Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Seneca Cliff as an Effect of Bureaucracy

The idea of the "Seneca Cliff" is that a certain entity, from a company to an empire, tends to fall rapidly when it is subjected to a dearth of resources and, at the same time, affected by pollution. More than once I noted that there are many forms of pollution; in the model, the term indicated any kind of phenomenon that tends to grow at the expenses of the capital stock of a society. Bureaucracy clearly satisfies the definition and an excess of it may be a major cause of collapse. Here, Miguel Martinez discusses the concept on the basis of his experience in Italy, a country that seems to be especially plagued by overbureaucracy. Martinez notes several interesting phenomena, including the fact that the decline in economic resources reinforces also the problems created by excessive bureaucracy generating a near complete standstill in everything that can be overcome only by acting illegally, which creates other problems as well. So, it seems that the only cure for over bureaucracy is the Seneca Collapse!

Bureaucracy and the Seneca Cliff

by Miguel Martinez

Ugo Bardi's blog is always a great mental stimulant. His Seneca Curve made me think of another parallel curve. Imagine two lines: the first has to do directly with resources. The other has to do with the rules which govern the resources and how they are used.Rules, laws, regulations, contracts, terms, provisions, standards, obligations, whatever...

Whoever issues them, the ultimate enforcement comes from some entity related to the state; and enforcement can be quite painful, implying the end of a career, severe financial damage, heavy expenses for lawyers, gaol or at least the stress of years of worrying about all of this, whatever the outcome.

Let's start with the line of resources. Basically meaning the relationship among available resources, extraction costs and waste.

Not being a mathematician, I tend to seek practical examples nearby, so the first thing that comes to mind is what they call the Piana, an open marshy area, hosting many species of migrant birds, a few miles to the northwest of the centre of Florence, where no tourist has ever set foot.

But Florence has to put the waste produced by 370.000 Florentines and at least 10 million tourists every year somewhere.

Then the airport isn't big enough to fit yet more tourists.

And the main highway in Italy needs to be expanded, to fit more cars.

So they are now going to put a huge incinerator, an enormous new airport and new lanes for the highway in the Piana.

After that, the city will only have itself to eat up.

But I am no expert on environmental issues. I just want to speak here of the resources available to state institutions.

At least in Italy, the state has definitely gone beyond the peak, and is starting to climb down the dark side of the Seneca curve.

Critics of neoliberalism rightly point out the enormous amount of waste and corruption, and how much is spent to nourish private interests of various kinds. Very well, but still, all that money is no longer there.

When resources diminish, cuts start bottom up.

First, a regularly paid employee in some minor museum retires, and is replaced by somebody who only works there three days a week. Then an unpaid student comes there once a week to “get practice”, and finally the museum is closed.

This bottom up aspect resembles what is happening with climate change, where bottom means places on the ecological borderline, such as Darfur some years ago, and Syria recently (see this prophetic 2010 article in Le Monde Diplomatique.

These are the first places where we feel the symptoms of a changing world. Each one so small, yet they are everywhere.

Since resources continue to be poured in at higher levels - big events, big airports, big missiles, big football stadiums - business often seems to be going on as usual.

Thomas Homer-Dixon devoted a fascinating chapter of The Upside of Down to what archaeologists discovered about Roman aqueducts in Provence. A little more lime gathers year after year, because there is a little less cleaning. Then a farmer somewhere takes advantage of the fact that there are a little less controls, and drills a small hole into the aqueduct. And finally, decades later, the whole systems collapses.

Probably most people who deal with these issues come from fields like biology or meteorology. So perhaps they don't think so much about the impact of institutions and rules on these matters.

Rules were designed for times of increasing resources. And now they clash with new problems arising from diminishing resources. And turn what could have been an elegant glide downward into a painful bum crash.

I claim a limited but very intense expertise.

I live in the Oltrarno district of Florence, where the last living human community of the old city has to deal every day with gentrification, pollution, traffic, high prices and invasion by millions of tourists.

Bringing together traditional residents and craftsmen and new immigrants from countries as different as Senegal and the UK, we have turned the last garden area still available to children and families into a community managed Commons.

Commons are one possible solution to diminishing resources – another is when institutions sell off their assets to private investors. A third solution, of course, is always to sit and complain about selloffs without attempting self-management.

A local community managing its own resources for free of course means that things work better and also cost less for the institutions. We recently saved the Municipality many thousands of euros, by tracking down and closing off a leak in the water system they would never have discovered without us.

However, as public recognition of commoning is something quite new in Italy, we find ourselves having to negotiate our place.

Every day, we have to do with administration, rules and regulations, on the lowest level. Which is exactly where the first and most significant changes take place, when we start down the wrong side of the Seneca cliff.

The countless small issues we come across are like a drop of water in which one can see the whole world, which is why our story may be of some interest to you.

Italians love to blame everything on bureaucrats and politicians, and they often wallow in self-denigration about Italian incompetence and corruption.

Of course, every place is unique, but the same laws hold in all of Italy; and I suspect they are not so different from those in most of Europe, or even in most of the world.

Lobbying, vested interests, corruption flourish in Florence as everywhere, but I do not have the feeling that they are decisive, at least on the low level we know.

I consider many Florentine officials to be personal friends, and in their way courageous, intelligent people, with the best intentions. Some are state employees, some elected politicians, some with the majority and some with the opposition (here this has little do with a left-right divide).

A few days ago, I read that a court investigation has been opened against seven employees of various levels of the Environmental Office of the Municipality of Florence. This very local story has a lot to tell us about our times.

There are 74.000 trees in Florence, planted in days when the Municipality could spend much more liberally.

In those days of plenty, rules were laid down demanding strict care for each tree, to prevent the trees from becoming sick and falling on the heads of passers-by.

Then the purse strings got tighter. What money there was had to go to matters considered to be more important than trees.

The Environmental Office received less funds.

Their vehicles and tools began to break down and were not replaced. Some people retired, new employees were not hired. The last expert gardeners retired, and their places were taken by cheap and untrained labour contracted to private companies exclusively on a price basis, in a kind of reverse auction: in 2014, one company won by cutting the starting price by 75%, another by 83%.

The inevitable result was less and less control on the condition of the trees.

One day in 2014, one branch of one of the thousands of trees in Florence's largest park fell, killing two people.

The Environmental Office employees risked criminal charges.

Rules designed to be smoothly applied in times of plenty, forced them to act under emergency conditions.

So they decided to check and fix every tree in Florence. No longer having the means to do so, they employed contracted labour without any experience to do the only thing possible: chop off branches more at less at random, topping countless trees into something resembling used toothpicks.

The officials were able to write on paper that they had followed the rules, so nobody landed in prison.

However, topping, especially if not performed by experts, can seriously damage trees. Instead of one branch, the whole tree can now fall.

Every piece hacked off was thrown into chipping machines which chop everything up and then spit the residue out.

The chipped wood included that from Florence's many plane trees (Platanus orientalis). Now, Florence is considered a hotbed of the so-called “coloured cancer of plane trees”, a deadly fungus invasion (Ceratocystis fimbriata) which is also highly contagious through contact. An early gift of globalization, by the way, since it came to Europe in infected wooden crates after the last war.

This is why there are very strict laws in Italy on how to dispose of plane cuttings, especially in hotbed areas. Chipping machines are certainly beyond the pale.

Three years went by, and last August, a large horse chestnut fell down, luckily without hurting anybody. So the rules forced the mayor to act again.

Something like 300 trees were immediately cut down.

This led to loud complaints by many citizens, and finally a magistrate opened an investigation, since the officials of the Environment Office were basically accused of:

1) not having undertaken all the checks and maintenance demanded by the rules

2) not having applied the rule that sets out that in the historic centre of Florence, under UNESCO protection, the Monuments and Fine Arts Department must approve the cutting of each individual tree

3) having also cut down trees which could have been saved with a much less radical treatment.

What is interesting is that nobody doubts the good intentions of the officials.

They are paid to save both the goats (the citizens) and the cabbages (the trees).

In the past, they had the resources to do so.

Now they don't.

So they end up on trial whatever, because they cannot save both. And they will end up on trial both for what they do and for what they fail to do.

So, when resources diminish and rules stay unchanged, an official can avoid prosecution in one way only.

He must write a text demanding compliance with a very strict list of rules, and then oblige somebody else to apply them.

He passes on the lit match, and if anything happens, the list of strict rules with his signature under them will save him.

What happens when the lit match ends up in the hands of the very last in line?

There are only two solutions in such case.

The first is to do one's activity illegally.

The second is to close down the activity itself.

In Florence, a great many things are done illegally all the time. This does not mean they are also immoral. For example, cutting down a tree which looks wobbly, without waiting for permission which would come too late if ever, may (or may not) be morally justified, but it is just as illegal as cutting down a healthy tree for one's private fireplace.

In our garden, there is a building with a large amount of broken chairs and tables, lamps that don't work and a few twenty-year old computers. In the old “public” days they just piled up, but now the community wants to keep things tidy.

So we asked how we could throw away the stuff.

In Florence, private citizens can ask for the waste disposal company to come by and take bulky waste away for free. However, businesses and institutions have to pay, and the Municipality has no money for that: office after office is overflowing with useless things they don't have the funds to dispose of. Indeed, we were told that one office of the Municipality pays rent on warehouses to store the waste other offices don't have the money to pay for.

Maybe we could just call the waste disposal company and say it is the personal property of one of us? Not exactly. Walking off with a computer belonging to the state is theft, and rightly so.

So? So, I won't tell you how we solved the problem.

Mostly, one can get away with what I might call legitimate illegality. But of course when something goes wrong, the last person in the line will be stuck with a lit match in his hand. And everybody upstream will have a paper in their hands where they say that they passed the match on in the most proper manner.

Which is why the easiest answer in the end to most problems is to simply close whatever one is responsible for down.

One of the most widely used products in Florence is a flimsy white and red plastic tape, which anybody can break through, but which officials use to prove that they sealed the forbidden area off, and whatever happens, it is not their fault.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

We’ll always have the Sun: solar energy and the future of humankind

Above, Rick (Humphrey Bogart) speaks to Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) in the movie “Casablanca” (1942). Here, the sentence has been a little changed. In the film, the phrase refers to “Paris”, not “The Sun”. But in the debate on the future of civilization, there is only one certainty: we’ll always have the sun.

This post was originally published on Aug 15, 2017 by INSURGE INTELLIGENCE, a crowdfunded investigative journalism project for people and planet. Support us to keep digging where others fear to tread.

In this eight contribution to the INSURGE symposium, ‘Pathways to the Post-Carbon Economy’, Ugo Bardi, Professor of Physical Chemistry at the University of Florence, Italy, reflects on the importance of transitioning away from fossil fuels and how it, inevitably, means we should engage with some form of renewable energy. But, he points out, while such a transition requires us to recall the fundamental role of the Sun as the primary energy source for all our activities, it also means we will have to re-think and re-do civilization-as-we-know-it. Whatever happens, much of what we have taken for granted in our consumer-centric societies today will be increasingly meaningless in the post-carbon future. What we do know, concludes Bardi, is that we will always have the Sun: the question remains — what will we, and can we, do with it?

As it becomes clear that we must get rid of fossil fuels before they get rid of us, a question is being asked over and over:
“Can renewables replace fossil fuels?”
Some people have been sufficiently impressed by the rapid decline of the price of renewable energy that their answer is not only, “yes,” but that switching to renewables will be fast and painless. It will come simply as the result of the free market mechanisms, at most aided by a little magic called “carbon tax”. Then, economic growth will continue unabashed in the best of worlds.
Others take the opposite position. Noting that renewables require large investments in the energy infrastructure, that they don’t easily produce liquid fuels, that they can’t support energy “on demand,” and more, they conclude that renewables are useless; an illusion, if not an outright scam.
This viewpoint is further split in two views. One seems to welcome the collapse of an energy-starved economic system and the associated return to the Middle Ages, or even to extinction. The other simply sees fossil fuels as a good thing to be kept and subsidised. After all, CO2 is food for plants, isn’t it?
The debate is raging and, as usual in debates, rational arguments seem to have little weight in them, and we could go on forever debating arcane technological details.
But I would rather point out that maybe all this discussion is based on a wrong question.
Axiom 1: Asking if renewable energy can replace fossil energy implies that the only possible civilization is our civilization as it is nowadays, including SUVs parked on every driveway and vacation trips to Hawaii by plane for everyone.
But keeping these incredibly expensive wastes of energy will obviously be impossible in the future, even imagining that we were able to stay with fossil fuels for another century or even more.
We are hitting so many physical limits on this planet that the question is a completely different one. I could frame it as this:
How can renewable energy help us in getting rid of fossil fuels, while maintaining at least a minimum indispensable supply of energy to society?”
Seen in these terms, are renewables a help or a hindrance? I would say that they are not only a help, but a big help and a great hope. To explain this point, I think we need another little reframing.
Rather than speaking of “renewables”, I would use the term “solar energy.”
This term includes technologies which directly exploit sunlight, such as photovoltaics, and those which do that indirectly, such as wind turbines (this definition doesn’t include geothermal, but it is a detail).
Once we frame the question in this way, we see the following:
Axiom 2: Solar energy has been used by humans for a long, long time. Agriculture is the most ancient technology directly using sunlight, while windmills and watermills are indirect methods of exploiting sunlight, used for millennia in the past. What we have been doing recently consists of developing more efficient ways to do exactly what we have been doing in our remote past.
Photovoltaic energy is a sophisticated way to duplicate in a solid-state devicewhat biological photosynthesis does in the leaves of plants. The modern wind turbines are upgraded versions of the old windmills. The same is true for hydroelectric plants, today more efficient than in the past, but still basically the same.
The real oddball in the panorama is fossil energy; something that has been around in a massive form for just a couple of centuries and that will disappear in a century or less, no matter what dreams of energy dominance may be popular in Washington D.C.
This said, we could examine the arguments against solar energy that pervade the debate. For instance, that modern solar energy technologies are not really renewable because they cannot produce enough energy to replace themselves after their lifetime is over. Or that their energy yield is so low as to make them useless. Or that they need rare minerals that will soon run out. Or that an industrial civilization can’t survive without having energy “on demand”, that is available 100% of the time, always at the same price. And many others.
Here, in part we are dealing with people who can’t conceive a world different than the one they are used to. In part, we are dealing with objective difficulties which, however, may have some technological solutions.
As an example, consider the common objection of the low energy yield of solar energy. It is often expressed in terms of “EROI”( (energy return on investment) a concept made popular by professor Charles Hall.
It is said that the EROI of solar energy is very low in comparison to that of fossil fuels and that for this reason solar energy is useless. But this is just wrong.
Let me ask you a question: what was the EROI of fossil fuels at the time of the Apollo program that sent men to the moon? Was it an order of magnitude larger than that of solar energy, as it is sometimes said? No, it was around 20–30, about the same EROI that we have today for wind turbines and not much larger than that of photovoltaics.
Surely, then, these values are not so small as to make solar energy useless.
As another example, it is easy to find on the web that solar cells need expensive and rare elements. Once again, this is not the whole truth, as solar cells can be made using only materials that are common in the earth’s crust, mainly silicon, aluminum and oxygen.
We could spend a lot of time in this discussion, but the point that I would like to make here is this:
Insight: All these objections have been unable to disprove that solar energy today is a set of robust and economically viable technologies.
The most advanced ones (solar and wind) account for a significant, although still small, fraction of the world’s energy mix, about 6% of the global electric power production and around 1.6% of the total energy consumption.
Can they grow to 100% without the world’s economy collapsing and without climate going over the “tipping point”? They could, according to a study carried out by Sgouridis, Csala, and myself.
We used the term “Sower’s Strategy” for a concept analogous to what ancient farmers did, saving some of their current harvest for the future harvest.
Insight 2: We found that it is possible to move to a fully solar-powered society without collapsing and without wrecking the climate system, if we are willing to use the same strategy: that is, investing in solar energy a sufficiently large fraction of the energy produced today.
Will we follow the wisdom of our ancestors and save enough of our current energy harvest for our future?
Or will we waste our remaining resources in the desperate attempt to keep using fossil fuels, even putting our trust in untested and potentially counterproductive technologies such as carbon capture and sequestration? To say nothing about the risks and the uncertainties involved with a possible return to nuclear energy.
As usual, it is impossible to say what the future has in store for us, but there remains a certainty: we’ll always have the sun.

Ugo Bardi is Professor of Physical Chemistry at the University of Florence, Italy. His research interests encompass resource depletion, system dynamics modeling, climate science and renewable energy. He is a member of the scientific committee of ASPO (Association for the Study of Peak Oil) and blogs in English on these topics at “Cassandra’s Legacy”. He is the author of the Club of Rome report, Extracted: How the Quest for Global Mining Wealth is Plundering the Planet (Chelsea Green, 2014) and The Limits to Growth Revisited (Springer, 2011) and "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017).

Friday, September 22, 2017

The Hubbert Game - Teaching the Science of Collapse

My students playing the "Hubbert Game." It is a simple operational game illustrating the exploitation of a non-renewable resource and the phenomenon of overshoot and collapse. 

In my presentation at the recent Summer Academy of the Club of Rome, I stressed the point that the major stumbling block we face in managing the ongoing crisis is that most people, and in particular policymakers, lack the concept of "overshoot." As a consequence, they also lack the concepts of peaking and collapsing (also in the form of the "Seneca Cliff"). It is not surprising: the idea of overshoot and collapse is a new development in the science of complex systems. It goes back to a little more than 50 years ago when it was proposed first by Jay Forrester. Earlier on, it simply didn't exist.

So, most people think of the exploitation of natural resources in linear terms, assuming that we can continue extracting oil (a physical thing) as long as we have money (a non-physical thing) to pay for it. When depletion is taken into account, it is done only on the basis of oversimplified and misleading models such as the "resources to production ratio." It is something I have termed "Tiffany's fallacy" (the mineral pie is shrinking and most of what's left is in the sky).

The recent summer academy of the Club of Rome in Florence brought back to my attention the need of exposing people to the basic concepts of the dynamics of real bioeconomic systems. Young people who care about the survival of humankind and of the earth's ecosystem know a lot of things, but I noted that they too often miss the concept of overshoot and collapse. That's something that I had already noted years ago and it had led me to develop an operational game called "The Hubbert Game."

The Hubbert game is a simple boardgame that needs no computers and no special equipment except some black and white counters used to mark oil fields. It is designed to be run in a few hours at most and to provide to players a "hands-on" experience of what means to run a company that exploits non-renewable resources. Players take the role of oil companies which compete in exploiting the gradually dwindling oil resources. The game is competitive and some versions involve strategic choices; the game surely tends to capture the attention of the players. The final result is always the same, the pattern of oil production, in the game as in the real world, tend to look like the "bell shaped" Hubbert curve.  You can see the curve below, hand drawn from the results of a game session

The Hubbert game is described in detail in a paper that I presented at the 2016 conference of the System Dynamics Society in Delft, Holland. There is also an earlier version which I uploaded on the "" site. As I keep experimenting, new versions may appear.

In the meantime, the game seems to be enjoying a certain popularity, at least in Italy. It has been used by my colleague Luca Pardi for his class in environmental economics at the University of Florence. It was played in a high school and it is planned for the "night of the researchers" to be held this Sep 29 in Trento. You see here a snapshot of the flyer of the game for that occasion (h/t Luciano Celi and Luca Pardi).

Will this game have some positive effects? Well, in an earlier post I said that we need something like "a new axial age" to develop the tools we need to manage the earth's ecosystem (which includes humankind as an element). So, it is hard to think that a boardgame will save the world. But it is a step in the right direction and, after all, it is fun!

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Young activists: are they enough to save the world? Notes from the 1st Summer School of the Club of Rome

Above, an image that I think summarizes the spirit of the 1st Summer School of the Club of Rome, held this September in Florence. A lot of good will, enthusiastic young (and not so young) people, a stellar cast of speakers, in-depth discussions, and state of the art world modeling. But is it enough?

A week of full immersion in the First Summer School of the Club of Rome. Truly an experience for many reasons. One was the sheer physical fatigue of keeping track of everything. If you are one of the organizers of an event like this one, you can't even think that something could go wrong while many sessions are taking place together and people move from one place to another. I don't think that in my life it ever happened to me that I went to bed and I couldn't sleep because I was too tired. But, this time, yes, it happened.

Was it worth it? As far as I can say, yes. It was something that I would have loved to attend when I was in my 20s; it would have changed my life. Actually, my life changed anyway, as human lives tend to do. But for these young people (some young at heart) it was surely a positive experience. I was only marginally involved in assembling the school's program, but the staff of the Club of Rome did a great job in putting together a number of high level speakers and also organizing plenty of space for seminars and informal discussion. It was also a good idea to break the school in two halves, with the Sunday in between left free for the social program and for participants to relax and enjoy their time together. We offered them a chance to visit places that the ordinary tourist has no time to see. From the "Skeleton Room" of the "La Specola" science museum to the Roman Theater on the Hill of Fiesole and much more, including an "archeological dinner" where they were served the food that the ancient Etruscans ate (or that we believe they ate; the archaeology of cuisine is an iffy matter). Maybe these people won't change the world by themselves alone, but I think they will at least try. For sure, they will have a hard time; much harder than we had at their age. At least, they have been warned on what to expect.

In a series of posts on the Cassandra blog (just scroll down), you'll find descriptions and impressions of some of the talks. In this post, here are a few pictures to give you some idea of the friendly atmosphere of the Academy.

The Rector of the University of Florence, Luigi Dei, inaugurates the academy.

Ice-breaking games with the Secretary General of the Club of Rome, Graeme Maxton 

The discussion was always lively, with plenty of questions and comments during and after the talks. Here, the participants are crowding to ask question to Chandran Nair.

Testing state of the art world models in an interactive session. With Ilaria Perissi (red shirt) and Jordi Solé (standing with gray shirt)

Some participants Trying a "lampredotto" (organ meat) sandwich, a traditional Florentine food.

The skeleton room of the La Specola Museum, with curator Gianna Innocenti.

Visiting the Wax Room of the Specola museum. These ancient wax pieces had an important role in the progress of anatomy a few centuries ago. Now they are mainly a curiosity, but they have historical value and they are surely impressive. 

Some of the participants explore the ruins of the ancient Roman Theater of Fiesole

The Etruscan dinner: it included some plain food such as eggs, that seem to have been an Etruscan favorite dish, to reconstructions of the ancient "garum" fish sauce and something called "scottiglia", which is a curious mix of meat and strange sauces that (maybe) the Etruscans would eat.

And, finally, the traditional group photo in front of the university building of Via Capponi, in Florence

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Do we need a new "Axial Age" to find our place in nature? Peter Brown speaks at the 1st Summer Academy of the Club of Rome in Florence

Peter Brown of McGill University speaking at the Summer School of the Club of Rome in Florence, september 2017.

We might summarize our present human situation by the simple statement: In the 20th century, the glory of the human has become the desolation of the Earth. And now, the desolation of the Earth is becoming the destiny of the human. From here on, the primary judgment of all human institutions, professions, programs and activities will be determined by the extent to which they inhibit, ignore or foster a mutually enhancing human-Earth relationship. —Thomas Berry (Cited by Peter Brown in "Ethics for Economics in the Anthropocene")

We are deeply stuck in a wrong paradigm. Nature - or the ecosystem, if you prefer - is not, and never was, a "resource" for humankind to grab for free. We are part of Nature and if we don't respect Nature, then everything we do will be wrong and will damage ourselves as well as all living beings.

This was the basic point of Peter Brown's talk at the Summer School of the Club of Rome in Florence. I don't know if I can call it the best talk of the whole school, although I am tempted to do so. Surely, in any case, it was the one that went more in-depth into the core of the challenges we are facing. Eventually, it is all a question of ethics. And ethics means first of all respect. If we don't respect the Earth, we are not worthy of respect ourselves.

This is a fundamental point that underlies most of the current struggle. And to overcome the present impasse what we need, I think, can be summarized in the goals of the American Teilhard Association:

  1. A future worthy of the planet Earth in the full splendor of its evolutionary emergence.
  2. A future worthy of the human community as a high expression and a mode of fulfillment of the earth’s evolutionary process.
  3. A future worthy of the generations that will succeed us.

Clearly, these goals cannot come out of the postulates of current economics, nor from the optimization of an agent's utility function. It is something that goes beyond mere mechanical considerations. It is a new vision of the universe, something that I could call "A New Axial Age", a term that Peter Brown didn't use in his talk but that came to my mind while I was listening.

As you know, the term "axial age" encompasses the great changes that took place during the 1st millennium BC. Maybe the term has been overused with time, but it true that those centuries were a time of spiritual awakening, of a new vision of humanity that took place simultaneously and independently all over Eurasia, from China to Greece. And many of our current religious beliefs were laid down during that age.

It may be time for a new leap in human consciousness. A step to a higher level of understanding that would take us to include in our religious view not just our fellow human beings but all the fellow creatures inhabiting this planet. It might be a new religion if we were to follow a path similar to the ancient axial age. Or it might be a revisitation of our existing religions. After all, it is what Pope Francis is doing with Christianity, emphasizing the brotherhood (or, better, sisterhood) of all beings in an intuition that Francis of Assisi had already seen several centuries ago. 

At this point, I am sure that I have overinterpreted Peter Brown's talk, but I think this is the gist of the line of reasoning he was following. In any case, to make sure you understand Brown's ideas, here is a video of him that seems to me to be very similar to his presentation in Florence.

You may also be interested in Brown's paper "Ethics for Economics in the Anthropocene"

Monday, September 18, 2017

Reducing inequality: does it still make sense in a world of more than seven billion people? Kate Pickett's talk at the Summer Academy of the Club of Rome in Florence

Kate Pickett spoke at the Summer Academy of the Club of Rome, in Florence, on Sep 9, 2017. (the picture above is from another meeting)

Inequality is a subject rarely touched in the mainstream debate. Is probably safe to assume that the general public doesn't know that inequality not only exists, but it is rapidly growing. When the subject appears, such as when you read about Bill Gates and his ilk, the issue is normally dismissed by noting that "today, the poor have cell phones and flat-screen TVs" or maybe that "life expectancy keeps increasing."

Yet, things are not so simple and inequality is not just a question of which toys people have access to. It is also well known that the rich live longer than the poor. Inequality is a relative phenomenon and it is correlated to the perception of one's status in society. Perceiving oneself as being part of a lower stratum of society has negative effects on people's health, self esteem, social skills, and more. Kate Pickett correctly noted these issues in her talk in Florence and she built up an impressive series of data showing how inequality is bad for society as a whole. It was a point that deeply resonated with her audience. 

Of course, it is unlikely that we'll ever be able to eliminate social inequality and surely Kate Pickett doesn't propose to turn our society into some kind of Marxist paradise. But, by all means, she is right when she says that it makes sense to reduce inequality or, at least, to stop its growing trends. The problem is how. Here, Pickett's talk was weak. 

Mainly, Pickett seems to propose a return to the progressive taxes of some decades ago, but a reform in this direction seems to go against the grain of everything that's happening in our world. If the rich are in control of society (and they are) how can we convince them to tax themselves more? That underlies a bigger and unsolved problem: what are the origins of the "Great U-Turn" in the early 1980s that changed the trend from diminishing to growing inuquality? We are dealing with a poorly understood phenomenon and we don't know how to act on it. 

But there is an even bigger problem with the idea of reducing inequality: it is the size of the human population. In the 1960s, the Club of Rome had started its existence on the basis of concerns for social inequality rather than those for which it would become better known later on, the limits to growth. At that time, there were less than four billion people on the Earth. But, today, the number of people has doubled to 7.5 billion and it keeps growing. The stress on the remaining natural resources has increased, just as the problem of pollution in the form of global warming and the associated climate catastrophe. 

In these conditions, how to reduce inequality? Increasing the consumption levels of the poor implies further increasing the burden on the natural system. Maybe that could be compensated by forcing the rich to reduce their consumption levels. Unlikely, to say the least, but, even if that were possible, it wouldn't change the trend of increasing exploitation of the already overexploited natural resources. Redistribute consumption is not enough, we need to drastically reduce it if we want to avoid the Seneca Cliff awaiting our civilization. 

We should have done that 50 years ago, when it was still possible and when Aurelio Peccei and other founders of the Club of Rome were proposing it. Now, it may be too late. This apparently unsolvable dilemma was examined by Jacopo Simonetta in a post that appeared on "Cassandra's Legacy" last year, reproduced below. (see also a comment by Diego Mantilla)


Social Equality and the Destruction of the Planet

Cassandra's Legacy, Thursday, June 16, 2016

by Jacopo Simonetta

Exaggerated inequality is surely a major problem in today's societies, and it keeps increasing. I, too, certainly believe that this scandal must end, but the topic of the article is another one: is it true that redistribution of wealth would have a good effect on the Earth health? Many very influential people believe this, but I am not so sure.

Evidently, affluent people consume much more than poor people do, but how much? As far as I know, there are no studies correlating the environmental impact and social classes but, as starting point, we could compare how CO2 emissions change with income. (data Word Bank and Wikipedia respectively).  


Social equity and consumption: Comparison between per capita income (in blue) and CO2 emissions (in red). 

It is clear that CO2 emissions increase with income, but less than proportionally in the central part of the curve. In fact, in very low incomes, the increase in emissions is very fast against modest increases. Then they go up rather slowly, to return to peak with the very, very rich people. Important local fluctuations are also correlated to climate, geography, local traditions, social organisation and so on. 

Now, as a mental exercise, we can take for good the statement that 1% of the global population appropriates 50% of world income. This means that about 75 million people earn an average income of 500,000 $ per capita per year. So, let us imagine that we can distribute all this wealth among the remaining 99% of the world population (let's call it "Operation Robin Hood"). This means more or less 5,000$ per capita. Even for a large part of the western middle class, this would be a big help. For the majority of people this would drastically change one's life. Billions of people would finally eat to satiety, dress decently, live inside houses, send their children to school, heal the sick and much more. People a little higher in the income ladder could get a new car, go on holidays, and so on. 

Very good, but what would be consequences for the planet? 

Let's try to analyze the question. As a rough approximation, we can start classifying humanity in four meta-categories: the very rich (let us presume they are 1%, so about 75 millions); the affluent (let us presume 1 billion people); the Middle class (according to "The Economist", about 3 billion people); the poor (may be 2 billion), and the very poor (according to FAO, about 1 billion). 

Comparing per-capita income and emissions in different countries, and assuming that there are all the social classes in each country, we can argue that the very rich produce about 20 tons of CO2 each per year. The affluent 10 tons each; the middle 6 tons each, the poor 2 tons each, and the very poor 0,1 tons each. For a total amount of about 36 billion tons of CO2. “Operation Robin Hood" would lead to disappearance of the lower class and a perceptible improvement in the life style of the poor and the middle class. At the same time, also the super-rich would disappear, while nothing would change for the affluent people. 

And what would that mean in terms of total CO2 emissions? Well, we just multiply the per capita emissions by the total number of people per category. The result is a grand total of about 55 billions tons, that is a 50% increment with respect to the present emissions. Social equality doesn't seem to be so good for the planet.

But there is more: Operation Robin Hood would produce a sensible reduction in mortality, and probably an increment in natality too, among low wage people. So a sharp population increase, at least for one or two generations.

Evidently, that's just an example, not a realistic simulation. But the core conclusion, that a better life for the majority of people would be disastrous for the planet, is consistent with more sophisticated models available. In the 2004 edition (Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update), the Meadows group published a scenario where they supposed that since 2002 the birth rate is 2 children per woman and industrial production is equally distributed to everybody at a level 10% more than the global mean in the year 2000. It means much less for rich people and much more for the poor.

Word3 scenario with birth control and equal distribution of goods.(From Meadows et al. 2004)

Skipping the details, we can see that in this scenario there is a period of abundance that lasts some 20 years more than it does in the basic scenario (Business as Usual). But later the system collapses in a very similar way. And note that none of the people asking today for a more equal wealth distribution don't want any sort of birth rate control. We have no published scenario of what the outcome of these hypotheses wold be, but is not hard to argue that with a growing population andntemporary wealth distribution the system would collapse very quickly. 

Another model that's relevant to our topic is "HANDY, From a scientific perspective this model, derived from an ultra-famous one by Lotka and Volterra, is too simplified to represent a system as complex as an advanced society. In particular, it neglects feedbacks existing between hierarchy, social complexity, specialization and the capability of the societal system to absorb low entropy from the outside. Unfortunately, this is one of the core feedbacks which shape the evolution of human societies. This largely reduces the viability of the model and explains the absurdity of some of the scenarios proposed. Anyway, "HANDY" has the merit of being the first model to try to introduce the social element inside a dynamic model. Here are some of the results of the model.

The above result is rather absurd since it implies that the elites keep growing even after the commoners have collapse. However, on the whole, the results of this model can be seen at least as the indication that a low level of inequality tends to shape more stable and resilient societies. In my opinion, a cursory glance at history seems to confirm this hypothesis. It is consistent also with what we have said before and with Word 3. A low level of inequality produces a more cohesive society and a highly legitimate leadership which tends to lower and to extend the peak phase of a society.

But, and this is the point, social equality is not sufficient to avoid systemic collapse if society is based on non-renewable resources.

After all, we have already seen all of this in the real world. Please observe the curves of USA and China CO2 emissions from 1990 and 2010.

The US economy trudged along with a low GDP increase completely concentrated in the top class, with a deterioration of the life level in the middle and low classes. The result has been a modest reduction in emissions.

In the same time, in China the life of the large majority of people improved and emissions skyrocketed. Because of that, the population too increased, in spite of a low birthrate. Just imagine to duplicate the China experiment: do you really believe that the Planet will survive?


It is true that billionaires are rich and I am not; this makes it possible that they are greater experts than me about money and power. But, nevertheless, it seems to me that, historically, smart leadership have always managed to redistribute a part of their revenue in ways useful to consolidate their legitimacy and hence their political power. It means that a partial redistribution of incomes would be to the advantage, first of all, of the top class people. But this is a lesson that the present day élite, largely consisting of pirates and sociopaths, has apparently forgotten.

Secondly, such action surely would improve the life of the poor, but just for a short time because, if done worldwide, the experiment would end in an unimaginable global catastrophe. Does this mean we have to be thankful to our kleptocrats? I don't believe so. It means that the reduction of inequalities must be done by reducing the income of the very rich and not by improving the commoners' wages. But this perspective is refused by everyone: right and left, south and north, up and down.


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)