Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Apple and the Ant

Antonio Turiel keeps what I think is one of the best blogs in the world (perhaps the best) dedicated to energy and fossil fuels: The Oil Crash. Too bad that, despite the title, the blog is written in Spanish. But if you can read Spanish or are willing to spend some time to decipher a Google translation, then you can truly learn a lot from Tutiel's blog. One of the best recent posts is titled "De hormigas y hombres," that is "Of ants and men". 
Image "Ant man" from the 2015 movie.

Reality can be only what you can perceive and it would seem that nothing can exist - for you - beyond your perception sphere. Out of it, there is the realm of the "unknown unknowns" as defined by Donald Rumsfeld, the "black swans" described by Nassim Taleb. But, in practice, there is a twilight zone in which you can vaguely perceive that "something" exist out there. Some only partly unknown unknown that you perceive enough that you realize you should be worried about it. But you don't know how and why. 

One way to perceive the unperceivable is to imagine yourself as someone or something who/which faces a similar plight, but one that you can understand. The task of understanding dimensions beyond the third for creatures like us, who live in a three-dimensional world, was beautifully described by Edwin Abbott in "Flatland," a story set in a purely two-dimensional world.

Another metaphor for the difficulty we have in understanding some concepts is that of ants or other social insects: splendidly organized creatures but very limited in their capabilities as single members of the group. Do ants understand that they are part of an ant colony? Probably not; they only perceive other ants. The colony is an emergent phenomenon that no single ant or group of ants ever planned or even perceived. 

In his post on ants and men, Antonio Turiel describes a metaphor that starts from another characteristic of ants, their very poor eyesight. That serves to underline another kind of human limitation: the inability of seeing beyond the narrow limits of what we see and hear in the media. Turiel describes an "ant-man" who has good smelling abilities but cannot see beyond a very short distance ahead. This ant-man is more intelligent than a regular ant and can plan ahead, even by sophisticated ways of reasoning. But he lacks the capability of seeing above himself at any distance. 

Let's assume that this ant-man smells an apple. He knows that the apple exists and he moves in the direction that makes the smell stronger, knowing that he is getting closer and closer to it. But, at some moment, he finds that, bizarrely, the smell starts diminishing while no apple is perceived by the ant-man's antennas or mandibles. So, the ant-man embarks in a series of scanning strategies to try to find the apple; first going linearly up and down, then moving in a spiral, and more. But he cannot find the apple for the simple reason that it is above him, hanging from the branch of a tree. Eventually, the ant-man dies of starvation. 

Here is an excerpt from Turiel's post (translated from Spanish):

"The metaphor of the ant-man is useful for us to illustrate the dilemma that the Western Societies have been facing lately: the lack of dimensional of the debate. During the past two years, we saw several countries engaging in a crucial elections, always with just two choices: the Greek Referendum, Brexit, the election of Donald Trump... Last week-end, it was France's turn, with the competition between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen. The winner was the former, with great solace of the financial markets and of the European Commission. In all these cases, a society that sees its way of life in danger, a society that knows it is being slowly but inexorably moving toward collapse, looks for new directions to move. In the same way as the ant-man of our story, society first moves following straight lines; initially in the classic alternative of left and right, but being those lines totally discredited (as in France, where neither the Socialist party nor the conservative UPM reached the second turn in the elections) people start looking for new directions. It is not casual that all this succession of elections that we have been discussing were choices among two alternatives: it is a movement between two extreme points, it is a straight line search. It is the most banal strategy, but the way in which our society has been working up to now. There was no need of anything more complex." <..>

"There will come a time, as desperation spreads among the dispossessed middle classes, when this linear movement between two opposing and equally useless options will be abandoned and a spiral movement will begin, probably when the level of abstention is so high that it will destroy the legitimacy of two-choice elections. Arriving at this point, desperate solutions will be pushed by the dire conditions of the majority of the population. We commented on this point recently when discussing the end of growth: more than a quarter of the Spanish population is at risk of poverty and exclusion, and that when GDP saw two years of growth, unlike other countries around us. The whole possibility of getting out of the hole in which we find ourselves is that growth continues and at a good pace, but that is a chimera."

And there we are: totally unable to conceive the real terms of the problem. Nobody realizes that behind everything that's happening around us there is a physical problem: the deadly combination of resource depletion and ecosystem disruption. Our society is an emergent phenomenon which we cannot really perceive, full of unknown unknowns and our desperate two-dimensional search of something that will save us is hopeless: left or right, it doesn't matter. We are blind like ants unable to see the apple hanging from a tree above them.

Read Turiel's whole post (in Spanish) on "The Oil Crash"


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)