that they decided that they won't believe anything that comes from even a marginally "official" channel? This is a major disaster and it is occurring right now, in front of our eyes. We have become one of those ancient deer destroyed by the weight of their stupendous horns. Language is playing a trick on us, backfiring on us after having been so useful for us.

We often believe that technology is always useful and that new technologies will save us from the disasters befalling on us.  I am starting to think that what we need is not more technology but less. And if language is a technology, it seems to me that we are having too much of it, really. We are hearing too many speeches, too many words, too much noise. Perhaps, we all need a moment of silence. Perhaps Lao Tzu saw this already long ago when he wrote in the Tao Te Ching (**)

Much speech leads inevitably to silence. 
Better to hold fast to the void.


(*) From Nin Me Sara, translated by Betty De Shong Meador

(**)  Translated by E. C. Lau

Se also an earlier post of mine "The Empire of Lies"

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The climate emergency: time to switch to panic mode?

The latest temperature data have broken all records (image from "think progress"). At best, this is an especially large oscillation and the climate system will be soon back on track; following the predictions of the models - maybe to be retouched to take into account a higher climate sensitivity to CO2 concentrationsing temperatures. At worst, it is an indication that the system is going out of control and moving to a new climate state faster than anyone could have imagined.

James Schlesinger once uttered one of those profound truths that explain a lot of what we see around us: it was: "people have only two modes of operation: complacency and panic."

So far, we have been in the "complacency" mode of operation in regard to climate change: it doesn't exist, if exist it is not a problem, if it is a problem, it is not our fault, and anyway doing something about it would be too expensive to be worth doing. But the latest temperature data are nothing but spine-chilling. What are we seeing? Is this just a sort of a rebound from the so-called "pause"? Or something much more worrisome? We may be seeing something that portends a major switch in the climate system; an unexpected acceleration of the rate of change. There are reasons to be worried, very worried: the CO2 emissions seem to have peaked, but that didn't generate a slowdown of the rate of increase of the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere. If nothing else, it is growing faster than ever. And then there is the ongoing methane spike and, as you know, methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2.

What's happening? Nobody can say for sure, but these are not good symptoms; not at all. And that may be a good reason to switch to panic mode.

The problem is that societies; specifically in the form called "states" do not normally show much intelligence in their behavior, especially when they are in a state of panic. One of the reasons is that states are normally ruled by psychopaths whose attitude is based on a set of simple rules, mainly involving intimidation or violence, or both. But it is not just a question of psychopaths in power; the whole society reacts to threats like a psychopath: with the emphasis on doing "something", without much concern about whether it is the right thing to do and what would the consequences could be. So, if climate starts to be perceived as a real and immediate threat, we may expect a reaction endowed with all the strategic finesse of a street brawl: "you hit me - I hit you."

A possible, counterintuitive, panic reaction might be of "doubling down" in the denial of the threat. That could lead to actions such as actively suppressing the diffusion of data and studies about climate; de-funding climate research, closing down climate research centers, marginalizing those who believe that climate is a problem; for instance classifying them among "terrorists." All that is already happening in some degree and it may well become the next craze, in particular if the coming US elections will handle the presidency to an active climate denier. That would mean hard times for at least a few years for everyone who is trying to do something against climate change. And, perhaps, it would mean the total ruin of the Earth's ecosystem.

The other possibility is to switch all the way to the other extreme and fight climate change with the same methods used to fight terrorism; that is, bombing it into submission. Of course, you cannot bomb the earth's climate into submission, but the idea of forcing the ecosystem to behave the way we want is the basic concept of "geoengineering".

In the world of environmentalism, geoengineering enjoys more or less the same reputation that Saddam Hussein enjoyed in the Western press in the 1990s. That's for good reasons: geoengineering is often a set of ideas that go from the dangerous to the impossible, all ringing of desperation. For a good idea of how exactly desperate these ideas can be, just take a look at the results of a recent study on the idea of pumping huge amounts of seawater on top of the Antarctic ice sheet in order to prevent sea level rise. If it were a science fiction novel, you'd say it is too silly to be worth reading.

However, it may be appropriate to start familiarizing with the idea that geoengineering might be the next world craze. And, perhaps, it is better to take the risk of doing something that could go wrong than to do nothing, considering that we have been doing nothing so far. Don't forget that there are also good forms of geoengineering, for instance the form called "biosphere regeneration." It is based on reforestation, fighting desertification, regenerative agriculture and the like. Removing some CO2 from the atmosphere by transforming it into plants can't do too much damage, although it cannot be enough to solve the problem. But it may stimulate also other fields of action against climate change; from adaptation to switching to renewable energy. Maybe there is still hope..... maybe.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The war of the sexes

This is a post taken from the "Chimeras" blog. I wrote it about one week ago, without thinking of the upcoming international women's day, but now I see it as especially suitable for the occasion. It is not strictly related to the subjects of "Cassandra's legacy", but I can't avoid thinking that slavery has been abolished only because fossil fuels made slaves unnecessary. And, in a future without fossil fuels and without equivalent sources of energy, we might well go back to slavery (maybe the current debate within the US Republican party is worrisome in this sense). But let's not think about that; the Women's day is a celebration that women fully deserve and I am trying my best to praise them with this post.

The war of the sexes: the origins of gender inequality

 The story of Scheherazade of the 1001 Arabian Nights is the quintessence of the "war of the sexes" and of how women tend to lose it. It is said that King Shahryar would have a new lover every night and every morning he would have her killed. He stopped only when Scheherazade started telling him stories. It shows, among other things, that males behave much better when they listen to females. Picture: Scheherazade and Shahryār by Ferdinand Keller, 1880

Some time ago, I was chatting at home with a friend who is a researcher specialized in "gender inequality". I asked her what were the ultimate origins of this inequality but we couldn't arrive at a conclusion. So, I happened to have in a shelf nearby a copy of the "Malleus Maleficarum", the book that Kramer and Sprenger wrote in the 16th century on the evils of witchcraft. I took it out and I opened it to the page where the authors dedicate several paragraphs to describe how evil women are. I read a few of these paragraphs aloud and my friend was so enraged that she left the room, without saying a word. Later on, she told me that she had done that to avoid telling me what she thought I deserved to be told just for keeping that book in my shelves. Maybe she was right, but the question of the origins of gender inequality remained unanswered (BTW, later on, we became friends again). 

Why are women so commonly discriminated in almost all cultures, modern and ancient? Of course, there are plenty of studies attempting to explain the reasons. It is an interdisciplinary field that mixes history, anthropology, psychology, social studies, and even more; you can spend your whole life working on it. I don't even remotely pretend to be saying something definitive or even deep on this subject. It is just that, after much thinking on this matter, I thought that I could share with you some of my conclusions. So, here is a narrative of how gender inequality developed over the centuries in Europe and in the Mediterranean regiond. I hope you'll find in it something worth pondering.

Let's go back in time, way back; when does the phenomenon that we call "gender inequality" starts? You probably know that Marija Gimbutas has been arguing for a long time that the pre-literate ages in Europe were characterized by a form of matriarchy and by the predominance of the cult of a female goddess (or goddesses). That is, of course, debatable and it is hotly debated; there is very little that we have from those ancient times that can tell us how men and women related to each other. However, when we move to the first examples of literature we have then we see at least hints of a different world that involved some kind - perhaps - if not female dominance at least a more assertive role of women. Indeed, the first text for which we know the name of the author was written by the Sumerian priestess Enheduanna at some moment during the second half of the third millennium BCE. From these ancient times, there comes a very strong voice: the voice of a woman asserting the rule of the Goddess Inanna over the pantheon of male Gods of her times, hinting at an even larger role of female goddesses in more ancient times.

If we follow the millennia as they move onward, it seems that the voice of women becomes fainter and fainter. In Greece, we have Sappho of Lesbos, renown for her poetry, but she comes from a very early age; the seventh century BCE. As the Greek civilization grew and was absorbed into the Roman one, woman literates seem to dwindle. Of the whole span of the Western Roman civilization, we know of a modest number of literate women and there are only two Roman female poets whose works have reached us. Both go with the name of Sulpicia and you probably never heard of them. As poetry goes, the first Sulpicia, who lived at the times of August, may be interesting to look at. The second one, living in later times, has survived in a few lines only because they are explicitly erotic. But it is so little in comparison with so much Greek and Latin literature we still have. Women of those times may not have been really silent but, in literary terms, we just don't hear their voices.

On the other side of the sexual barrier, note how the "Malleus Maleficarum" bases its several pages of insult to women largely on classical authors, for instance, Cicero, Lactantius, Terence, and others; as well as on the early Christian fathers. It may be surprising for us to discover that from the early imperial times to the early Middle Ages most writers were woman-haters. They thought that sex was, at best, a necessary evil that one had to stand in order to ensure the perpetuation of humankind; but no more than that. Chastity, if one could attain it, was by far the best condition for man and woman alike and, for sure, sex with a woman was only a source of perversity and of debasement. An early Christian father, Origen (3rd century CE) is reported to have taken the matter to the extreme and castrated himself, although that's not certain and surely it never became something popular.

With the decline and fall of the Western Roman Empire, there appeared something that had never existed before: monastic orders. Never before so many men and women had decided that they wanted to live in complete separation from the members of the other sex. Read a book such as the "pratum spirituale" by 6th century CE the Byzantine monk John Moschos, and you get the impression that everyone at that time, males and females, were obsessed by sex; how to avoid it, that is. Chastity had never been considered a virtue before and, yet, now it had become the paramount one. At least, however, it seems that women had gained a certain degree of independence, seeking for chastity in their own ways and with a dignity of their own. Reading documents from that age, you get the well-defined impression that men and women had somehow decided that they wanted to avoid each other for a while. It was a pause that lasted several centuries. How did that happen?

I think there are reasons, but to understand them we must go back to Roman times and try to understand what was the relationship between men and women at that age. And we may find that it was deeply poisoned by a sickness that pervaded the society of those times: social inequality and, in particular, the institution of slavery.

It is well known that the Roman Empire heavily based its wealth on the work of slaves. Their number is estimated as around 10% of the population, but it was larger in the richest regions of the empire. Probably, during the 1st century CE, some 30%-40% of the population of Italy was composed of slaves (1). Slavery was an integral part of the Roman economy and one of the main aims of the Roman military conquests was capturing of large numbers of foreigners, who then were turned into slaves.

Now, most slaves were male and were used for heavy or menial work, in agriculture, for instance. But many of them were female, and, obviously, young and attractive slaves, both male and female, were used as sex objects. Slaves were not considered as having rights. They simply were property. Caroline Osiek writes that (2).

To the female slave, therefore, honor, whether of character or of behavior, cannot be ascribed. The female slave can lay no claim to chastity or shame, which have no meaning. In the official view, she cannot have sensitivity toward chastity. Her honor cannot be violated because it does not exist. .. No legal recognition is granted to the sexual privacy of a female slave.

To have a better idea of how female slaves were considered in Roman times, we may turn to a late Roman poet, Ausonius (4th century CE) who had gained a certain notoriety in his times. He was not only a poet but an accomplished politician who had a chance to accompany Emperor Gratian in a military raid in Germania. From there, he returned with a Germanic slave girl named Bissula. He wrote a poem in her honor that says, among other things,

Delicium, blanditiae, ludus, amor, voluptas,
barbara, sed quae Latias vincis alumna pupas,
Bissula, nomen tenerae rusticulum puellae, 
horridulum non solitis, sed domino venustum.

that I can translate as

Delice, blandishment, play, love, desire,
barbarian, but you baby beat the Latin girls. 
Bissula, a tender name, a little rustic for a girl
A little rough for those not used to it, but a grace for your master

It is clear that Ausonius likes Bissula; we could even say that he is fond of her. But it is the same kind of attitude that we may have for a pet; a cat or a dog that we may like a lot, but that we don't consider our equal. Bissula was no more than a pet in terms of rights. It is true that her master was not supposed to mistreat her, and we have no evidence that he ever did. But she had no more rights than those pertaining to a rubber doll in our times. In modern terms, we can say that she was being legally raped. And nobody seemed to find this strange; so much that Ausonius' poem that described this legal rape was considered wholly normal and it was appreciated.

If we can still hear Ausonius' voice, we cannot hear that of Bissula. Probably, she couldn't read and write, to say nothing about doing that in proper Latin. So, what she thought of her master is anyone's guess. Was she happy that she was getting at least food and shelter from him? Or did she hate him for having been one od those who had, perhaps, exterminated her family and her parents? Did she ever dream of sticking a hairpin into Ausonius' eye? Perhaps; but we have no evidence that she ever did. If she had done something like that, by the way, she would have condemned to death all the slave of Ausonius' household. The Roman law practiced a strict interpretation of the principle of common intention and when it happened that a slave killed his/her master, it required that all the slaves of that master were to be executed. It happened in several occasions and the law was put into practice.

So, we cannot hear Bissula's voice, just as we can't hear the voice of the millions of sex slaves that crossed the trajectory of the Roman Empire, from its foundation to its end in the 5th century CE. Exploited, without rights, probably turned to menial work whenever they got older and their masters lost interest in them, their voice is lost in the abyss of time and we can only imagine their plea. But, perhaps, we can get a glimpse of their feelings from their reflection on the other side; that of their masters who, in Imperial times spent pages and pages of their writings at insulting women. Yes, because the silent side, that of the slaves, was not without weapons in the war that the masters were waging against them. The masters didn't realize that they couldn't get love from a rubber doll, although they may have expected it. But they got back only hatred and despise, as they deserved. Imagine yourself as Bissula. Do you imagine she could have loved Ausonius? And can you imagine how could she have taken some revenge on him? I am sure there were ways, even though we can't say whether Bissula ever put them into practice. No wonder that so many men in these times accused women of treachery. In the war of the sexes, the women had to use guerrilla tactics, and apparently they were doing that with some success.

If slavery turned woman slaves into sex objects, the resulting war of the sexes must have had negative effect also on free women. They were not supposed to be legally raped as the slaves, but surely they could not ignore what their husbands were doing (and, by the way, free Roman women were not supposed to rape their male slaves and, if they did, they were not supposed to write poems about how cute their male sex dolls were). Very likely, this situation poisoned the male/female relations of generations of Roman citizens. Thinking of that, we cannot be surprised of the avalanche of insults that Roman male writers poured on women (want an example? Seneca in his tragedies [11 (117)]: "when a woman thinks alone, she thinks evil")

That kind of poisoned relationship continued for a long time but, at a certain moment, not much later than Ausonius' times, the Empire ceased to be able to raid slaves from anywhere, and then it disappeared. Slavery didn't disappear with the Empire: we had to wait for the 19th century to see it disappear for good. But, surely, the whole situation changed and slaves were not any more so common. The Christian church took a lot of time before arriving at a clear condemnation of slavery, but turning people into sex toys was not seen anymore as the obvious things to do. So, things changed a lot and we may understand how during Middle Ages men and women were taking that "pause." It was as if they were looking at each other, thinking "who should make the first move?" A shyness that lasted for centuries.

And then, things changed again. It was an impetuous movement, a reversal of the time of hatred between men and women: it was the time of courtly love. With the turning of the millennium, the amour courtois started to appear in Europe and it became all the rage. Men and women were looking again at each other and they were looking at each other in romantic terms: they loved each other. The love between man and woman became a noble thing, a way to obtain enlightenment - perhaps better than chastity. From the Northern Celtic tradition, the legend of two lovers, Tristan and Iseult, bursts into the literary scene. And it was a dam that gave way. Lancelot and Guinevere, then Dante and Beatrice, Petrarca and Laura, Ibn Arabi and Nizham. West European and Mediterranean poets couldn't think of anything better to express themselves than to dedicate them to noble women whom they love and respect.

And we hear again the voice of women: and what a voice! Think of Heloise, pupil and lover of Abelard, the philosopher, in a tragic love story that took place during the early 12th century. Heloise comes to us with unforgettable words: "To her master, nay father, to her husband, nay brother; from his handmaid, nay daughter, his spouse, nay sister: to Abelard, from Heloise. And if the name of wife appears more sacred and more valid, sweeter to me is ever the word friend, or, if you be not ashamed, concubine or whore." What can you say about this? I can only say that my lower jaw falls down as I utter "Wow!!"

It was a long journey from Heloise to our times. Long and tormented, just think that not much later than Heloise, the French mystic Marguerite Porete wrote her book "The mirror of the simple souls" in a style and content that reminds the works of the Sumerian Enheduanna, four thousand years before. And Marguerite Porete was burned at the stake for what she had written. Some centuries later, the war against females continued with the various witch hunts, fueled by books such as "The Malleus Maleficarum" (1520). And think that it was only in the second half of the 20th century that women were generally considered smart enough that they were allowed to vote in general elections. But we have arrived somewhere, to an age in which "gender inequality" is considered something wholly negative, to be avoided at all costs. An age in which, at least in the West, the idea that women are equal to men is obvious, or should be. And an age in which using woman slaves as sex toys is (or should be) considered as an absolute evil.

And yet, if history moves forward, it also moves along a tortuous road and sometimes it goes in circles. The similarities of our times and Roman ones are many. Certainly, we don't have slaves anymore, not officially, at least. But that may not be so much a social and ethical triumph but a consequence of the fact that our society is much more monetarized than the Roman one. The need for money can easily make a man or a woman the monetary equivalent of a slave of Roman times. We call "sex workers" those people who engage in sex for money; they are supposed to be free men and free women, but freedom can only be theoretical when, if you really want it, you have to pay for it by starvation. And while the armies of the globalized empire do not raid anymore the neighboring countries to bring back male and female slaves, it is the global financial power that forces them to come to the West. They have little choice but to leave countries ravaged by wars, droughts, and poverty. In general, the social equality that the Western World had been constantly gaining after the industrial revolution, seems to have stopped its movement. Since the 1970s, we are going in reverse, social inequalities are on the increase. Are we going to re-legalize slavery? It is not an impossible thought if you think that it was still legal in the US up to 1865.

So, maybe the rich elites of our times would again turn women into sex objects? Maybe they are doing that already. Think of Italy's leader, Silvio Berlusconi. Enough has been diffused of his private life for us to understand that he behaved not unlike Ausonius with his female toys, except that, luckily for us, he has not imposed on us some bad poetry of his.

So, is the war of the sexes going to restart? Are we going to see again the relations between men and women souring because of the deep inequality that turns women into sex toys? And maybe we are going to see the monastic orders returning and, perhaps, in a far future, a new explosion of reciprocal love? It is, of course, impossible to say. What we can say is that the world empire that we call "globalization" is all based on fossil fuels and that it is going to have a short life; very likely much shorter than that of the Roman Empire. Maybe the cycle will not be restarting, maybe it will; we cannot say. Humankind is engaged in a travel toward the future that is taking us somewhere, but we don't know where. Wherever we are going, the path is something we create with our feet as we march onward.

h/t: Elisabetta Addis

1. Harper, Slavery in the Late Roman World, AD 275-425. Cambridge University Press, 2011,

2. Carolyn Osniek, Female Slaves, Porneia and the limits to obedience, in "Early Christian Families in Context: An Interdisciplinary Dialogue" David Balch and Carolyn Osniek eds. Wm. Eedermans publishing Co. Cambridge, 2003

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Living in interesting times: have CO2 emissions peaked?

Image from MIT Technology Review

The projections that had been circulating during the past few months turned out to be correct. Now, it is official: the global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions peaked in 2014 and went down in 2015. And this could be a momentous change.

Don't expect the emission peak, alone, to save us from the impending climate disaster, but, if CO2 emissions will start an irreversible decline, then we need to rethink several assumptions that we have been making on how to deal with climate change. In particular, depletion is normally assumed to be a minor factor in determining the trajectory of the world's economy during the coming decades, but that may not be the case. Depletion is not a good thing in itself, but it might help us (perhaps) to stay within the "safe" limits and avoid a climate disaster.

CO2 emissions are mainly the result of the combustion of fossil fuels and of activities made possible by the combustion of fossil fuels. And, since we expect the production of fossil fuels to peak and decline as the result of depletion, it shouldn't be a surprise that CO2 emissions should peak too. But it is surprising that we may be already seeing the peak. For instance, Laherrere had assumed the peak for all fossils to occur not before around 2025. And many people would have seen these projections as ridiculously catastrophistic. Most of the published scenarios for the future saw CO2 emissions increasing for at least a few decades in the future unless draconian economic or legislative measures to limit them were taken.

So, what we are seeing may be simply a fluctuation; not necessarily "the peak". But, it might also be the big one: the point of no-return. From now on, we may find ourselves rolling down on the other side of the Hubbert curve. It would be the true vindication of the "base case" scenario of "The Limits to Growth" that had seen the combination of gradual depletion and pollution to cause the start of the terminal decline of the fossil based industrial system at some moment during the 2nd-3rd decade of the 21st century.

Let's assume that we really are at the peak of both emissions and fossil energy consumption, then what? First of all, the event will be surely misinterpreted. The techno-optimists will say that what we are seeing is proof of how human ingenuity can solve all problems while the anti-science crowd will hail these results as the evidence of two things: 1) that climate is nothing to be worried about and 2) that those silly climate scientists have been proven wrong one more time.

Of course, none of these interpretations is correct and the situation remains critical for various good reasons. I can list at least three of them

1. There is really no reason to congratulate ourselves for being so smart. The reduction in emissions may be partly due to better efficiency, renewable energy, and the like. But, mainly, it is the result of the global economic slowdown. The IMF data indicate that the world's GDP has peaked in 2014, together with CO2 emissions and 2016 could shrink even more (see also Tyler Durden). The reasons for all this have to do with the gradual decline of the energy yield of fossil fuels, in turn related to progressive depletion. That has generated the disaster that struck the oil industry and the whole mineral industry in the form of collapsing prices. With the decline of the extractive industry, the reason why emissions peaked is because people are poorer, not smarter (so much for the so-called "dematerialization" of the economy).

2. The fact that emissions may have peaked does not mean a reduction in the CO2 accumulation in the ecosystem. We are only slowing down the flow, but the stocks keep being filled. CO2 accumulates in two main reservoirs: the atmosphere and the oceans and we may already have too much of it in both. And that says nothing about possible feedback effects out of human control, such as the release of methane from hydrates. So, we are still risking a lot in terms of the very unpleasant things that could occur in the future (including a runaway climate change).

3. Even assuming that emissions are facing an irreversible decline, the decline rate is likely to be still too slow to stay within the limits that are perceived as (perhaps) safe. Let's assume that emissions will follow a "Hubbert" curve, that is they will go down at the same speed as they went up so far. It means that in the future we will emit approximately as much we have emitted up to now. Can that save us from catastrophic climate change? Not really. So far, we emitted a grand total 1465 gigaton (Gt) of CO2) that might be the amount that we'll emit in the future. Unfortunately, according to Meinshausen et al  in order to have a 25% probability to stay below the 2 degrees limit, we cannot emit more than about 1000 Gt of CO2. And we are not there. According to Meisenhausen, with 1500 Gt of CO2 emitted, we are almost exactly at a 50/50 probability of staying below 2 C. If your hobby is to play the Russian roulette with a real gun, you should enjoy the situation we find ourselves in.

Still, the possible peaking of the CO2 emission. although not sufficient to save us, may not be a bad thing since, at least, it eases the task of staying within the safe limits. And not just that. These new data should lead us to rethink about some of our entrenched assumptions. So far, we have been assuming that a herculean effort will be needed to force the economic system to stop using resources that were assumed to be abundant and cheap. So herculean that it seemed to be totally impossible. But, if we really are at the peak of fossils, then the effort needed could be much less herculean: depletion will help us a lot. At this point, the emphasis should shift from "phasing out" fossil fuels - that would go largely by itself - to "phasing in" renewables - that needs a specific effort. And if we want to phase in the renewables we need to do that before the collapse of the fossil fuel industry makes it impossible to invest enough in their deployment.

Finally, there is another interesting possibility (in the sense of the ancient Chinese curse: 'may you live in interesting times'). The decline might not follow a
Hubbert curve but, rather, a Seneca curve. That is, emissions may decline much faster than they grew in the past. That implies, of course, a parallel crash of fossil fuel production and of the world GDP. The resulting  economic collapse might keep us within the "safe" climate limits. That would be so bad to be almost unimaginable, but, at least, better than some truly horrible climate scenarios. And, why not, we could have both the collapse of the economy and a runaway climate change! (not just fire or ice, but fire and ice)

Truly, we live in interesting times.


Note: from some messages I received, it seems that many people find that the mere concept that the world GDP could decline is unthinkable and contrary to some universal principle. And, yet, it is shrinking. See this plot from Vox.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

The other side of the global crisis: entropy and the collapse of civilizations

Guest post by Jacopo Simonetta

When we discuss the impending crisis of our civilisation, we mainly look at the resources our economy needs in growing quantity. And we explain why the Diminishing Returns of resource exploitation pose a growing burden on  the possibility of a further growing of the global economy. It is a very interesting topic, indeed, but here I suggest we turn 180 degrees around and take a look at the “other side;” that is to what happens where the used resources are discarded.

Eventually, our society (as any other society in history) is a dissipative structure. It means that it exist only because it is able to dissipate energy in order to stock information inside itself. And there is a positive feedback: more energy permits to implement more complexity; and more complexity needs, but also permits a larger energy flow. This, I think, is a crucial point: at the very end, wealth is information stocked inside the socio-economic system in different forms (such livestock, infrastructures, agrarian facilities, machines, buildings, books, the web and so on). Human population is peculiar because it is a large part of the information stocked inside the society system. So, from a thermodynamic point of view, it is the key part of “wealth”, while from an economic point of view people can be seen as the denominator of global wealth.

The accumulation of information inside a system is possible only by an increment of entropy outside the same system. This is usual with all the dissipative structures, but our civilisation is unique in its dimension. Today about 97% of the terrestrial vertebrate biomass is composed of humans and of their symbionts and we use about 50% of the primary production (400 TW?), plus a little less than 20 TW we get from fossil fuels and other inorganic sources.
At the beginning, our modern civilisation performed in the same way as all the others in history: appropriating energy forms such as food, livestock, commodities, slaves, oil, carbon and so on, and throwing entropy to the biosphere in different forms such as pollutants, ecosystems transformations, extinctions, heat and so on; while throwing entropy to other societies as war, migration, etcetera.

As the industrial economy overruled and substituted all others, it became the only economy in the world, and so, necessarily, found more and more difficulties in dissipating energy outside itself. In practice, sinks become problematic before wells do. But remember that in order to implement its own complexity, a dissipative system needs a growing energy flow; that is, it needs cornucopian energy wells.

Today, both global pollution and massive immigration into the more industrialized countries is evidence that our system is no longer able to expel entropy out of itself. But if entropy is not discharged out of the system, it necessarily grows inside it. And when there is more energy, there is more entropy in a typical diminishing returns dynamic. Maybe, we can see here a negative feedback which has stopped economic growth and that will possibly crash the global economy in some decades.  [Ed- this is highly optimistic, the crash has started, and ‘in some decades’ the economy will simpy no longer exist!]

If this reasoning is correct, the political and the economic crisis, social disruption and, finally, failing states are nothing less than the visible aspect of the growing entropy inside our own meta-system. Eventually, global society is so large and complex as is obvious in many correlated sub-systems that we are now managing it in order to concentrate entropy inside the less powerful ones: some yet problematic countries, lower classes and, especially, the young. But these phenomena produce political shifts, riots and mass migrations at the core of the system. This also means that the elites have lost the capability to understand and/or control the internal dynamic of the global socio-economic system.
In the meantime, the overloading of the sinks is starting to cause the deterioration of the wells. This is evident, for instance, with air and water pollution, ocean acidification, mass extinction, ecosystems disruption, and much more. In the end, as the economy grows, the global system necessarily loses the capacity to dissipate energy, condemning itself to disruption.

We can find the same phenomenon at smaller scales, such as for a single organism, or such as in a single human being. If a good energy flow is available in the form of food and heat, a baby can develop into a strong and healthy adult. Good flows of energy during adult life mean a better life and the possibility to develop culture, skills, art, science and to keep one’s health for a long time. Insufficient energy means starvation and illness. But it is also true that if the body absorbs a quantity of energy larger than its capacity to dissipate it, then we have problems such as, illness, obesity and, finally, a bad life and premature death.

We found the very same phenomenon at larger scales as well. The Earth as a whole is also a dissipative, complex system. It does not have any problems with its main energy well, the Sun. We can be sure that the 86,000 TW that we receive from the sun on average are not going away, although they will gradually increase over very long time spans. But the whole biosphere is collapsing in one of the most serious crisis it has ever faced during the 4.5 billions years of its history. This crisis is the result of human activity that reduces the capability of the ecosystem to dissipate the energy input, in particular as a result of the greenhouse effect caused by the combustion of fossil fuels. So the internal entropy grows with the consequence of harming even more the ecosystems and reducing complexity, possibly leading to a global disaster at a geological scale.

In conclusion, I suggest that, in the coming decades, entropy will be a much more challenging problem than that of the energy supply. Only a drastic reduction in the energy input could save the biosphere. But this is a high price to pay because a reduction of energy flow means necessarily a reduction of complexity and information stored inside the human sub-system. It means misery and death for much of the human population, although it also means hope for the future one (assuming that it will exist, but humans are too adaptable and resilient to go extinct as long as a functioning biosphere exists) So, new civilizations will appear but, in order for that to occur, the present civilization will have to collapse fast enough to leave a livable planet to our descendants.

Note: this post by Jacopo Simonetta was edited by a native English speaker, the "grumpy old man" who keeps the blog "Damn the Matrix" and the edited version published on his site. So, I cut and pasted it in here, in place of the original version, with many thanks! (UB)


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)