Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Brexit: requiem for a dream

For many years, I had thought that a united Europe was a great idea. An institution created by wise men who had wanted to avoid repeating the horrible mistakes that had led Europeans to massacre each other in two terrible wars. Europe was supposed to be a Europe of the people, a force for peace, for  justice, for equality, for the defense of both humankind and nature.

Two years ago, I was in Brussels for a hearing at the European Parliament; it was a shock. The Europe I knew, the Europe I thought I knew, wasn't anywhere to be found. What I found was a bunch of ill-advised, pompous bureaucrats wandering in a gigantic and useless palace. The ghosts of the founders had been thoroughly exorcised and now what was left was an empty shell; a structure that just perpetuated itself without any clear purpose, except drilling more fossil fuels out of the ground, and - maybe - make war to Russia. The dream of a Europe of the peoples acting for peace and justice was gone. Requiem for a dream.

And now what? It seems clear that Europe, as it is now, cannot survive this blow and maybe this is not a bad thing. Can we reform this Europe? Or can we restart from scratch? Impossible to say. In any case, here is the post that I wrote two years ago after my trip to Brussels. If you can read Spanish, you may be also interested in these considerations by Antono Turiel.


Bringing the message about resource depletion to the European Parliament

With 24 languages deemed as "official," the European Union shares some characteristics with the ancient Babel Tower (above, the parliament building in Strasbourg). The Babel of languages is one of the problems associated with trying to pass messages to politicians, but not the most important one. Rather, the main problem seems to be a decisional mechanism which favors groupthink Here are some notes of a recent experience of mine at a hearing on energy security of the European Parliament in Brussels.

As I walk to the hearing on energy security in Europe, I am struck first of all by the size of the hall. The "Alcide De Gasperi" room in the palace of the European Parliament in Brussels was clearly built for impressing people, in addition to its function as a meeting room. One of its most remarkable features is the long row of windows of the interpreters' rooms. Since there are 24 official languages of the European Union, there have to be some 50 interpreters working in there. Then, I also notice how the screens for projecting one's slides are small and located high up, near the ceiling. This is not a place where you are supposed to support your statements with data and graphs. It is a place built for political debate.

As people collect in the hall, I can see that the atmosphere is rather formal, with several members of the European Parliament sitting in the audience. Most people are dressed in suits and many wear ties. On the podium, there are six invited speakers. And there we go; I immediately sense the mood of the conference: this is not a scientific meeting. None of the speakers seem to be an expert about fossil fuels, intended as markets, production, resources, reserves, and the like. Rather, they seem to be mainly concerned with strategic and political issues. The line that emerges from the presentations and from the reactions of the audience is clear: it is a highly confrontational attitude (to put it mildly) toward Russia, accused to be engaging in an economic war against Western Europe. The gist of what I hear is that the European Union must unite in defense; we must follow the example of the United States and get rid of our silly regulations and of the local resistance against drilling and nuclear plants. Europe can exploit its shale gas and oil resources (and also nuclear energy) and attain energy independence, as the United States did. It is "drill, drill, drill" all over.

This line, in various shades, is the position of four speakers out of six. The bias in favor of fossil fuels is shown also by the fact that the lady charged with defending renewables is given the last time slot of the hearing. The fossil oriented attitude seems to be shared by the majority of the audience. Not that it is not challenged by some of the MEPs in the room. One of them (I know him well, he has been a long time ASPO supporter) stands up and tells to one of the speakers: "it is not true that the United States has attained energy independence. You have to stop getting your data from newspapers!". He is right, (you can look at the data yourself). But it is an isolated reaction, and the overall debate remains based on the idea that the US has become energy independent or that, at least, it will soon become independent.

When it is my turn to speak, I tell a different story. I try to explain that the ultimate origin of the energy security problems in Europe is due to depletion, and that drilling more is not the solution. I keep the message as simple as possible; tailored for people who are not specialists in oil and gas. I show the price trends, I tell them something about energy return, and I make the point that renewable energy is not subjected to depletion. I sense that my talk is well received: the people in the audience listen to what I say, and they look up at my slides (but those screens are too high and too small, dammit!). I also get several questions and comments - mostly favorable ones. After the hearing is over, several people stop me to discuss further about what I said. As a talk, it was a reasonably successful one.

But, on the whole, I think I had a very modest impact, if any. As I noticed many times, it is extremely difficult to pass to decision makers messages which are perceived as out of the ordinary, as the message on resource depletion is. The problem has many facets and it has to do, mainly, with the way politicians think. According to my experience, politicians - especially high level ones - are very smart people. The problem is that they are swamped with information; just as most of us. So, in the great mass of data arriving, how do you decide what is the truth? If you are a scientist - or you are scientifically trained - you have ways to evaluate the data and filter out the bad ones. But politicians are not scientists, they are not scientifically trained, so they use a different method. They maintain a healthy dose of skepticism about everything they hear; they don't pay too much attention on data, and they tend to side with the interpretation that they perceive as the most compatible with the general opinion of the group they belong to.

There are reasons for this "groupthink" syndrome that, probably, affects politicians more than most of us. It is because then main tool in the political struggle, today, is the demonization of adversaries. So, a politician is very careful to avoid to be singled out from the crowd of colleagues and subjected to the standard demonizing treatment. For a politician, there is safety in crowds; a traditional strategy well known also by sheep and fish. In practice, you may see a politician as having a built in opinion detector in his head. He/she will sense the position of the majority and try to avoid straying too far away from it. In general, the way for a politician to obtain power is to occupy the center; to be seen as a moderate. That this is the way to success has been known for a long time; even rigorously modeled (in economics, it is known as the "Hotelling's law"). Scientists are sometimes contrarians, politicians almost never are.

So, I think I can figure out the reaction of most of the MEPs to the hearing on energy security in Brussels. It was something like, "Well, that Italian guy who spoke about resource depletion might have a point about what the real problem is. I couldn't his slides so well, so high up near the ceiling, but he seemed to have some good data. But, on the other hand, the other speakers saw the problem differently. If most people in the parliament think that Russia is waging an economic war against us and that drilling more is a good idea, then there has to be something in it. For sure, I shouldn't take the risk of siding with a minority option."

Ugo Bardi teaches at the University of Florence, Italy. He is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted, how the quest for mineral wealth is plundering the planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)


  1. Maybe Brexit has something to do with this...

  2. It is a manifestation of the breakup of the One to the Many.

    Large organizations require a large amount of energy to keep them together. In a wrold where total per capita energy is decreasing, such Complex Societies and structures MUST disintegrate. Joe Tainter wrote pretty clearly on this, so I don't see why anyone here is surprised about this outcome. It was only a matter of time.

    The Elites did their best with Fear Mongering in the press and the Assassination of Jo Cox to try to prevent thism but this time it was not enough to keep Entropy from winning the day, as it must in the end of course.

    Likely to spiral up quite a bit from here now, and the EU is not long for this world.


    1. While I find Tainter's theory convincing I'm not ready yet to see the Brexit vote as the end of the EU just because netto-energy might be under pressure. At least we should find mechanisms how it could fail or maybe check why the Brexit vote came to pass. Looking at a WP article:

      I'm getting the impression that inefficiencies could be the problem. This is only partially supported by the following article:

      though, where immigration and and demographics are also mentioned as an issue. You could reason that unwanted immigration is also an energy distribution issue, but I still think that the vote itself isn't a clear indicator for a collapse just yet.

      The question is what will politicians do with the vote, i.e. will the EU streamline itself to adjust complexity to its means and will British politicians reconsider and not think that following the leave campaigns suggestions that smaller units can better negotiate trade deals with America and fast growing commonwealth countries. Then the possibility exists that the EU remains.

      (This new trend towards protectionism also appearing in the Trump campaign is worrisome, I feel the need for more discussion)

      To summarize, I see the Brexit as an event which could trigger all kinds of system reaction but not automatically the conflagration of the EU. What politicians use this event for should show pretty clearly though where things are heading.



    2. Tainter had a good intuition. But it must be fleshed out by system dynamics. And it is easy to build a model in which you see that complexity in the form of bureaucracy kills the system. It is what's happening. It is not just the declining resources that's killing the European Union. It is bureaucracy, which is a form of pollution.

    3. Much like in your post about the Seneca cliff then. Fortunately bureaucracy is not persistent pollution it goes away eventually. If I get this right, the problem is the delay between the economy and the bureaucracy declining. Down the cliff there will always be a bureaucratic overhang that hastens the decline.

      Also I think we are being too hard on bureaucracy, it is actually an enabler for the growth of a civilization. So in the simulation the growth of capital should be connected to the size of the bureaucracy up to a degree.



  3. The very logic of the institution prevents them from understanding the issue. There is no rationale for something as complex and international as the EU an a world that is relocalized and possesses a fraction of current energy resources.

  4. "What I found was a bunch of ill-advised, pompous bureaucrats wandering in a gigantic and useless palace."

    After reading several high-minded think pieces on the vote outcome, your dispatch provides a refreshing boots-on-the-ground picture of the EU's dysfunction. Thank you.
    Even if Westminster is dysfunctional, at least it's the UK's dysfunction by their own MPs and bureaucrats – and there's nothing wrong with that, contrary to the screeds of the elites who toss out "xenophobia," "isolationism," and "nationalism" whenever a people vote for self-governance.

    Your comment about the Tower of Babel that is the EU Parliament Building reminds me how every group, company, and government has its tells. E.g., my friend in finance says that a business's viability is inversely proportional to the length + "b.s. quotient" of its PowerPoint pitch decks. The EU's failure seems perfectly encapsulated by the ostentatiousness and, from everything I've read, bewildering layout of the parliament building.

  5. There's talk in neuroscience (I'm thinking of Mark Solms and Karl Friston) about the brain being designed by evolution to "minimize surprise", and the brain does this by actually searching for information (i.e. directed saccadic sampling of the environment) that validates what's already neurologically stored, or encouraging behavior that puts the human organism in a position to change its environment or expose itself to information that validate the already stored neurologically programming.

    I don't see human beings as being very smart when the point of our brains seems to be to become as unconscious as possible (because, presumably, we're then expending the least of amount of energy to survive). That is - the brain tries to make itself autonomically blind because that means you've "mastered" your environment. This is what politicians are doing - whatever it takes to shut their brains down because of the expectations already stored in there. This explains the "group think". The groups is the environment, and this environment validates the already stored neurological programming. It's hard for me to conceive of politicians as being able to "think" at all.

    I can't explain this well quickly, but check out some videos or articles by the neuroscientists I mentioned. This should also give you a sense of just how screwed by blindness our species is.

    1. This seems to be useful if one wanted to explain the mechanism behind some entries in the following list:

      You could also argue though that group think can be beneficial if it holds groups together. So our implementation appears to be in some aspect miscalibrated because some other aspect was more important?





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)