Sunday, October 21, 2018

The Fall of Empires Explained in 10 Minutes


This is the presentation I gave to the meeting for the 50th anniversary of the Club of Rome on Oct 18th in Rome. The gist of the idea is that the fall of ancient civilizations, such as the Roman Empire, can be described with the same models developed in the 1970 to describe the future of our civilization. States, empires, and entire civilizations tend to fall under the combined effect of resource depletion and growing pollution. In the end, they are destroyed by what I call the Seneca Effect.

You can find the paper I mention in the talk at this link.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Why Economists Can't Understand Complex Systems: Not Even the Nobel Prize, William Nordhaus

The "base case" scenario of "The Limits to Growth" 1972 report to the Club of Rome. The strong non-linearity of the behavior of complex systems -- including the global economy -- is nearly impossible to understand for people trained in economics. William Nordhaus, the recent Nobel prize winner in economics, is no exception to the rule. In this post, I'll report how, at the beginning of his career, Nordhaus criticized "The Limits to Growth", showing in the process that he had understood nothing of the way complex systems work.



After having been awarded the Nobel prize in economics of this year, William Nordhaus has been often presented as some sort of an ecologist (see, e.g. this article on Forbes). Surely, Nordhaus' work on climate has merit and he is one of the leading world economists who recognize the importance of the problem and who propose remedies for it. On the other hand, Nordhaus' approach on climate can be criticized: he tends to see the problem in terms of costs and solvable just by means of modest changes.

Nordhaus' approach to climate change mitigation highlights a general problem with how economists tend to tackle complex systems: their training makes them tend to see changes as smooth and gradual. But real-world systems, normally, do what they damn please, including crashing down in what we call the Seneca Effect.

On this point, let me tell you a little story of how Nordhaus started his career at Yale by an all-out attack against system dynamics, the method used to prepare the 1972 study "The Limits to Growth," showing in the process that he had understood nothing on the way complex systems work.

In 1973, Nordhaus published a paper titled "Measurements without Data." It was directed specifically against Jay Forrester, the founder of system dynamics, accusing him of having developed a model able only to describe a world existing only in his (Forrester's) imagination. If you know something about how scientists think, you may understand that this is not just an accusation: it is an insult. And Nordhaus' paper didn't mince words, even getting into direct and personal accusations against Forrester, for instance that he was favorable to the extinction of the human race, that he lacked humility, that he wasn't testing his assumptions, that he ignored the previous literature, that his model was the equivalent of a "widow cruse", and a few more quips.

Nordhaus's attack was one of the first broadsides against world dynamics, possibly the pebble that originated the avalanche of political criticism that gave a bad name to "The Limits to Growth" in the 1980s and 1990s. To get some idea of the adversarial atmosphere of the time, note that, contrarily to all normal procedures in science, the editor of the journal that published Nordhaus' paper refused to publish Forrester's rebuttal - he was forced to publish it in a much less known journal, where it remained basically unknown while the "Limits-bashing" went on.

But what was the substance of Nordhaus's criticism? Nearly half a century after the publication of his paper, it would make little sense to go into the details of its 29 pages, dense with formulas and reasoning. Basically, the paper demonstrates how Nordhaus just didn't understand Forrester's ideas and methods, claiming over and over that standard economics was a better tool to describe the world system. He couldn't understand -- just as most modern economists can't -- that standard economics doesn't account for the kind of oscillations -- including crashes - which are observed in history and that system dynamics describes very well.

This is an especially serious limitation when dealing with the earth's climate, which is a complex system subjected to abrupt changes and tipping points: here the approach of economists is not only wrong but outright dangerous because it leads decision makers to a false sensation of safety and control which, in reality, we don't have.

The whole story is told in some detail in my book "The Limits to Growth Revisited" (Springer 2011. Below, an excerpt dedicated to Nordhaus's criticism

_________________________________________________

From "The Limits to Growth Revisited"
by Ugo Bardi, 2011


We can now examine the work of William Nordhaus, who emerged out of the debate as one of the major critics of the LTG study and, in general, of system dynamics as a method for modeling economic systems. In 1973, Nordhaus published a paper titled “World dynamics: measurements without data” [Nordhaus 1973] taking as a target Forrester’s book [Forrester 1971]. However, it is clear that Nordhaus’s attack broadly included also the LTG work.

Nordhaus's paper spans 27 pages and contains much material worth discussing, but it would be out of scope to go into all the details here. Forrester himself used 21 full pages in his response that was published in “Policy Sciences” [Forrester et al 1974]. For what we are concerned here, we may summarize Nordhaus's criticism as pertaining to basically three categories: 1) accusations ad personam, 2) unsubstantiated statements of disbelief and 3) quantifiable criticism.

As for the first category, we can take as an example the accusation of “lack of humility,” made against Forrester. The gist of this accusation is that carrying world simulations all the way to the end of the 21st century is much too ambitious to make sense. This is a legitimate opinion, but not something that can be evaluated on the basis of objective criteria. On this point, however, it is worth noting that Nordhaus himself, later on, committed the same intellectual fault – according to his own definition - with his DICE (Dynamic Integrated Climate Economy) model [Nordhaus 1992, (b)].

The second category of criticism from Nordhaus, “statements of disbelief,” collects alleged shortcomings of world modeling which, however, are not substantiated by actual proof. One such statement, taken as an example, is the following: (p. 1166)

“..we discover dramatic returns to scale of the economy: if we double both the number of blast furnaces and the number of ore fields the output of pig iron quadruples”

But nowhere in his paper does Nordhaus demonstrate that Forrester's model produces such obviously unrealistic results. In fact, Nordhaus is simply looking at one of the several equations of the model without realizing that the output of each equation will be modified by the interaction with all the other equations and that will insure correct returns to scale. This is the essence of systems thinking: that parts interact.

Let’s now consider the accusation of “measurements without data” which is the most important part of the paper and gives it its title. This is a quantifiable criticism: if it can be shown that Forrester (or the LTG group) were making models which are totally unable to describe the real world, then it is correct to dismiss their work as useless and irrelevant.

In “World Dynamics” (1971) and in “The Limits to Growth” (1972) one thing that can be immediately noticed is that historical world data do not appear in the calculated scenarios. For a reader accustomed to the common approach of “fitting” the data, that gives a bad impression. Is it possible that the authors of these studies were really so cavalier that they did not care to compare their results to real world's data?

But a more careful examination of the text of both studies shows that the authors do state that their calculations were calibrated on actual historical data. Not showing these data in the figures was a choice made in order to improve clarity. As a choice, it may be criticized, but not ignored.

On this point, note also that, in the “Models of Doom” book [Cole et al 1973] examined before, none of the several authors engaged in the study felt that Forrester’s work (or the LTG book) could be criticized in the terms used by Nordhaus. In the chapter by Cole “The Structure of the World Models” [p. 31 of Cole et al 1973] the data used in the models are examined in detail. Some of the approximations utilized are criticized and in some cases it is said that the data are insufficient for the purposes of the model. But it is never stated that the models were “without data”.

So, it is clear that the world2 (Forrester's) and world3 (LTG) were calibrated to the historical data – at least within some limits. On this point, although both Forrester and the LTG team made an effort of choosing the parameters of the model on the basis of historical data, they also felt that their models had a heuristic rather than explicitly predictive objective. Therefore, there was no need for their scenarios to use a rigorous data fitting procedure of the type used in physical studies. Again, this is an attitude that can be criticized, but that cannot be ignored.

Forrester himself describes this attitude in his book “World Dynamics”” [Forrester 1971]. On page 14 (2nd edition) he says:

There is nothing new in the use of models to represent social systems. Everyone uses models all the time. Every person in his private life and in his community life uses models for decision making. The mental image of the world around one, carried in each individual’s head, is a model. One does not have a family, a business, a city, a government, or a country in his head. He has only selected concepts and relationships that he uses to represent the real system. <..> While none of the computer models of social systems existing today can be considered as more than preliminary, many are now beginning to show the behavioral characteristics of actual systems.

System scientists have a structured approach on this point, as described, for instance, by Sterman [Sterman 2002, p. 523].

… it is important to use proper statistical methods to estimate parameters and assess the ability of the model to replicate historical data when numerical data are available <..> Rigorous defining constructs, attempting to measure them, and using the most appropriate methods to estimate their magnitudes are important antidotes to causal empiricism, muddled formulations and the erroneous conclusions we often draw from our mental models. Ignoring numerical data or failing to use statistical tools when appropriate is sloppy and lazy”

Of course, the very fact that Sterman feels that it is necessary to criticize those modelers who “fail to use statistical tools” indicates that the problem exists. Modeling socio-economic systems using system dynamics tools is not immune to the biases that are easy to see in the ordinary political debate.

So, taking into account all this, how should we understand Nordhaus's criticism? If it is intended as meaning that system dynamics models provide only approximations of the historical behavior of the world, then it is a weak criticism that hardly justifies the statement “measurements without data.” This point must have been clear to Nordhaus himself, who tried to substantiate his criticism by the following statement, referred to Forrester's world2 model (emphasis in the original) :

…..contains 43 variables connected to 22 non-linear (and several linear) relationships. Not a single relationship or variable is drawn from actual data or empirical studies. 

Let’s analyze this sentence. First of all, Forrester's model, as all models, contains three elements: the mathematical relationships, or equations, the variables (populations, resources, etc.) and the constants which appear in the equations and which determine the quantitative behavior of the model. Nordhaus speaks here only of two of these elements: variables and relationships, but not of the third; the constants. Clearly, he was aware that Forrester was using constants derived from real world's data. But, then, what does it mean that “Not a single relationship or variable is drawn from actual data or empirical studies”?

Evidently, Nordhaus thinks that the equations and the variables of the model should have been determined by fitting the experimental data. This is an approach that often goes under the name of “econometrics.” This term does not describe a specific type of model, but it refers to a series of methods and techniques used to fit a set of data, typically a time series, to a model [Franses 2002]. Econometrics can be used to test a model but, in some cases, it is the “best fit” of several models that determines which one is to be chosen. This is a legitimate technique, but one that may easily lead the modeler astray if the physical elements of the system are not sufficiently understood.

In any case, the “best fit procedure” tells you little about the physics of the system being studied. Think of Newton's law of universal gravitation. The scientists who worked before Newton on planetary motions, from Ptolemy to Johannes Kepler, had basically used a “data fitting” procedure to describe their observations but never could derive the law of universal gravitation using that approach. Instead, Newton devised a law that he thought plausible. Maybe he got the idea watching an apple falling from a tree, but that hardly qualifies as data fitting. Then, he calculated the motion of the planets according to his law. He found that simulated bodies orbiting around the Sun would describe elliptical orbits, just as it was observed for the planets. At this point, he could vary the “g” constant in his law in such a way that it was possible to use the equation to describe the movement of real planets.

So, if Nordhaus’ criticism to Forrester were to be applied to Newton’s gravitation law, then one should criticize it because it is not “drawn from actual data or empirical studies” One could actually criticize Newton for performing “measurements without data.”

Of course, Forrester’s model is much more approximate and tentative than Newton's law of universal gravitation. Nevertheless, the considerations about the validation of the model remain valid. So, in order to prove his point, “Measurements without data”, Nordhaus needs to do more. He needs to demonstrate that Forrester's model is totally unable to describe reality.

So, Nordhaus sets up in his paper to “evaluate the specific assumption in the subsectors of World Dynamics.” (p. 1160). The examination of the population subsystem is crucial in this analysis. In fig 3 of his article, Nordhaus plots data on the birth rate as a function of the Gross National Product for several countries, together with what he claims to be the results produced by Forrester's model.




Figure 15. Nordhaus model of the population subsector in Forrester's “World Dynamics.” From Nordhaus 1973


From this figure, it would seem that Forrester’s assumptions are completely wrong and this is, indeed, Nordhaus's conclusion. But what is the curve that Nordhaus calls “Forrester’s assumption”? In the article, we read that this curve is “Forrester’s assumed response of population to rising per capita non-food consumption when population density, pollution and per capita food consumption is held constant” (emphasis added).

But this is not Forrester’s assumption. Nordhaus had simply taken one of the equations from Forrester's model and had plotted it keeping constant all parameters except one (the “non-food consumption” that he equates to GNP). But Forrester’s model was never meant to work in this way. [..] In the “world3” model all the equations need to be solved together to make the model work as it is supposed to. Nordhaus’s obvious mistake was noted and described by Forrester himself [Forrester 1974]:

“The case made by Nordhaus against the population sector of World Dynamics rests on the use of real-world data that he attempts to relate to model assumptions. However, Nordhaus incorrectly compares a single dimensional relationship in world dynamics (between net birth rate and material standard of living) with time series data. He fails to account for the presence of other variables influencing the time series. As a result, he erroneously asserts that the model is inconsistent with the data. In fact, the data Nordhaus present support the validity of the World Dynamics model assumptions.”

Subsequently, Forrester runs his complete model and produces the following figure:




Figure 16 – Forrester’s response to Nordhaus


In this figure, we see that the behavior of birth rates as a function of GNP produced by Forrester's model is qualitatively consistent with the historical data. Later on, Myrtveit [2005] re-examined the question and arrived at the same conclusion.

It appears clear from this discussion that Nordhaus, in his criticism of Forrester's book, had missed some basic points of the methods and the aims of world modeling by system dynamics. Unfortunately, however, Nordhaus’s 1973 paper left a strong imprint in the successive debate, owing in part to Nordhaus’ reputation and in part to the fact that Forrester’s response [Forrester 1974] wasn’t so widely known, mainly because it was published in a scarcely known journal (Policy Sciences) which wasn't even dedicated to economics.

On this issue, it is surprising that the editors of the “Economic Journal,” who published Nordhaus’s paper, did not ask Forrester to reply; as it is a common policy, and even courtesy, in cases such as this one. We have no record that Forrester asked to the “Economics Journal” to publish his rebuttal, but that was the obvious first choice for him if he wanted to reply to Nordhaus; as he did. Consequently, it seems probable that the editors of the “Economic Journal” refused to publish Forrester's reply and that for this reason he was forced to publish it in another journal. Another indication that the debate about world modeling was especially harsh and that it did not follow the accepted rules for this kind of exchange.


[..]

The debate about world modeling by system dynamics flared again, briefly, in 1992, when three of the authors of the first LTG book (the two Meadows and Jorgen Randers) published a sequel with the title “Beyond the Limits” [Meadows et al. 1992]. In this second book, the authors updated the calculations of the first LTG study, obtaining similar results. The publication of “Beyond the limits” generated a new response from William Nordhaus; this time with the title of “Lethal Models” [Nordhaus 1992]. This new paper took up again some of the earlier arguments put forward by Nordhaus in his 1973 paper, but with considerable differences. 

Facing the 43 pages of Nordhaus' 1992 paper, we immediately see that it does not contain anymore the ad personam attacks of his first paper on this subject [Nordhaus 1973]. On the contrary, Nordhaus explicitly thanks the authors of LTG for their comments and their assistance. We also see that this paper does not contain anymore the accusation of “measurements without data” that was the main theme of Nordhaus's 1973 paper. All that Nordhaus has to say in this respect is (p. 14):

In Limits I, no attempt was made to estimate the behavioral equations econometrically, although some attempt seems to have been made to calibrate some of the equations, such as the population equation, to available data.

It appears that this is not the only point where Nordhaus is backtracking. On  page 15, for instance, we read that,

“the dynamic behavior of the enormously complicated LTG was not fully understood (or even understandable) by anyone, either authors or critics”

And we may wonder whether with these “critics” Nordhaus intended also himself.

___________________________________________

You can find Nordhaus paper here:

http://static.stevereads.com/papers_to_read/world_dynamics-_measurement_without_data_.pdf

And Jay Forrester's rebuttal here.

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF00148039


Sunday, October 7, 2018

Could Donald Trump be the Last World Emperor? States and Empires After the End of the Fossil Age



Empires are short-lived structures created and kept together by the availability of mineral resources, fossil fuels in our times. They tend to decline and fall with the decline of the resources that created them, and that's the destiny of the current World Empire: the American one. Will new empires be possible with the gradual disappearance of the abundant mineral resources of the past? Maybe not, and Donald Trump could be the last world emperor in history.


A warlord named Sargon of Akkad was perhaps the first man in history to rule a true empire, around mid 2nd millennium BC in Mesopotamia. Before him, humans had been warring against each other for millennia, but the largest social structures they had developed were no larger than city-states. Gradually, new forms of social aggregation emerged: kingdoms and empires, structures kept together by a central government that, normally, involves a larger than life male figure, emperor or king, who runs the state machine using a combination of force, prestige, and gifts.

Sargon's Empire went through the normal destiny of the empires that came after it: glory and plunder at the beginning, then struggle, destruction and, finally, collapse. Nothing unusual for a cycle that would span millennia of human history. Taagenpera shows how empires come and go (image source)




The rise and fall of empires looks like a chemical reaction, flaring and then subsidizing, as a reaction running out of reactants -- then restarting when new reactants have accumulated. For empires, the reactants might have been mineral resources -- it may well be that Sargon's empire was the result of silver having become a standard medium of exchange in Mesopotamia. With silver, Sargon could pay his soldiers. With his soldiers, he could rob more silver. And, with more silver, he could pay even more soldiers -- and there you go: the road for glory and murder is open.

The Romans built up their stupendous empire using the gold and the silver of their mines in Spain. When the mines were exhausted, so was the Roman Empire, but it left such a deep impression that for more than a millennium people tried to rebuild it. Charlemagne built his Holy Roman Empire during the 9th century AD by means of newly discovered silver mines in Eastern Europe. Later on, during the 16th century, Charles V rekindled Charlemagne's idea with his empire on which the sun never sets, built on the gold coming from the Americas. But these empires, too, went through a cycle of growth and decline, in parallel with that of the resources which had created them.

The 20th century was the age of fossil empires. The British used coal to create the biggest and the most powerful empire ever built -- it faded away with the gradual decline of its coal production. Another ancient empire, Austria-Hungary, the last remnant of the concept of a European Empire, went to pieces during WWI, the only European state which didn't survive it. The attempt of Italy to re-create the Roman Empire in 1936 with the conquest of Ethiopia had the only effect of generating the shortest-lived empire in the history of the world, just five years but, at least, it could demonstrate that no empire can exist for long without abundant mineral resources available. With the end of WWII, only two large empires remained: the Soviet and the American one. Both were based on fossil fuels and, in particular, on the abundant crude oil they could produce. For a while, the Soviet Empire challenged the worldwide supremacy of the American Empire - but it had to give up and fold when its oil resources became too expensive to fuel its military apparatus.

Today, the sole heir of some four and a half millennia of empire building is the American Empire, a stupendous structure that dominates the world's oceans and a large part of the world's land. But, as for older empires, the American one will last only as long as will be able to produce fossil fuels. And the end can't be too far away: conventional oil production has been declining for decades in the US territory, while the production from shales can only postpone the unavoidable. It may well be that the mighty American Empire will soon follow the path of its predecessors. If this is the case, the collapse will be fast and brutal, the kind of collapse that we call sometimes "Seneca Cliff."

The whole political debate in the US reflects this situation. The Dems (or the Left) have come to embrace the Imperialist viewpoint, pursuing an aggressive foreign policy. The Reps (or the Right) are no enemies of the Empire, but many of them favor retrenching within the US national borders. There is a certain logic in these positions: the political base of the Dems is in the impoverished remnants of the middle class and, for them, the only hope of survival is the economic expansion that could come from plundering foreign countries. The Reps, instead, represent the elites and, for them, the easiest way of maintaining their dominance is to plunder the American middle class.

Donald Trump represents well the view of the elites. He seems to understand (or, at least, to sense) in which direction the wind is blowing and what he is doing, apart from the exaggerated boasting, is to try to turn the parasitic imperial economy of the United States into a self-standing national economy. Not an easy task and Trump may well fail in what he is trying to do. But history never fails: empires have always gone through a cycle of growth and collapse, it is just a question of time.

So, the American Empire is destined to go, but what will come after the fall? Most likely, we'll see a situation resembling that of the fall of the Roman Empire, when there were no resources to build another empire of the same size and Europe moved back into an age of independent cities and statelets. Nowadays, many people seem to think that the disappearance of fossil fuels would bring a return of the Middle Ages. It might happen: large organizations need a lot of energy to run and, in addition, our civilization will be badly hit by global warming. The result may be the fragmentation of the current political entities, returning to nation-states or even back to city-states. There will not be another World Empire and Donald Trump could be, if not the last emperor, the last who ruled an empire as large as the current American one.

The return to Middle Ages could be avoided, at least in part, if humankind were to invest some of the remaining resources into building an energy infrastructure based on renewable energy, but, right now, it seems that these resources will be squandered in a new series of resource wars. And so it goes, it is the great cycle of history that moves onward. Humans struggle, fight, and quarrel, but the best efforts of mice and men come to naught when they try to keep things as they are and they have been. The only unchanging thing in history is that things always change.



Sunday, September 30, 2018

Dealing With Collapse: The Seneca Strategy


The ruins of the Egyptian Pyramid of Meidum, perhaps the first large building to collapse in history (*). The collapse of large structures is part of a fascinating field of study that we may call "Collapsology." I already wrote a book on this subject, titled "The Seneca Effect" (Springer and Oekom 2017), available in English and in German. Now, I am writing a second book with Springer which expands and goes more in depth into the matter with the idea of being a "collapse manual" dedicated to how to understand, manage, and even profit from collapses. It should be titled "The Seneca Strategy" and it will be available in 2019. 


About 2,000 years ago, the Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca wrote to his friend Licilius noting that "growth is slow, but ruin is rapid". It looks obvious, but it was one of those observations that turn out to be not obvious at all if you go in some depth into their meaning. Do you remember the story of Newton's apple? Everyone knows that apples fall from trees, isn't it obvious? Yes, but it was the start of a chain of thoughts that led Isaac Newton to devise something that was not at all obvious: the law of universal gravitation. It is the same thing for Seneca's observation that "ruin is rapid." Everyone knows that it is true, think of a house of cards. But why is it like this?

Seneca's observation - which I dubbed "The Seneca Effect" (or the "Seneca Cliff" or the "Seneca Collapse") is one of the key elements we need to understanding the developments of what we now call the "science of complexity." In the space of a few decades, starting since the 1960s, the development of digital computing has allowed us to tackle problems that, at the time of Newton (not to mention those of Seneca), could not be studied except in a very approximate way.

Using system dynamics, network science, agent-based modeling, and more, this new science has allowed us to penetrate a world that in a certain sense was familiar to us: the world of real things that are born, grow, and sometimes collapse in a ruinous way. The basic ideas in the behavior of complex systems are always the same, especially when dealing with collapses: complex systems are complex because they are dominated by the mechanism we call "feedback." Because of feedback effects, a large structure may collapse when just one of the elements that compose them fails. That may lead to the failure of the elements that surround it. These, in turn, cause the failure of other elements of the system, and so it goes. The result is what we call an "avalanche" and, as Seneca said, "ruin is rapid". 

One question I am often asked about system science is, "can we use it to predict the future?" Alas, there is a small problem with this question: we cannot have exact data on the future because the future doesn't exist (yet). But that doesn't mean that we can try to understand the future. After all, what is the future if not a fan of possibilities that we ourselves may decide to turn into reality? Seneca himself would probably have agreed with this concept: he was deeply involved in the Stoic philosophy. As a good Stoic, he knew that we must always be prepared for the future, knowing full well that ruin can come upon us at any moment. This is true for individuals as well as for an entire society. He himself experienced a "rapid ruin" when his former pupil, Emperor Nero, accused him of treason and ordered him to commit suicide. Seneca had no other choice but to comply. 

So, we can use mathematical models to describe the Seneca Effect, but they are mainly a quantification of ancient wisdom. It is not a question of predicting the future, it is a question of understanding it. And we can use the models to understand that the ecosystem in which we live is not a supermarket from which we can take what we need - and without even having to pay. It is a complex system, subject to the Seneca Collapse. And since we are also part of the ecosystem, when the ecosystem collapses, we collapse, too. Even a stoic like Seneca would have said that if we have a chance to avoid the climate collapse, we should try.

All these things, and many more, I put them together in the book published in 2017 that I titled "The Seneca Effect." Now I am writing another book that should be called "The Seneca Strategy" -- it should be published by Springer in 2019. This second book is more a "collapse manual" that can be used to manage collapses: that is, it explains how to avoid being destroyed by collapses, how to minimize damage, and even how to profit from collapses (hint: have your enemies collapse first!). What I said in my first book remains valid: collapse is not a bug, it is a feature of the universe!




_____________________________


(*) Of course, the collapse of the Meidum Pyramid was an inside job. Look at how the building crumbled: would you believe that it collapsed vertically, all in a symmetric heap? No way. And the witnesses of the collapse say that it fell as rapidly as an apple falls from a tree - which is just impossible. So, it was an inside job devised by Pharaoh Sneferu who had his acolytes strategically placing explosive charges within the pyramid. The Pharaoh wanted the pyramid to crumble so that he could accuse the King of Nubya of having thrown it down by having a charioteer throw his horses against the building at full speed. A classic false flag operation.



 





Sunday, September 23, 2018

Did the Club of Rome Ever Disavow "The Limits to Growth"? A Story of Ordinary Disinformation

Aurelio Peccei in 1969, when he was appointed the first president of the Club of Rome


The Club of Rome is inextricably linked to the legendary report that it commissioned to a group of MIT researchers in 1972, "The Limits to Growth." Today, nearly 50 years later, we still have to come to terms with a vision that contradicts the core of some of humankind's most cherished beliefs. The report tells us that we cannot keep growing forever and that we have to stop considering everything we see around us as ours by divine right. 

Not surprisingly, the report generated strong feelings and, with them, there came plenty of disinformation and legends. Some cast the Club of Rome in the role of a secret organization with dark and dire purposes, others aimed at the Limits report, claiming that it was "wrong" or, worse, purposefully designed to deceive the public. I wrote an entire book on this subject (The Limits to Growth Revisited): in short, most of these stories are false but some contain grains of truth and all of them tell us something about how we humans don't just deny bad news, we tend to demonize the bearers.

One of these legends states that the leaders of the Club of Rome disavowed their brainchild, The Limits to Growth and, in doing so, they admitted that it had been not only wrong, but actually an attempt to mislead the public. It is an old legend but, as all legends, it is surprisingly persistent and you can still see it mentioned in recent times (for instance, here and here) as if it were the obvious truth. It is not: it is a good example of how disinformation works.

The origins of the legend go back to Julian Simon (1932-1998), flamboyant defender of economic growth and self-styled "doomslayer." Simon was a skilled polemicist who used with remarkable effectiveness all the standard techniques of disinformation. So, in his book, "The Ultimate Resource" (1981 edition, p. 286) Simon writes (highlighting mine)
The most compelling criticism of the Limits to Growth simulation, however, was made by the sponsoring Club of Rome itself. Just four years after the foofaraw created by the book's publication and huge circulation -- an incredible 4 million copies were sold -- the Club of Rome "reversed its position" and "came out for more growth" [..] The explanation of this reversal, as reported in "Time" is a masterpiece of face saving double talk.
"The Club's founder, Italian industrialist "Aurelio Peccei, says that Limits was intended to jolt people from the comfortable idea that present growth trends could continue indefinitely. That done, he says, the Club could then seek ways to close the widening gap between rich and poor nations -- inequities that, if they continue, could all too easily lead to famine, pollution, and war. The Club's startling shift, Peccei says, is thus not so much a turnabout as part of an evolving strategy"
In other words, the Club of Rome sponsored and disseminated untruths in an attempt to scare us. Having scared many people with these lies, the Club can now tell people the real truth. 
So, where does all that come from? I can't find on the Web the original "Time" article that Simon cites, but there are other reports available on the declarations that Aurelio Peccei (founder, and at the time president, of the Club of Rome) released in 1976, during a meeting held in Philadelphia. The journalists who interviewed Peccei were impressed by what they perceived as a reversal of previous Club's policies, to the point that Newsweek titled its report (according to the St. Louis Post) "Has the Club of Rome publicly abjured?" Peccei was said (according to the New York Times) to have stated that, "Naturally, we realize that no-growth is neither possible nor desirable,"

Is that enough to say that the Club of Rome had "reversed its position"? Not at all. There was nothing new in Peccei's statements. Already in 1973, one year after the pubblication of Limits, the Club produced a document about the report signed by the executive committee and titled "The New Threshold."   The document stated that:
An erroneous image of the Club has, therefore, formed as a group advocating zero growth. Again, the possible consequences of unregulated growth of the industrialized societies and, still more, those which would arise if growth were abruptly brought to a halt, has disturbed some of the less developed countries where, we have already said, the report is all too easily seen as a selfish proposal from the developed world which would still further aggravate the difficulties of the great mass of underprivileged on our planet.
And that is not a "face-saving double talk," as Simon claimed. It is a necessary consequence of the views of the Club from its formation. Aurelio Peccei had started the Club on the basis of what he called the "problematique" or the "predicament" of humankind. From his first public speech on this subject, in 1965 (you can find it here), it is clear that he saw the problems facing humankind mainly in terms of a fair distribution of the available resources, avoidance of wars, elimination of poverty, health care for everyone, and the like. (see also this post by Irv Mills). Peccei didn't imagine the future of humankind in terms of a collapse: the concept of "overshoot and collapse" of socioeconomic systems didn't exist at that time, it was developed and diffused only in the 1970s by Jay Forrester.

So, the results of "The Limits to Growth" study, with their scenarios of probable collapse, must have been a shock for Peccei and the other members of the Club of Rome. Still, it is clear from what they wrote afterward that they understood the logic and the consequences of the report they had commissioned - they never "disavowed" it, even though over the years some individual members criticized the study in various ways, but that's anther story.

Over the years, the Club of Rome and the Limits have been seen as the same thing, sometimes confusing who did exactly what. In reality, they are two distinct and different things. The Club of Rome had its roots in the "problematique" devised by Peccei and its members worked at integrating the Limits results within their worldview. It was clear to them that "The Limits to Growth" aggregated all the world's national economies into average parameters. As a consequence, "zero growth" as a global policy would have meant maintaining the economic gap separating the rich and the poor country. And that was not what Peccei and the others had in mind. Hence, Peccei's statement in 1976 "Naturally, we realize that no-growth is neither possible nor desirable," In another report, they said that the Limits "is a beginning and not an end." That is the origin of the other 1976 statement by Peccei "the limits‐to‐growth report had served its purpose of “getting the world's attention.

And here we are: no lies, no disavowal, no scare tactics. What we have, instead, is a stark reminder of how disinformation works. Note the narrative technique used by Simon: he says that "Having scared many people with these lies, the Club can now tell people the real truth." You need about 3 seconds to deconstruct this statement and note how it makes no sense: if the Club successfully told lies to the public, why should it stop doing that? What could the Club possibly gain by publicly confessing of having lied? But narrative follows special rules and what we have here is a common trope of many modern movies: at some moment, the villains may explicitly confess their crimes (sometimes called badass boast) out of pure arrogance. So, the trick Simon is using here is to cast the Club of Rome into the role of the villains in narrative terms. It is an effective trick in an age in which we can't distinguish reality from narrative anymore: it is the dark art called "creating one's own reality."

Nearly 50 years have passed since the Limits report was published and it is safe to say that most people remember it the way it was described by the propaganda of the 1990s, as a "wrong-headed" study (if they remember it at all). But does that mean that it has been forgotten forever? While it is true that "Google Trends" doesn't show any increased interest in the "Limits" itself, there is growing interest in the concept of slowing down economic growth or avoiding altoghether. And "The Limits to Growth" is showing a remarkable return of interest in the scientific literature. Does that means we will see a return of interest in it also in the mainstream debate? Why not? After all, in the long run, truth always beats disinformation.




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Here is the article on the St. Louis Post about Peccei's declarations, with several errors resulting from OCR, but overall readable

Time magazine wrote recently in an essay on futurology, "Men hunger for predictions as they hunger for bread in a famine." The starving have recently been thrown a few loaves by the self-appointed prophets of the twentieth century. The oracular prophecies out of the computer have been muted since the oil crisis of 1973 broke the back of their optimistic curves of growth. The guild of soothsayers fell out of favor. Now after a long penitent silence they are making a comeback. Herman Kahn, director of the Hudson Institute and an unshakable optimist, has published a new study of the future entitled. "The Next 200 Years." His conclusion is that in the year 2176 the world population will have reached a total of 15 billion and will be living comfortable with a per ants than were predicted for 1975. The Wall Street Journal says the dreams of unlimited energy, cheap nuclear-generated electricity, fivefold increase in farm yields and the final victory over cancer before the end of the century can be forgotten. The "revised future" looks somewhat different. By the year 2000 food will be three times as dear as it is now, hot counting currency inflation. Automatic highways will not be built. At best, automobiles will have a more efficient fuel consumption. The super-jumbo jets with 1000 seats will not be flying by the end of the '70s, but at the earliest, by the '90s. The future was being revised in Philadelphia also. "Has the Club of Rome publicly abjured?" asked Newsweek, in view of its new slogan. The club, a loose association of about 100 industrialists and academics from various countries, has been regarded so far as a stern warning against too optimistic forecasts. If the present growth trend continues, it said in 1972, the limits of growth would be reached sometime within the next 100 years. Aurelio Peccei, founder of the Club of Rome, denied in Philadelphia that its members had put themselves forward as capita income of about $20,000. Kahn's collaborator, Edmund Still-man, in a study commissioned by a French private bank, prophesies a particularly rosy future for the French. Very soon after 1980 France will overtake West Germany in production of goods and services to become Number One in Europe. The "Club of Rome," which in 1972 postulated the "limits of growth" and attracted powerful criticism, has come up with a slightly less pessimistic view of the world. Its new motto is "organic growth" and the optimistic slogan for its latest congress in Philadelphia was "New Horizons for Humanity." In a 10-part series the Wall Street Journal discusses which of the prophecies made 10 years ago have come true and which of them have to be corrected. The paper's researchers have found that the biggest mistake made by the futurologists has been their projections of population growth. On the one hand a birth explosion and a declining death rate in the developing countries have combined to increase the total world population much faster than anticipated. But in the United States, for instance, the trend is reversed. Already now there are 12,000,000 fewer inhabit advocates of zero population growth. Their study "Limits of Growth" which has sold in the meantime, 2,000,-000 copies was only intended, he says as a shock and a way of directing public attention to the problems. "Naturally we realize that no-growth is neither possible nor desirable," he said. According to the modified formula, developed by the West German, Prof. Eduard Pestel, and his American colleague, Mihailo Mesarovic, what is needed now is "directed growth." "The important thing is in which way growth takes place, with what technology and in what branches of the economy," said Professor Ervin Laszlo of the United Nations Institute for Training and Research. The outlines of a new world economic order are being drawn up in a new study commissioned by the Club of Rome from the Dutch economist and Nobel prizewinner Jan Tinbergen. Working with 20 other experts, he expects to have it ready by autumn of this year. The rough outline was already plain in Philadelphia larger currency reserves for the speedier financing of development projects in the Third World, stricter control of the multinational concerns and a world-wide co-ordinator of energy 'Men hunger for predictions as they hunger for bread in a famine . . .

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Plastic Pollution: The Age of Unsolvable Problems


Suddenly, we discovered that plastic pollution is a problem, a big one. What to do about it? As usual, it is a question of governance: the problem in itself is not so terribly bad that it couldn't be controlled. But, over the years, we developed such effective technologies of anti-governance that we have entered now "the age of unsolvable problems". 



How bad is the situation with plastic pollution? Rather bad, by all means. Citing from a recent paper by Geyer et al., more than 8 billion tons of plastic have been produced since the 1950s. Of this mass, 9% percent was recycled, 12% was incinerated, the rest is still around. It is this mass of plastics, billions of tons, which generates the pollution we see today. It is almost one ton of plastic waste for every human being living today. Imagine if it were magically to appear in your living room: one ton for every member of your family!


Still following Geyer et al., we learn that, in 2015, the world produced 380 million tons of plastics from fossil hydrocarbons. To get some idea of how polluting this mass is, we can compare it to the total carbon emissions produced by hydrocarbon combustion, around 9 billion tons per year. As an order of magnitude comparison, we can say that about 4% of the fossil hydrocarbons we extract become plastics.  


4% doesn't seem to be a large amount, but it is not negligible, either. Apart from the horrible state of some beaches and the islands of plastics in the oceans, it is a lot of carbon pumped into the ecosystems. Its effects are unknown, especially on humans: we are all eating microplastic particles, today. What will that do to our health, nobody knows -- we are all guinea pigs in a great experiment. The long-run problem is that all this plastic is made from fossil hydrocarbons, so it is going to be gradually oxidized and turned into gaseous CO2. Then, it will contribute to global warming.

So, we have a problem and not a small one. Then, how do we deal with it? The Greens in their various shades will respond with the magic words "recycle!" or "reuse!" but there is a little problem here: you can't recycle or reuse anything for more than a limited number of times. Recycling plastics is just a way to procrastinate the unavoidable: you may know the quote (attributed to Christopher Parker), "Procrastination is like a credit card; it’s a lot of fun until you get the bill." Eventually, even recycled/reused plastics must become waste and at that point, we get the pollution bill to pay. 

A different brand of problem solvers, maybe we could call them the "anti-Greens," will come up with a completely different strategy: "let's burn it!" Yes, sure, after it is burned, we don't see it anymore -- which means it has disappeared, right? And, in the process, we magically create energy! Isn't that a good idea? Maybe it is, but if there ever was a perfect illustration of the concept of "sweeping the problem under the carpet," this would be it. When burned, the stuff plastic is made of doesn't disappear -- it is simply turned into CO2 which then goes into the atmosphere to create more global warming. And the energy we can get from incineration is just a trifle and it is obtained in a dirty and inefficient manner.


There is a third brand of people I could call the "bring me a problem and I'll show you an opportunity." They take notice that there exists something called "bioplastics" which doesn't generate extra greenhouse gases and is bio-degradable, at least in principle. So, it could solve the problem while keeping everything the way it is in the best of possible worlds. They know that, nowadays, weight for weight, bioplastics cost 2-3 times more than ordinary plastics made from fossil fuels but, hey, higher prices mean higher profits! After all, the fraction of the budget that an ordinary family can't be but small, so they can afford to pay a little more. Besides, technological progress will surely bring costs down. And when they discover that bioplastic production today is only about 4 million tons (1% of the total production of plastics), wow! Think of the possibilities of growth!!


But is bioplastic the solution to the problem? As it often happens, quantification makes short work of ideas that seemed to be good in theory. Today, bioplastics are made mainly from cereals (corn) or directly from sugar. According to the data from Statista, the world's production of sugar was about 170 million tons in 2017, less than half the amount needed to make the currently produced amounts of plastics even in the wildly optimistic assumption of a 100% efficient process. About cereals, the data tell us that in crop year 2016/2017, a total of approximately 2.62 billion metric tons of cereals were produced worldwide. Again in the wildly optimistic assumption of a 100% efficient production process, it means we should set aside about 15% of the world's cereal production - more realistically about 20%-25%. Then, of course, efficiency can be improved and we may find ways to make plastic out of plants not used as food. But, at present, it is the way things stand.


Think for a moment of what losing 25% of the food production to make bioplastics would mean for a world where billions of people live on the edge of starvation. You see that we have a little problem, here -- similar to the one that would come if we were to try to switch from fossil fuels to biofuels. And I am not saying anything about the fact that agriculture is far from being fossil-free, not at all: think of fertilizers, pesticides, transportation, refrigeration, processing, and more. Think also that, the way it is performed nowadays, agriculture is an unsustainable process that destroys the fertile soil that it needs to produce food. There is just so much that agriculture can do: it can't feed more than 7 billion people and, at the same time, provide fiber, chemicals, and fuel for everybody. 


Does that mean that the problem of plastic pollution unsolvable? No. It is, actually, a minor problem in comparison to other, much more difficult problems we face. We need to phase out fossil fuels from the world's economy but, if we were to do that very rapidly, the world's economy would cease to function. But we could phase out fossil-based plastics tomorrow. It would be uncomfortable and complicated, but nobody would die and we would rapidly adapt to new ways to do everything we do today, just using something else: metals, paper, ceramic, tissue, or whatever at hand -- even nothing in some cases. And we don't even need to phase-out plastics completely: in some areas, plastic materials are really indispensable, think of one-use medical equipment or rubber tires for road vehicles. But, in that case, we can use bioplastics: if we use it in limited amounts, it is possible. What we have to do is just to eliminate the wasteful and frankly stupid one-use plastic items: plastic bottles, spoons, forks, dishes, and the like.


It is, in the end, not a technological problem: it is a problem of governance: we, humankind, have been able to manage reasonably well the elimination of some harmful substance from industrial production. Think of lead as a component of paints or in gasoline. Think of mercury in thermometers, beryllium in some alloys, CFCs in refrigerators, DDT as an insecticide, and many more cases. International agreements were discussed, approved, and implemented. Then, these and many more substances were banned and removed from industrial use. It is possible and it has been done.


So, it would be perfectly possible to develop and implement international agreements that would curb the use of plastics made from fossil fuels and eventually ban it completely. That implies changing something in our everyday life: the "overpackaged" products that today are so common in supermarket aisles would have to disappear. Packaging is not evil: it is a way to store and ship food - we need to use it as needed, no more.


So theoretically, it should be possible -- even reasonably easy -- to eliminate plastics pollution by means of international legislative action but, in practice, it looks difficult. Over the years, efficient technologies of anti-governance (aka good old disinformation) have been developed and honed to near perfection -- we saw them applied to the issue of global warming. These technologies can be used by industrial lobbies to stop all legislative changes that would reduce their profits. That has made every problem impossible to solve.

Right now, the fossil fuel industry is desperately fighting to survive. It has been able to successfully stop many attempts to do something against climate change. It is at least unlikely that it will stay silent while it loses a market worth some 600 billion dollars per year. So, expect soon a loud campaign in favor of plastics: some hints are already starting to appear (*). And they will blame you for not sorting your waste properly!


If the campaign to keep fossil plastics will work, then the only way to get rid of the stuff will be a full-fledged Seneca Collapse.  That is, if humans can't reduce by themselves the amount of fossil plastics they use, the system will crash and force them to reduce it. This kind of crashes have happened in the past, they can surely happen again.


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(*) The article cited on WSJ is paywalled, but the gist of it is based on an earlier article on NPR which notes how the number of plastic straws used yearly in the US is usually overestimated (500 million per day) and that the person who generated it a few years ago (Milo Cress) now admits it was just a guess. Because of this, the WSJ writer, James Freeman, concludes that the whole anti-plastics campaign is a scam designed to have you pay more money to the Green PTBs, out there. It is a standard disinformation technique based on cherry picking. They can do much better than this - you'll see that soon!


Sunday, September 9, 2018

Stunning News from the Memesphere: Forest Fires had no Effect on the Public's Perception of Climate Change


In 2018, the fires in California and in other parts of the world have been especially devastating. But they had little or no effect on people's perception of global warming and climate change. It seems that we are operating on the basis of a wrong model of governance: the bottom-up mechanism is simply not working.



This year, we had the largest forest fires ever seen in history in California. And we had terrible forest fires in Greece, Portugal, and Scandinavia. Climate scientists were quick in stating that these fires were made more likely and more severe by global warming, but you don't need to be a climate scientist to understand that higher temperatures mean drier conditions and more fires.

Then, if you live, as I do, in a bubble in the memesphere where climate change is regarded as a serious and imminent problem, you surely had the impression that the fires of this summer was an important factor in affecting the perception of the general public. All that sound and fury couldn't signify nothing, right? I saw several self-congratulatory messages in the meme bubble stating something like, "now they will start understanding the problem of climate change!"

Alas, that's not true. The results are stark clear: there is NO evidence of an increased public interest in global warming as a result of the fires. Below, you can see the results of a search on Google Trends for the United States. These data record the number of times that a certain term was searched on the Google Search Engine.


Note how the interest in the term "wildfires" spikes up in correspondence with major wildfire events. You can see in the graph the three California fires of 2017, August, October, and November. You can also see the rising interest in the 2018 fires. But climate change? No detectable effect. At best, a very minor increase, not even compensating the decline generated by the Trump administration starting to use deception by omission. (note how the spike in interest in climate change in 2017 is the result of Trump's announcement that the US would withdraw from the Paris treaty). Other countries showed the same pattern: I could detect some rising interest in climate during the 2018 fire season only in France, in Germany, and in some other countries of central Europe. A minor effect, anyway.

All that is nothing less than stunning. We had this big disaster, fires everywhere, giant columns of smoke, incinerated buildings, all pointing directly to global warming. Of course, it is possible to argue that there are other factors that caused the fires, but at least you would think that people would have been stimulated to look over the Web on the subject. Instead, nothing, zero, null, zilch, nada. No detectable rise in interest in climate change despite the fires. People just didn't make the connection.

So, what's happening? One of the problems is that the media didn't emphasize the climate factor in causing the fires. The many articles published on the subject normally contained a few sentences about the effects of climate change buried somewhere in the text, but the subject never appeared in the title and was never emphasized in the summaries. But it was not a conspiracy of the media: simply, they found that mentioning climate change in the news about the fires was a "palpable ratings killer." So, the media had no interest in diffusing a subject that the public found uninteresting and the public found the subject uninteresting because it was not diffused by the media. It is a damping feedback which is gradually marginalizing climate change to the status of a non-problem. (see this post on Cassandra's Legacy and this article).

In the end, the problem is that we have a wrong model for how to generate action against climate change. We tend to think that, as the change becomes more evident in the form of major disasters, people will take notice and that will force politicians and opinion leaders to do something. That's not happening. We are having giant fires, scorching heatwaves, and droughts, besides, of course, rising temperatures. But people don't care if they are not directly affected and, if they are, they have other priorities than worrying about climate change. The bottom-up model of diffusion of the climate change meme is simply not working.

So, what do we need? One thing that can be said is that no major environmental problem was ever solved by means of a bottom-up meme diffusion mechanism: refrigerator owners never pushed for their CFC refrigerating fluid to be replaced with non-ozone depleting fluids. Instead, manufacturers were forced by law to stop their production of CFCs. We need to find a way to go in that direction in order to stop greenhouse emissions, hoping that it is not too late.


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As a further note, during this year's fire season, I published a comment on an Italian newspaper on the fires in Greece, trying to highlight the connection with climate change. The result was discouraging: most commenters angrily disagreed with me and much preferred a conspiracy theory that attributed the fires to "arsonists." It seems that not only people can't see the connection between forest fires and climate change, they become positively angry when it is pointed out to them.


Sunday, September 2, 2018

How Can They Lie to us so Blatantly? The Strange Case of Wealth Inequality in Russia



The figure is taken from the "Independent" dated 23 November 2016. It is an example of propaganda techniques based on spin and omission. We live today in a true Empire of Lies

(note: this article was modified after having received a comment from "Alien Observer")


By mere chance, I happened to stumble into the graph you see above. It bothered me: can it really be that Russia is, by far, is the most unequal country in the world? It just didn't fit with what I know of Russia. Yet, the power of well-presented graphic information is such that for a while I tried to rationalize these data in my mind. Maybe the fall of Communism really caused some kind of terrible unbalancing of the Russian society. Scratching my head, I thought that I had to check the data.

Perusing the Internet on this matter, I found several other 2016 reports in the mainstream media about the alleged high inequality of the Russian society. In a 2016 article on CNN, you can read that "Russia is the most unequal major economy in the world," while on "Radio Free Europe" they say that "wealth disparity in Russia is unparalleled."

But there is something wrong with these reports. I checked with the World Bank, I checked with the "World Inequality Database," I checked with the Statista site. I even checked the  CIA Factbook, not exactly people known for their sympathies for those evil Russians. The result was always the same: Russia is NOT the most unequal country in the world. "Inequality" is a wide-ranging concept that can be measured in various ways but, in general, Russia is ranked at about the same level as the United States and at much lower levels of inequality than countries like India or Brazil.

So, what are these reports based on? CNN doesn't provide links to their sources, but they refer to a company called "New World Wealth." Radio Free Europe cites one Mr. Tony Shorroks of a company called "Global Economic Perspectives." Neither source seems to be very reliable. A company called "New World Wealth" has a Web Site but, frankly, it looks like a fake company: their "reports" are simply links to the site of a bank in Mauritius and, in any case, none of them says anything about social inequality in Russia. As for Mr. Shorroks' company, it seems to exist in London, but it doesn't even have a Web address - it is hard to think that it can perform an independent economic analysis of the Russian Federation.

How about the data on the Independent? The number provided for Russia just doesn't seem to be right. According to the World Inequality Database, the share of wealth of the top 1% of the Russian population is around 42%, not 74.5%. Again, they don't provide a link but, after some work, the 74.5% value can be found buried in a table at page 145 of a report published by Credit Suisse (h/t Alien Observer). How is it that this number is so different than others is probably because of the data the Credit Suisse use are incomplete, as they themselves say. In any case, the wealth of the top 1% is a very partial tool to measure how unequal a society is. It only tells you something about the existence of an upper crust of super-rich people, whose wealth is very difficult to estimate anyway. It tells you nothing on how wealth is distributed among the rest of society, the poor and the middle class.

So, among the data available in several reports, the Independent chose the only number they could find that gave them the possibility of denigrating Russia -- conveniently forgetting to cite all the others. But that's the way propaganda works. Good propaganda - better defined as "perception management" - is not about telling lies, it is about distorting the truth, typically, by means of the three basic propaganda techniques: omission, spin, and saturation. Here, we have a classic case: the data which agree with a certain interpretation are cited (spin), the others are ignored (omission).

The interesting point, here, is that I could find nothing on the Web that challenged these stories about inequality in Russia. It seems that most people are too busy and distracted to have the time and the inclination to check the data they read in the media. So, the concept of "high inequality in Russia" just flashes up in people's perception and then it becomes part of a diffuse worldview.

So, here we are: the whole issue is not so much about Russia, it is about how blatantly they can lie to us and get away with that. How about much darker things for which we have no reliable sources? How can we believe in anything we read in the media? And note that this is not the kind of fake news diffused by amateurs on the social media. These are news appearing on major media outlets which, by the way, often claim to be fighting fake news.

Maybe lies are not a bug but a feature of our society. It seems to be true that we can "create our own reality," as an aide to Donald Rumsfeld is reported to have said at the time of the invasion of Iraq. So we are creating a true "Empire of Lies" and that's not a good thing.


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Some more info on inequality in Russia. Here is a graph from the "World Inequality Database"


As you can see, inequality in Russia increased after the fall of the Soviet Union but, later on, it started to go down with the economic recovery. Recently, however, it went up again, most likely because of the strain on the economy imposed by the international sanctions. Still, the current value of about 42% for the 1% share doesn't compare with the 74.5% value given by the Independent. 

Here are, instead, the data for the US.
The graph is a little outdated. Today, the 1% share in the US is higher than it was in 2014 and about the same as it is in Russia. Note also that these data are only about personal wealth but say nothing about other factors, such having a health insurance, which is provided for free by the state to Russian citizens, but not to American ones. About the growing inequality trend, maybe it is correlated to the oil production peak in the US - in any case, today the level of inequality in the US is close to that of England in the 18th century.





Who

Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017)