Sunday, August 19, 2018

Why so Many People on Earth? The Ideology of Natalism

(Above: a 19th century English family). 

A few years ago I was invited at a reunion of citizens concerned about social issues. When I was there, I was startled to discover that only concern of the group was the evils of abortion. It was a fascinating experience: one of the persons speaking reported a calculation of how many "babies" had been killed by abortions over the past 15 years and concluded with "do you realize that, were it not for abortions, we could have today one million more people in Italy?" (I may remember the numbers incorrectly). But don't make me say that they were bad people, not at all. It is just that if you start - as they did - from the assumption that the more people there are, the better the world is, then the consequence is that you want as many children born as possible: it is the position called "natalism." I wonder how the people I met at that reunion would judge the kind of discussion that we are normally having at the "Cassandra's Legacy" blog.

In the following post, Natan Feltrin and Eleonora Vecchi examine natalism as an ideology. About the proposition, "the more we are, the better it is,"  see also my post titled "If Switzerland had a Sahara Desert, it Would be a Small Africa" (U.B.)

Brief manifest of ethical-political anti-natalism 

Guest post by Natan Feltrin & Eleonora Vecchi

Abstract: The aim of this paper is to point out the problematic relationship between demographic trends and the ideology called "natalism". With a point by point analysis, the authors highlight how, worldwide, there has always been a biopolitical approach to control the human biomass. This political "numbers game" builds on three main socio-cultural imperatives: to accomplish a holy order, to meet military needs and to enhance economic growth. In this dominant perspective, men, women and their sexuality become an effective tool to carry out a capitalistic and imperialistic goal.  Starting from this assumption and taking into account the biogeochemical limits of Gaia, "anti-natalism" turns out to be a heretical proposal against the dominant political mindset. From the child-free individual choice to family planning based on gender equality this brief manifest tries to encourage a new perspective on demography particularly with regard to its implications for the other species. Finally, the paper suggests the necessity of a more-than-human demography based on a bio-proportionality criterion far beyond the reductive idea of biodiversity.

Premise: Thursday, July 19th, 2018 10.13pm, we're in a small pub in the Finnish town of Savitaipale in Southern Karelia. The World Population Clock reports that the human population has already reached 7,637,012,840 (billion) individuals. We sit down with two cups of coffee, ready to explain as briefly and effectively as possible why the dramatic growth of sapiens biomass is an ethical, ecological and political concern.

We live in a finite system: The Earth is a not a closed, nor an isolated, but a finite system. Thereby it is meant that from a biogeochemical perspective there are limited chances of expansion and proliferation on the planet. In other words, the growth of both consumption and consumers, engine par excellence of GWP (Gross World Product), has physical constraints that are flexible but not breakable. There's no possibility to throw our hearts over thermodynamic rules! To state it even more clearly, the ideology of growth inherent in the contemporary capitalistic economy is heading towards a crash against the hard cliff of reality.

Violation of ecological boundaries: In the last two hundred years, Homo sapiens not only turned fossil fuel into human biomass but also our species increased its unequal prosperity to the detriment of natural systems. This phenomenon, known as The Great Acceleration, has resulted in an abnormal anthropic effect on a geologic scale: the Anthropocene is not only the Epoch of Man because sapiens has become a hyperobject - an all-pervasive entity in the lives of present and future beings- sed etiam because of the "human quantity". In the Epoch of Man - "Man" and not "Human" due to the anthropocentric perspective of geo-history - loss of biodiversity, global warming, ocean acidification, desertification, plastic pollution, land consumption, water pollution, alteration of many biogeochemical cycles and much more, are consequences of the product between consumption and consumers. An unprecedented impact in history…

Optimist only if realist. Against an ideology of progress: Technology isn't a deus ex machina and won’t necessarily intervene providentially when humankind needs it. In history, "great inventions" "saved" only behindhand: vaccines hadn't a retroactive effect on generations that died in the agony of diseases. Endeavouring to create a more resilient world through a tenacious and avant-gardist scientific research doesn't mean to let utopian or dystopian geo-engineering scenarios seduce us. In order to avoid phantasmic policies we need a realistic approach towards science, which often doesn't ensure cures, but clearly identifies symptoms and aetiology.

Humans deal with knowledge in a schizoid way: when we achieve easy solutions through science we praise it, on the contrary when it warns us, we overthrow it. We let mermaids seduce us as much as we don't want to listen to Cassandra! Regardless, technology is only a portion of a solution that must take place in a conscious political evolution. The human flock has to find new routes and new ways to coordinate and not to lose itself in some Neverland!

What to do? A systemic answer: if you're lost in the heart of a Finnish forest the best thing to do is to ration resources, walk and not to consume everything, blindly trusting in prompt rescuers. Thus, so as not to be overwhelmed by the chaos of Anthropocene, politics and ethics can't only hope but have to take responsibility for their own time through an unprecedented pragmatic rationality. Understanding the necessity of acting and not waiting, we must intervene in the whole IPAT equation: the massive impact of the present and future anthropo-mass combined with the erosion of the "natural capital" must be resized with the descent of consumption, the inversion of demographic trend and the development of more ecological technologies. Repetita iuvant: the demographic growth is not the only area for action, nevertheless without giving a limit to this human multiplication every sickness of the world, at least of Gaia, won't be solved.

What is natalism? Brief explanation: natalism is not the same as an increasing demographic trend, instead it is the ideology that advocates the positivity, necessity, and eco-compatibility of such an increment. This ideology leads to political or individual ideas and actions that have the aim of sponsoring, encouraging or forcing the population of an area to heighten their natality according to a bio-political agenda. There are three common form of natalism that intertwine together: theocratic, militarist-ethnocentric and capitalistic. In those viewpoints, demography is never neutral but, from a woman’s womb to male sperm, all the anthropic matter serves as cannon fodder for achieving the aims of a few. The will to fertility becomes the will to power, not merely reproductive but cancerous.

  • Theocratic: there's only one population, the one of God, and it has to follow the imperative to multiply itself at the expense of every other community, human or not human. This mind-set, even if archaic and reclaimed by few, contains all the monotheistic culture, affecting us from the depth of our unconscious.
  • Militarist-ethnocentric: from Mussolini's speech to the fight of cradles between Palestine and Israel all geopolitics is drenched in geo-demography. The number of humans is turned into a tool which different Leviathans use to compete and to divide an ecumene increasingly tight and mortified. In this vision, the others are always "too many".
  • the human biomass is gasoline for the wheels of stagnant economies: more consumers, most families with small children tend to spend more, means growing GDP. Furthermore, like Malthus and Ricardo had guessed, more people are synonymous with cheap workers. The demographic imperative, namely natalism, is an unequivocal breaking point between two different ways to administer the Oikos: ecology and capitalistic economy are irreconcilably in opposition.

Ethics anti-natalism, child-free and bio-protest: being child-free means to freely decide not to have offspring. The ones that contest this position often describe the decision as Eurocentric. In this critical statement, there's a concealed truth: choosing to have or not have a child is not possible throughout the world. Above all, under either the reason why individuals choose to use their right of not procreating, often related with the rupture of the taboo of the traditional family as the only social accepted relation, the child-free choice doesn't turn those subjects anti-natalistic. Anti-natalism in individuals is the awareness of the criminal implication that natalistic ideology has, both from a biocentric and an anthropocentric perspective. Anti-natalism, therefore, is an ethical disposition in a natural and cultural world with the aim of disarming all the theocratic and capitalistic attempts at increasing human quantity. This results, in supporting a policy of family planning and moreover embracing, with a symbolic and material parrhesia, in life seeing the descent of consumers and consumption. For this reason, an anti-natalist couple can decide to have zero, one, two children, or to adopt. All these reflections have to start from the consideration that to whom in this world is not and wouldn't have the desire to be, we don't have to give them a mere existence tout court, but the possibility of material and social condition to be happy. In this ethical horizon, the child-free choice can be a bump key and breaks the chains that nail human life on a reproductive telos. Frequently referred as a child-less choice in a deprivation sense and painted like the symbol of a bourgeois and egocentric existence poor in affection, the decision to not reproduce can rather assume a proactive value in political environmentalism. As a reply to a natalist bio-policy, being child-free matures into a bio-protest, boycotting in its small way the rush towards collapse.

Anti-natalism beyond Eurocentrism. To act is needed: policy has to make cast-iron and trans-national decisions: a steady stream of investment for family planning where the birth rate is higher is fundamental. Family planning, it is always good to emphasize, doesn't mean to control birth rate with a coercive and totalitarian approach, conversely, it means to allow individuals to decide with conscious freedom about their reproduction. Effective and accessible provision to contraception, sexual education, gender equality, and the reconnection of social realities with their environment are goals to reach alongside illness and hunger prevention and political instability.

This approach, far from being a paternalistic Eurocentrism, is a moral duty towards the other dictated by awareness: the ones who prefer non-intervention in foreign reality are like an AIDS sufferer that refuses to contemplate the use of prophylactics. As regards the so-called "developed countries", the natalist and limitless ideology must be eradicated through ethical-ecological education and liberation of sexuality, still enslaved by the pornography-reproduction dichotomy. Culturally, a decreasing demographic trend, like the Italian or the Japanese, has to be turned from demerit to collective virtue. A descent will bring countless advantages of resilience, although from a social perspective will be distressing. Thus, a declining birth rate has to be handled by policies focused on effective generational replacement and specific investment in public services: what a nation invests in under 18’s would be endowed gradually towards protection against senility. This can sound drastic but assuming there will be more young people to take care of elderly will only procrastinate and escalate the issue of a radical change in the demographic pyramid, enslaving us in a Ponzi scheme. Obviously, anti-natalist policies need to go beyond, in quantity and complexity, the few points that we have mentioned here. Further consideration would be a fertile ground for broader research.

A world among worlds. More-than-human demography in the Eremocene: There are several talks on Anthropocene, nevertheless the more correct word to describe the Epoch we are creating could be Eremocene. This is because we are annihilating bio-cultural diversities mainly by subtraction of "living space" creating a repetitive and monochrome world. In the current reality, where globalization, free market, and heritage flattening are making humankind greyer and more fragile, others life forms are incurring a dramatic extinction, aka the Sixth Extinction. Contemporary philosophy needs to become aware not only of the demographic challenge but embrace the concept of a more-than-human demography. With this definition, we want to underline the necessity of going beyond the division between anthropocentric demography and ecology of non-human populations.

This effort is required because thinking of the human quantity only in the economical-political-cultural outlook blind us from seeing the reality: our species is a world among worlds and not a self-referential isolated monad. The base principle of this ethic is that every life form and every bio-cultural heritage, have the right to a space for expression. This space cannot be a merely symbolic reductionism of species and population to an individual label.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Why is it so Easy to Deceive People? The Strange Case of the Cooling Trend of the United States

The figure above, showing a cooling trend in the United States, was posted by Steven Goddard (aka Tony Heller) on his blog with the remarkable title of "The Deplorable Climate Science Blog" (actually there is a slightly different one on the blog, right now, but it is simply a difference in the smoothing procedure).

The world is becoming more and more complicated. And the more complicated it is, the more difficult to understand it becomes. And there appear more and more opportunities to deceive people: we are all swamped by the news and have neither the competence nor the time to verify what the media serve to us.

So, this August, Mr. Tony Heller, writing under the pen name of Steven Goddard, published on his blog the graph you see above, showing a clear cooling trend in the United States. Make no mistake, these are real data, or so they are said to be. And they do show that summers have been cooling. But what about heat waves we are experiencing nowadays? Just an impression, apparently, because the data say otherwise. Then, what about global warming? An illusion, probably a fraud.

The graph is having a certain diffusion in the social media. An earlier version was even picked up by James Delingpole in his Breitbart news site. It quickly became a growing meme, scoffed or cheered depending on the attitude of the people commenting on it. As usual, the debate on climate on the social media is little more than a shouting match. It took some work by an expert, Tamino, on his "Open Mind" blog to dissect the story of this graph and show the tricks behind it. Tamino's whole post is reproduced below.

Basically, Steven Goddard's post is a textbook example of two well-known propaganda methodsCarlo Kopp describes the technique called "deception by omission" noting that it works when "the victim has poor a priori knowledge or no a priori knowledge or understanding of what the attacker is presenting to be a picture of reality" He also notes that deception by omission is often accompanied by "deception by spin" which consists in presenting only the information favorable to a certain viewpoint of a certain issue.

Note that neither deception by omission nor deception by spin require lying. It is all a way to present (or not to present) the data. This is what Goddard does, carefully choosing the data available on the NOAA site and presenting only those supporting the idea that the US has been cooling, not warming, during the past century or so. That's just not true, but the trick of these things is the ability to demonstrate a wrong thesis by using real data.

And that's what is truly impressive: how little it takes to deceive people. All that was needed to create a wholly new alternate reality was some patience and a high school level ability to manipulate data. No need for Goddard to be a government agent or to be paid by the PTB. All he needs is to be a lone troll with a stone ax to grind.

Now, stop for a moment and think: what if the real spooks were to engage in deceiving us for good? I mean, governments have resources and competencies in propaganda infinitely larger than those of a single person. What could they do to us if they were to direct us to a completely wrong perception of reality? Do you remember the story of the "weapons of mass destruction" at the time of Saddam Hussein? Now they can do much better than that. Yes, they can deceive us. And probably they do - they are doing that right now.

So, what's happening? The anthropologist Roy Rappaport spoke about "diabolical lies," defined as lies which tamper with the very fabric of truth.  Maybe our whole civilization is being destroyed by lies, diabolical or not, and we desperately need a new epistemology to rebuild trust in our institutions and in ourselves as human beings. This is the task that the early Christian thinkers had engaged in at the time when another civilization, the Roman one, was being destroyed from inside by the very truths it had been built on - by then become diabolical lies. As Poul Anderson said, "all evil is rotten good" and that may well describe our situation.

At this point, I can only propose to you to read Tamino's post, below. At least, it clarifies a section of our perception of the universe.


USA Temperature: can I sucker you?

Suppose I wanted to convince people that temperature in the USA wasn’t going up, it was going down. What would I show? Let’s try yearly average temperature in the conterminous U.S., also known as the “lower 48 states” (I’ll just call it “USA”):

Well that won’t do. It shows that temperature has been rising, not falling. By the way, I’ve included two trend estimates. The blue straight line is a linear trend estimate and it’s going up. The red curvy line is a nonlinear trend estimate, it has gone up and down and up, and is now rising fast. Scary fast. That definitely won’t do.

But wait! The temperature shown is the mean temperature, which is the average of the high and low temperatures. What if I tried just low temperatures?

That won’t do either. Scary fast.
How about high temperatures?

That still won’t do, but it’s a little better. There’s a more pronounced hump in the 1930s — that’s the dustbowl era. Could I maybe make the most of that?

Let’s try this: look at high temperature during the different seasons of the year. After all, we know winter has been warming faster than summer, maybe summertime only — or maybe at least one of the seasons — will give a more useful “sucker people” picture. Here are the average high temperatures for all four seasons separately:

Now we’re getting somewhere! Summer high temperature has still been increasing overall, but that hump during the 1930s (the dust bowl era) is far more pronounced. Maybe I could make something of that?

Perhaps I could just get rid of some of the data I don’t like. I can’t get rid of the most recent stuff — then people will figure out I’m trying to sucker them. How about I get rid of some of the early stuff? I’ll start with 1918, instead of starting when the data actually start (1895). That leaves this:

Finally! I’ve got a graph that looks like there’s nothing to worry about, where the linear trend is so small you almost can’t tell it’s still (barely) rising, and I only had to pick one of 12 possible combinations (mean/high/low temperature over winter/spring/summer/autumn) and leave out the early data to get it. Clever.

Even so, the trend is still going up even if just barely. And that’s the linear trend; the nonlinear trend looks like it might be rising noticeably lately, maybe even getting close to as hot as the summer of the dust bowl era. Could I fix that?

Of course I can! Instead of using the USA temperature data from the “experts,” those people at NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) who think they’re so good at it just because they’ve spent decades studying all that “math” and learning how to do it “right,” I’ll just take the raw data and form a simple average. Those NOAA people will tell you that isn’t right, that over the years new stations have come online and old ones have retired so you have to take that into account. They’ll talk about fancy-schmancy math stuff like “area weighting.” That’s all just NOAA tricks, aren’t they just a bunch of frauds? We can completely ignore the fact that over the years the average location of all the contributing stations has moved slightly northward to colder territory:

Heck we can completely ignore everything that they’ve learned about how to do it right … mainly because if we just take a simple, naive average we’ll get what we want.

There’s a graph going around the internet from Steve Goddard a.k.a. Tony Heller, claiming to show that temperature in the U.S. has been declining, using only high temperatures, using only summertime temperatures, using only data since 1918, based on a simple average without taking into account new stations coming online or old stations retiring or area-weighting or any of that “expert” stuff:

Imagine that.

Monday, August 6, 2018

How the World Elites are Going to Betray us: Lessons from Roman History

The more I study the story of the Roman Empire, the more I see the similarities with our world. Of course, history doesn't always repeat itself, but it is impressive to note how with the start of the collapse of the Western Empire, the Roman elites abandoned the people to build themselves strongholds in safe places. Something similar may be starting to occur in our times and our elites may decide to seek for safe havens while leaving us to drown, starve, or burn.

Rutilius Namatianus is known today for his "De Reditu Suo" (of his return). It is a long poem where he tells us of his travel along the Italian coast around 416 AD, during the last decades of the Western Roman Empire. We read in it a chilling report of the ongoing collapse: abandoned cities, wastelands, ruined roads, and more.

But who was Rutilius Namatianus, and what was he doing? A patrician, a powerful man, a rich man, and also a liar and a traitor. He was running away from Rome, probably taking with him gold, slaves, and troops with the idea of building himself a feud in Southern France, where he had some possessions. In doing so, he was abandoning the people of Rome to fend off for themselves. The people whom it was his duty to defend as praefectus urbi, the prefect of Rome, the delegate of the Emperor himself.

Namatianus was doing nothing worse than other rich and powerful Romans were. Emperor Honorius himself had run away from Rome, settling in Ravenna, protected by the marshes surrounding the city and with ships ready to take him to safety in Byzantium if things were to get really bad. When Rome was besieged and taken by the Visigoths, in 410 AD, Honorius did nothing, preferring to get busy with his chicken (a legend, but with elements of truth).

If you read the chronicles of the early 5th century AD, you get the impression of total mayhem, with barbarian armies crisscrossing Europe and few, if any, Roman nobles and commanders trying to defend the Empire. Most of them seemed to be maneuvering to find a safe place where they could find safety for themselves. We don't know what was the final destiny of Rutilius Namatianus but, since he had the time to finish his poem, we may imagine that he could build himself a castle in Southern France and his descendants may have become feudal lords. But not everyone made it. For instance, Paulinus of Pella, another rich Roman, contemporary of Namatianus, desperately tried to hold on his possessions in Europe, eventually considering himself happy just for having been able of surviving to old age.

We see a pattern here: when the rich Romans saw that things were going really out of control, they scrambled to save themselves while, at the same time, denying that things were so bad as they looked. We can see that clearly in Namatianus' poem: he never ever hints that Rome was doomed. At most, he says, it was a temporary setback and soon Rome will be great again.

Of course, history doesn't have to repeat itself, even though we know that it often rhymes. But the similarities of the last decades of the Western Roman Empire with our times are starting to be worrisome. Most of our elites aren't yet running away, but some of them seem to be thinking about that (see this article by Kurt Cobb). And some are starting to build sophisticated luxury bunkers where to take refuge.

What's most impressive is the change in attitude: as long as problems such as climate change were seen as needing just cosmetic changes, they were discussed and governments pledged to do something to solve them. Now that the problems start to be seen as impossible to deal with, they are ignored. The change is especially impressive for those regions where the climate threat is closer in time. The elites of the Maldives and the Kiribati islands (*) have reacted by denying the danger, while at the same time selling off what they have and getting ready to leave for higher grounds.

We have to be careful here: there is no conspiracy today (just as there wasn't in Roman times) of people getting together in a secret room to decide the fate of humankind. There is, rather, a convergence of interests. People who are sufficiently wealthy to buy themselves a survival bunker may decide to do so and, at that point, it is in their best interest to downplay the threats.

It is a very different attitude from that of middle-class people. We (I assume that most readers of this blog are middle-class people) don't have the kind of financial clout needed to plan for a future as feudal lords among the ruins of a collapsed civilization. That's why some of us keep catastrophistic blogs, "Cassandra's Legacy", for instance. Blogs can hardly save us from collapse but, at least, they are efficient means of communication and maybe that's what we need to plan for the future.

So, returning to Roman history, what happened to the Romans who couldn't run away and reach their castles? We know that not all of them survived, but some did. While the institutions and the state crumbled down, resilient communities started to appear, often in the form of monasteries or secular communities created around "overseers" (bishops).

Can we think of something like that for our future? Yes, it is an idea that's developing in several forms, transition towns, for instance. So far, it is just an embryonic idea, but it may grow into something important together with new ideas on how humans can relate to the ecosystem. The Romans, after all, developed a new religion to help them deal with the collapse of their society. And, as I said, history never exactly repeats itself, but it rhymes.


Some more details about the experience of ancient Rome with collapse. First of all, what was the origin of the 5th-century collapse? We have to go back to "peak empire" when the Romans reached the limits to their expansion. It was in 9 AD when three Roman legions were massacred by the Germans in the woods of Teutoburg. Their commander, Publius Quinctilius Varus, committed suicide.

How could it be that the Romans, no fools in military matters, sent three of their legions blithely marching into a thick forest were a large number of German warriors were waiting to cut them to pieces? The only possible explanation is that Varus was betrayed: someone wanted to see his head rolling, and they did. It is remarkable how fast and effectively Octavianus, emperor at that time, exploited the defeat for his personal political gain. He spread the rumor that he was so saddened by the news that he would walk in his palace at night, muttering, perhaps hoping to be heard by the Gods, "Varus, Varus, give me back my legions!" If there ever was a viral meme, this was one, still with us more than 2,000 years afterward!

Maybe Octavianus had Varus stabbed in the back, or maybe he just exploited Varus' incompetency as military commander. In any case, the Teutoburg disaster had the same effect as our 9/11 attacks on Roman society. It scared the Romans deeply. That sealed the role of Emperors as protectors of the people. Eventually, politics is mostly a racket: people pay to be "protected." Against whom? Typically, if there is no ready-to-use enemy, one needs to be fabricated on purpose. For the ancient Romans, the Barbarian menace (we would call them today, 'immigrants') was much exaggerated. The problems of the Empire were mostly internal and would have required deep reforms. Instead, the Emperors - and the Romans themselves - refused to admit that and they concentrated on military measures only. It was good business to keep troops and build defensive walls. Again, the similarities with our times are evident.

Things moved slowly in Roman times, so the strategy of concentrating all efforts on the military system seemed to pay, at least for a couple of centuries. If you read the memories of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, you get the impression of a person who genuinely believed that his duty was to defend the Empire. He couldn't understand that the excessive military expenses were ruining the Empire; most empires in history have destroyed themselves exactly in this way. Similarities with our times? Oh. . .

Things started going bad after Marcus Aurelius and the Empire all but collapsed during the 3rd century AD. It managed to get together again in a form that reminded more of a zombie than of the glorious empire of the early times. But the puls (**) really hit the fan with the end of the 4th century, when the Roman Elites started running for their lives. Many of them succeeded, while the poor were left in the puls - or not even that. Between 400 and 800 AD, the population of Rome fell by over 90%, mainly because of famine and the associated plagues.


(*) The fact that coral islands are "alive" gives them a certain capability of coping with the sea level rise caused by global warming. But there are limits to how fast the coral can grow and to the level the islands can cope with.

(**) If you are curious about what may be hitting the fan, you can see here a bowl of puls, a typical Roman food. It was a soup made with farro grains.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Why, in a Few Years, Nobody Will be Talking About Climate Change Anymore.

In the book "Hitler's Willing Executioners" (1996) Daniel Goldhagen argues that the Germans couldn't possibly have missed that their government was exterminating the Jews and other ethnical groups. But it is also possible that most Germans were misled by the technique of "deception by omission" played on them. This is a powerful perception management technology that the Trump government has started using in fields such as climate change. And it seems to be working.

Imagine you are a German citizen living in the early 1940s. Would you know that the German Government was engaged in the extermination of millions of Jews and other ethnical groups? The question is controversial: one interpretation is that Germans couldn't possibly be unaware of what was going on. But, it is also true that the extermination was never mentioned in the German media. Ordinary Germans might have been aware that the Jews were being mistreated, but they had no way to know the extent of what was going on. In the cacophony of news about the ongoing war, the issue of the Jews didn't register as something really important. Something similar happened in Italy with the defeat of the Italian army in Russia in 1943. The disaster was never mentioned in the media and it didn't play a role in the public perception of what was going on.

The propaganda techniques used in Germany and in Italy during WWII were still primitive, but they were nevertheless effective in the field we call today "perception management." The technique of denying information is called "deception by omission." A good description is reported by Carlo Kopp.
A prerequisite for Deception by Omission is that the victim has poor a priori knowledge or no a priori knowledge or understanding of what the attacker is presenting to be a picture of reality. A misperception of reality favourable to the attacker can be implanted if the victim can be induced to form a picture of reality based only upon what the attacker presents. .. Deception by omission is a very popular technique in commercial product marketing and political marketing since it permits attacks without resorting to making provably untruthful statements. .. The deception by omission technique is often successful due to laziness or incompetence on the part of a victim population.
Kopp also notes how Deception by Omission is often coupled with two other techniques known as "Deception by Saturation" (saturating the target with irrelevant information) and "Deception by Spin" (presenting correct information in ways that make it favorable to a specific interpretation).

Now let's see how the technique works in our times. We start with an example: you surely know that the American government is engaged in "Targeted Killing" operations, mainly using killer drones. How many people are being killed? The official data tell of hundreds - at most thousands - of victims. But are these data accurate? They come from sources which already blatantly cheated us and we have no independent sources. I am not saying that the victims could be millions, as they were in Germany during WWII, it is just that we have no idea. We know that people are being killed, but we don't know how many and, in the tsunami of news we receive every day, we tend to think that this is only a marginal problem.

What's interesting, here, is how the public perceives the drone wars. Here are some results from Google Trends.

You see how the interest of the public, measured in terms of Web searches, peaked around 2013 to decline afterward. There is no evidence that the number of drone strikes declined, on the contrary, there are hints that they are increasing under the Trump administration. So, a reasonable interpretation is that the interest is declining because the media are mentioning targeted killings less frequently.

There is no easy way to measure the press coverage of a specific event or series of events, but we can use Google trends for an indirect measurement. Here is the same term, "Drone kills" measured in terms of the click on the "News" section of the Google search engine.

We may reasonably assume that every spike in the graph is caused by news appearing in the media, in turn causing people to search for more. So, it seems that the media has become very quiet, lately, about targeted killings. Note that I am not saying that the US government controls the media in the same way as the Nazi government did during WWII. But the US government does control the source of the news. If the government doesn't provide news about something (or provides only scant news) then the journalists have little to show to the public. If the subject doesn't often appear on the media, the public loses interest in it. And if the public loses interest in something, journalists are even less motivated to write about it. It is a feedback loop: we may reasonably suppose that it is what we are seeing in the case of the targeted killings program.

Let's see now how the same mechanism may be at work in the case of global warming and climate change. First of all, here are some results from Google Trends.

Here, we don't see the same evident decline in interest we saw for the case of "drone kills," but I think it is reasonable to say that there has been a detectable decline during the past year or so (note that the 2017 spike corresponds to Trump's announcement that the US would withdraw from the Paris Climate Treaty). This interpretation may be confirmed by the most recent Gallup poll. Again, the declining trend is still uncertain, but it seems to be there. In March 2018, Americans were less convinced that climate change is a threat than they were in 2017.

Other data from the same poll indicate that the change is mainly caused by a decline in the number of "concerned" people, while the fraction of skeptics and lukewarmers remains approximately the same.

So, what's happening? The most likely explanation is that it is the result of the Trump administration using deception by omission. There is no doubt that they are muzzling scientists and scientific agencies and Trump himself has been silent on climate change despite his many tweets. Nowhere the strategy administration is clearer than with the story of the "red team/blue team" debate on climate proposed by the former EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt. The idea was soon nixed by the administration, correctly if seen in the framework of a deception by omission strategy. If there had been such a debate, no matter which side could have given the impression of being right, the public would have perceived climate change as an important issue.

Now, of course when discussing these matters one always risks to be branded as a conspiracy theorist and ignored. But we don't have to think that some people collected in a secret room to plan dark and dire things against us. It is just that ignoring climate change is in the best interest of several sectors of society. The current elites either don't believe that climate change is a serious problem or, if they do, they have decided that their best chance is to work to save themselves, letting the rest of us starve, sink, or burn (I call it the Kiribati Effect). Then, for many industrial lobbies, acting against climate change means losing money. In all cases, the logical strategy for them is to ignore the problem - at least in public. And the government is simply using techniques it knows how to use and that has used in the past.

It is not even so difficult to deceive the public on climate change. We are all subjected to "doomsday fatigue" and most people just can't seem to be able to keep their attention on something that changes slowly over the years. And we are all sensible to deception by omission. The result of the combined action of the government and of this common attitude is a "palpable ratings killer" for all the news regarding climate change. I hate to cite the abominable blog by Anthony Watts, but he has been correctly noting the same trend. And even Watts' anti-science blog has been hit by deception by omission! It is a steamroller of propaganda that squeezes away from the debate everything that deals with climate change.

So, we may well be seeing an epochal shift in the public perception of climate change. The end of the world will become old news, as noted by David Wallace-West. Any hope to avoid that? Not easy: it is a nearly impossible battle to be fought against the combined forces of the government, the industrial lobbies, and of the public's apathy. At the very least, we should realize that there is the serious risk of losing it. That is, we may be facing a future in which the very concept of "climate science" will become everyone's laughingstock (do you remember what happened to "The Limits to Growth"?). It will be an epochal defeat for science.

Certainly, the denial of climate change is taking place against a background of increasing temperatures and the associated climate disasters -- events that would seem to be difficult to ignore. But, in practice, they are ignored. What would we need to push people out of their apathy? Giant fires? We are having them. Scorching heatwaves? Here you go. Droughts? Sure. None of these events are having an impact on the public's views on climate. Imagine that, in a few years, we will see the Arctic Ocean free of ice in Summer. Can you imagine the reaction? Ho-hum, yes, the Arctic Ocean was free from ice millions of years ago. Climate changes all the time, you know?

We are playing, it seems, with a doomsday version of the story of Goldilocks and the three bears. A climate catastrophe that's too small will not have any effect on people's views, but if it is too big it will be too late to avoid a disastrous Seneca Cliff for the whole human civilization. We would need a catastrophe just big enough -- but it is at least unlikely that the Earth's climate will nicely provide us with it.

At the very least, we should recognize that we have been doing something wrong in terms of managing the public perception of climate change. Then, we need some kind of "plan B". Any suggestions?

Note added after publication: clearly, I am not the only one noticing this downward trend (the only people totally missing it seem to be those pompous climate scientists). Two examples
"Climate Change has Run its Course" by Tyler Durden, citing Steven Hayward (h/t Peter Speight)  

"Climate Change is not People's Most Pressing Concern" - Again the usual abominable blog, but they are no fools

Monday, July 23, 2018

The Seneca Glass: Half Full or Half Empty?

Optimist: the glass is half full.

Pessimist: the glass is half empty.

Catastrophist. It will not be half full for long.

Cornucopian: We are running into water rather than out of it.

Oil executive: The more we drink, the more the water level grows.

Conspiracy Theorist: Water? What water? THEY want us to believe that there is water in the glass.

Chemtrail believer: Don't look at the water! Look up at the sky! Don't you see THEY are poisoning us?

Climate Science Denier: Scientists cannot predict the weather one week in advance, how can they say if the glass is full or empty?

Bad Pun Lover: A fish was swimming in the glass. It swam into the wall and said, "Damn!"

Thomas Malthus: You can only fill the glass at a linear rate, but people will drink from it at exponentially rising rates.

Harold Hotelling: When there will be no more water in it, we'll use beer as a backstop resource.

Robert Solow: the amount of water in the glass will keep growing exponentially.

Neoclassical Economist: when the water level will be low enough, market forces will create more.

Julian Simon: there is enough water in the glass to last for six billion years.

Colin Campbell: After you drink the water in the glass, there will be none left.

Charles Hall: the water return on energy invested (WROEI) declines as you drink it.

Gail Tverberg: Water is not really a renewable resource: you will always need fossil fuels to pump it into the glass.

Guy McPherson: All the water will have disappeared from planet Earth by 2030.

Donald Trump: We need to build a wall to keep the Mexicans from drinking our water.

Matsuo Basho: The old glass. A frog jumps into it. The noise of water.

William Shakespeare: The empty part of the glass is filled with the stuff dreams are made of.

Erwin Schroedinger: The glass is neither half full nor half empty - until you drink from it.

Jesus Christ: Have faith and walk on the stones, just like I do.

Lao Zi: A glass of a thousand gallons is filled starting with just one drop.

Buddha: The water is an illusion, just like the glass. And the drinker, too.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca: It takes a long time to fill the glass, but emptying it is rapid.


Monday, July 16, 2018

The Coming Population Crash: A Seneca Cliff Ahead for Humankind?

This is a condensed and modified version of a paper of mine that appeared on "The Journal of Population and Sustainability" this year. The image above is the well known "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" by Albrecht Durer - 1498. Yes, I know it is catastrophistic, but it is not my fault if biological populations do tend to collapse! (see also my previous post: "Overpopulation Problem? What Overpopulation Problem?"

A Seneca Collapse for the World’s Human Population?

By Ugo Bardi (a similar version has appeared in 2017 on "The Journal of Population and Sustainability")

1. Introduction

“The world has enough for every man's need, but not enough for every man's greed.” Gandhi [1]

While Gandhi's observation about greed remains true even today, it may not be so for the ability of the world to meet every man's need. Gandhi is reported to have said that in 1947 when the world population was under 2.5 billion, about one-third of the current figure of 7.5 billion. And it keeps growing. Does the world still have enough for every man’s need?

It is a tautology that if there are 7.5 billion people alive on planet earth today there must exist sufficient resources to keep them alive. The problem is for how long: a question rarely taken into account in estimates purportedly aimed at determining the maximum human population that the Earth can support.

The problem of long-term support of a population can be expressed in terms of the concept of “overshoot,” applied first by Jay Forrester in 1972 [2] to social systems. The innovative aspect of Forrester's idea is that it takes the future into consideration: if there is enough food for 7.5 billion people today, that doesn’t mean that the situation will remain the same in the future. The destruction of fertile soil, the depletion of aquifers, the increased reliance on depletable mineral fertilizers, to say nothing of climate change, are all factors that may make the future much harder than it is nowadays for humankind. The problems will be exacerbated if the population continues to grow.

So, will the human population keep growing in the future as it has in the past? Many demographic studies have attempted to answer this question, often arriving at widely different results. Some studies assume that population will keep growing all the way to the end of the current century, others that it will stabilize at some value higher than the present one, others still that it will start declining in the near future. Few, if any, studies have taken into account the phenomenon of rapid decline that I have termed “Seneca Effect” (or “Seneca Collapse”) [3]⁠, from a sentence written during the 1st century AD by the Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca.

The Seneca Collapse is a phenomenon affecting complex systems where strong feedback relationships link the elements of the system to each other. Biological communities where predators and their prey are linked to each other are a good example of these systems. The Seneca Effect describes a situation in which the feedbacks of the system act together to generate a rapid decline of some of the stocks (populations) of the system. The typical “Seneca Curve” (or "Seneca Cliff")  is shown in the figure below [3] ⁠

Figure 1. A typical “Seneca Curve” calculated by means of system dynamics The x-axis shows the time, the y-axis can be a parameter such as population. It shows how decline can be faster than growth [3]

In the following, I'll list a series of examples showing that the Seneca Curve is relatively common in biological systems, including for historical human population. The possibility of an upcoming Seneca Cliff affecting humankind in the near future is real

2. Population collapses in natural ecosystems

There are many historical examples of the collapse or rapid decline of biological populations. The causes can be seen as mainly three:

1. Predation
2. Resource depletion
3. Birth control

The first, predation, is the result of the appearance in the ecosystem of a new and highly efficient predator when the prey population has little or no defense against it. There are many examples of this phenomenon in modern times, especially when humans have transported new species to biomes where they didn't exist before (e.g. hornets as predators of bees). A clear example can be found when the predator is humankind and the prey is the Thylacine species (the “Tasmanian Tiger”) [5]

Figure 2. The population of Tasmanian tigers (Thylacines) before their complete extinction in the 1930s From ref. [5]⁠

These data are not a direct measurement of the size of the Thylacine population but can be reasonably assumed to be proportional to it. When the last Tasmanian tigers were killed, in the 1930s, the species was assumed to be extinct. The obvious origin of this collapse is human hunting, although disease has been sometimes blamed. Whether human or microbial pathogens were the predator, the graph shows how rapidly a biological population can collapse because of high predation rates. Note how the decline is much faster than growth.

Case 2, resource depletion, is often the specular case of efficient predation. It occurs when the predator species is so efficient in using its preys as food that the prey population crashes. It is a classic case of "overshoot" that leaves the predator without food and with the only perspective of a population collapse. A well-known case is that of the reindeer of St. Matthew Island, where the predators are the reindeer and the prey is grass. Obviously, the reindeer were so efficient in removing the grass that the whole population went in overshoot and then collapsed [4].⁠

Fig 3. The Reindeer Population of St. Matthew Island. Image created by Saudiberg.

The third possible case, active birthrate control, doesn’t seem to exist in the wild but we can see it in domesticated populations. Here is the case of horses in the United States.

Figure 4. Horse population in the United States (data source: The Humane Society

The horse population went down rapidly and abruptly from a maximum of more than 26 million in 1915 to about 3 million in 1960. Today their population has increased again to about 10 million but has not regained the level of the earlier peak.  In this case, horses were simply no longer competitive in comparison to engine-powered vehicles. As a result, horses were not allowed to breed. When old horses died, they were not replaced.

3. The collapse of human populations in history

This survey of the collapse of biological populations shows three causes for the “Seneca Collapse" to take place: 1) predation, 2) overshoot, and 3) reproductive control. Do the same phenomena take place with human populations? It seems to be possible and let’s see a few historical cases.

Humans have no significant metazoan predator, but they are legitimate prey for many kinds of microbial creatures. In history, diseases are known to have caused human population collapses. A good example, here, is the effect of the “black death” in Europe during the Middle Ages. The data are uncertain, but the “Seneca Shape” of the collapses is clear.

Figure 5 – European Population in history, including the effects of the Great Plague of mid 14th century (from Langer [6])

Regarding overshoot and resource depletion, perhaps the best example is that of the Irish famine that started in 1845. A graph of the collapse is shown in fig. 5

 Fig. 6 – Irish population data before and after the great famine of 1845.

The Irish catastrophe has been interpreted in different ways and politically biased interpretations are often invoked. Nevertheless, as discussed in detail in “The Seneca Effect” [3], the Irish famine is a classic case of overshoot-generated collapse. That doesn’t mean that the Irish had overexploited their land in the same way as the reindeer of St. Matthew’s Island, but it is clear that – given the economic, social, and political conditions of the time - the land couldn’t support for a long time the population level reached before the collapse. Then, the parasite of the potato which destroyed the Irish crops was only a trigger for a collapse that would have taken place anyway. After the crash, the Irish population continued to decline for more than half a century and even today it has not reached the pre-crash levels again.

Finally, we can examine cases in which the human population declined mainly because of lower birthrates. There are several modern examples, especially in Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. An especially evident case is that of Ukraine, shown in figure 7.

Fig. 7 – Ukrainian population – data from the World Bank

There were no widespread epidemic diseases nor famines in Ukraine during the period that covers the recent population collapse. Factors in the decline were emigration and increased mortality due to a declining health care system, but what’s impressive is how the Ukrainian population reacted to the economic crisis with a decline in birthrates. Apparently, Ukrainian families and Ukrainian women thought that they had no benefit in having many children, a reasonable position in a situation of economic decline. The Seneca shape of the population curve is observed for most of the countries which belonged to the Soviet Union.

4. Conclusion

All biological populations need food and are affected by predation. Wild populations have no internal mechanisms to plan ahead and the result is normally what we call “overshoot,” where the population grows over the limits which the resources can sustain over a long time and finally collapses. The result is population curves which take the typical "Seneca Shape" described in [3]

The future of the world’s human population may well be described in similar terms, that is decline caused by overshoot, predation, or birth control. Of the three, predation could take the form of a microbial infection spreading all over the world and killing a substantial fraction of the human population. Another likely effect is overshoot, especially in terms of the decline of the world's agriculture or, more simply, to the loss of the capability of the globalized economic system to deliver it worldwide.

Unlike in non-human populations, for humans there is also the possibility of birth control. A decline in natality doesn’t necessarily require top-down government intervention to force people to have fewer children. An economic slowdown may be sufficient to convince couples and single women that they have no need and no interest in having many children. In particular, the economic value of human beings is constantly eroded by the development of automated systems that replace them in the workplace. So, if women have access to contraception, we may just see a worldwide expansion of what we call the “demographic transition” and which is commonly observed in the so-called “developed countries” where agriculture ceases to be the main source of wealth.

Will the demographic transition be sufficient to reduce the human population before the evil demons of overshoot and plague intervene? This is hard to say, but it cannot be excluded. Humans are, after all, intelligent creatures and they may still be able to take their destiny in their hands.


1. Pyarelal. Mahatma Gandhi: the last phase. (Navajivan Publishing House, 1956).

2. Bardi, U. Jay Write Forrester (1918–2016): His Contribution to the Concept of Overshoot in Socioeconomic Systems. Biophys. Econ. Resour. Qual. 1, 12 (2016).

3. Bardi, U. The Seneca Effect. Why Growth Is Slow but Collapse Is Rapid. (Springer Verlag, 2017).

4. Klein, D. R. The Introduction, Increase, and Crash of Reindeer on St. Matthew Island. J. Wildl. Manage. 32, 350–367 (1968).

5. McCallum, H. Disease and the dynamics of extinction. Philos. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B. Biol. Sci. 367, 2828–39 (2012).

6. Langer, W. L. The Black Death. Sci. Am. 210, 114–121 (1964).

Monday, July 9, 2018

The Queen and the Philosopher: War, Money, and Metals in Roman Britain

  We know very little about Queen Boudica of the Iceni (20 AD (?) - 61 AD) and most of what we know is probably deformed by Roman propaganda. But we may still be able to put together the main elements of her story and how it was that she almost threw the mighty Roman Legions out of Britain. Above, a fantasy interpretation of the Celtic Queen from "" (this post was inspired by a note of Mireille Martini)

You probably know the story of Queen Boudica. Tall, strong, and terrible, she was the embodiment of the fierce warrioress who fought - bravely but unsuccessfully - to defend her people from the oppression of an evil empire, that the Romans. It all happened during the reign of Emperor Nero, 2nd century AD. As usual, the passage of time has turned these events into legends, deformed by the lens of propaganda. But maybe we can still discern the reasons for Boudica's rebellion and learn something relevant for our times.

As it often happens in history, to understand why something happens, you only need to follow the money.  In this particular case, it is curious that the money that triggered the war may have been provided by no one else than Lucius Annaeus Seneca, yes, the Stoic philosopher. But it is a story that needs to be told from the beginning.

First of all, why were the Romans in Britain at the time of Queen Boudica? Simple: because of the British mineral resources. Britain had a long story of mining that went back to the Bronze Age and to even earlier times. The British mines could provide copper, tin, iron, lead, and even precious metals: gold and silver. These were all vital resources for the Roman Empire which used precious metals for coinage and all sort of metals for its various technologies.

The Romans already set foot in Britain at the time of Julius Caesar, in 55 BC. They set up a full-fledged invasion only in AD 43 under Emperor Claudius. But even before invading, according to  Strabo's Geography, there was a brisk commercial network that connected Rome to Britain, with Britain exporting metals and importing luxury goods of all sorts, silk, olive oil, food, slaves, and more.

It was all part of the way the Romans managed their empire. Their expansion was not simply a question of a blitzkrieg war machine. Invading a foreign kingdom was preceded by a long period of cultural and commercial assimilation and it was attempted only when it could provide a financial return. That required a certain degree of economic development of the regions being assimilated. It didn't work with the Germans, who had no mines and only a relatively primitive economy. And they were also a tough military force, able to defeat even the mighty Roman war machine - they did that at Teutoburg, in 9 AD. So, the Romans shifted their attention to the wealthier and metal-rich Britain. It worked: the invasion of 43 AD was relatively easy in military terms. Afterward, the mines increased their production by means of Roman technology, commerce boomed, new Roman settlements were built, and Britain started being romanized.

But something went badly wrong in 60 AD, when the Romans suddenly faced a major rebellion of the Iceni people living in Eastern England, led by their redoubtable queen, Boudica. At the end of this post, you can read the details of the story as we know it, told by Jason Porath in a light-hearted style. Summarizing, when Boudica's husband, King Prasutagus, died, the Romans intervened, seized his lands, had his widow flogged - Boudica herself -  and his daughters raped. The queen was not amused and the rebellion started with all the associated atrocities. Eventually, the Romans managed to get the upper hand and Boudica killed herself.

But what made the Romans behave in a way that was nearly sure to spark a rebellion? Maybe it was just their lust for power, but there is a detail told by Dio Cassius (vol VIII, Cassius Dio, Roman History, 62.2) that can help us understand what happened. Cassius says that Seneca (yes, he was a philosopher, but also a rich man) had lent to the Iceni a large sum of money and that the Iceni were unable to return it. That suggests that the key to the story was money.

According to Dio Cassius, we are talking of 40 million sesterces. What kind of money is that? It is not so easy for us to visualize this sum, but we know that in those times a Roman legionary was paid nine hundred sestertii per annum. So, 40 million sesterces could pay some 50 thousand troops for a year - a large military force for the time. From this and other data, we could say - roughly, very roughly - that the value of a sesterce was of the order of 50 dollars. So, 40 million sesterces could be compared to some two billion dollars today. Clearly, we are discussing of a large sum for a small economy such as that of the Iceni tribe had to be.

We don't know what King Prasotagus had in mind to do with that money, but we know that something went wrong. Dio Cassius faults Seneca himself for having precipitated the rebellion by insisting to have his money back. That Seneca did that out of personal greed seems to be unlikely, as discussed by Grimal. Cassius was writing more than a century after the events and he may have wanted to cast Seneca in a bad light for ideological reasons. But that's just a detail,  what matters is that the Iceni (or, better said, the Iceni elite) defaulted on a large debt they had with the Romans.

In ancient times, defaulting on one's debt was a serious crime, so much that the early Roman laws punished it by having the debtor drawn and quartered. In Imperial times, there were considerably more lenient laws - but these laws very valid only for Roman citizens and Boudica was not one. In this light, flogging doesn't sound like an exaggerated punishment for defaulting on a large debt (2 billion dollars!). Even the rape of her daughters was not something unusual as a punishment for non-Roman citizens in those times. In any case, it is likely that the Romans didn't do what they did because they enjoyed torturing and raping women -- they used the default as an excuse to seize the Iceni kingdom. We can't even exclude that the loan was engineered from the beginning with the idea of annexing the kingdom to the Roman Empire.

Be it as it may, at this point, the Iceni elite had little choice: either lose everything or rebel against the largest military power of their time. Neither looked like a good choice, but they chose the one that turned out to be truly disastrous.

All that happened afterward was already written in the book of destiny - the archeological records tell us of cities burned to the ground, confirming the reports of initial Iceni victories told to us by Roman historians. Standard propaganda techniques probably caused the Romans to exaggerate the atrocities performed by the Iceni, just as the number of their fighters in order to highlight their own military prowess. Even Boudica herself was portraited as a larger-than-life warrioress, but we can't even be completely sure that she actually existed. In any case, the revolt was bound to fail, and it did. In a few centuries, Boudica was forgotten by her own people: we have no mentions of her in the records from Celtic Britain. The Roman Empire faded, but the Roman influence on British customs and language remains visible to this day (even though the ghost of the old queen may be pleased by the Brexit!).

What's most interesting in this story is the light it sheds on the inner workings of Empires. We tend to think that Empires exist because of their mighty armies - which is true, in part - but armies are not everything and in any case, the soldiers must be paid. Empires exist because they can control money, (or capital if you prefer). That's the real tool that builds empires: No money - no empire! 

And that takes us to the current empire, the one we call the "American Empire" or "the "Western Empire." It does have mighty armies but, really, the grip it has on the world is all based on money. Without the mighty dollar, it is hard to think that the large military and commercial network we call "globalization" could exist.

So, can we think of a modern equivalent of the Iceni rebellion? Surely we can: think of the end of the Soviet Union. It was brought down in 1991 not by military means but by financial ones. The debt the Soviet Union had with the West is estimated at US$ 70 billion, in relative terms probably not far from the 40 million sesterces the Iceni owed to the Romans. Unable to repay this debt, the Soviet elites had only two choices: dissolve or fight. They made an attempt to fight with the "August Putsch" in 1991, but it rapidly fizzled out. There was no chance for the Soviet Communists to make a mistake similar to the one Queen Boudica made, that is starting a full-fledged military rebellion against a much more powerful enemy. That was good for everybody on this planet since the Soviet Union had nuclear warheads which might have been used in desperation. Fortunately, history doesn't always repeat itself!

But, if history doesn't repeat itself, at least it rhymes and the ability of the Western Empire to use financial means to bring countries into submission is well documented. Another, more recent, case, is that of Greece: again a nation that couldn't give back the money it owed to the imperial powers. For a short moment, in 2015, it looked like the Greeks had decided to rebel against the empire but, in the end, the Greek elites chose to submit. The punishment for the Greek citizens has been harsh but, at least, their country was not bombed and destroyed, as it happens rather often nowadays when the Imperial Powers that Be become angry.

But for how long will the Western Empire remain powerful? Just like for the Roman Empire, its destiny seems to be a cycle of growth and decline - and the decline may have already started as shown by the failure of the attempt of bankrupting the heir of the Soviet Union, Russia (again, fortunately for everybody, because Russia has nuclear weapons). The globalized empire seems to be getting weaker and weaker every day. Whether this is a good or a bad thing, only time will tell.

A note added after publication: there are some curious coincidences in this story. Seneca was probably the most powerful man of the empire from ca AD 54 to 62, almost an emperor himself while Nero was still very young. It is during this period that the story of the loan to King Prasotagus took place and, then, the rebellion of Queen Boudica started. It is reported that Nero was so upset by the initial successes of the Iceni that he seriously considered ordering the legions to abandon Britain. So, let's see what we know: Seneca makes a big mistake, Nero is very angry because of that and, a few years later, he orders Seneca to commit suicide (AD 65) with the accusation of treason. Maybe it was really treason. Or maybe it was Boudica's ghost who took her posthumous revenge on Seneca!


Jason Porath -

. . .  the Romans, at the apex of their arrogance, set into action an outrageously poor set of decisions. Try to spot where things go off the rails:
  • They did not recognize Boudica’s claim to the throne because she was a woman.
  • They laid claim to all of the late king’s money.
  • Also to a ton of Iceni land.
  • And said that some money they’d given the late king was a loan, due back (with interest) immediately.
  • They then publicly flogged Boudica.
  • And raped her two daughters.
You can probably tell at this point that the rest of this story isn’t going to go well for the Romans.

The amazing thing is, this was totally in line with the (local) Romans’ line of stupid moves! When Boudica subsequently raised a mob and began marching on the nearby town of Camulodunum (essentially a veterans retirement home), several other Roman blunders came to light:
  • Camulodunum had dismantled its own defenses so more people could build houses.
  • They’d been overtaxing all the neighboring Britons, mostly because they could.
  • All the collected money had gone to building a fancy temple, which was effectively a giant middle finger to their subjugated neighbors.
  • Lastly, when the Romans got word that some rowdy barbarian lady was acting up, they laughed and sent 200 soldiers to scare her off. The 120,000 men she’d gathered laughed back and killed everyone in the city.
Fun science fact: if you apply a sustained fire to an entire Roman city, you can turn it into a molten pile of sickly red clay. This fact comes to us courtesy of Boudica, warrior scientist of the first century, and the 6-inch-thick layer of detritus that is current-day Camulodunum. She repeated her experiment with two other cities, including Londinium, the precursor to London. 

Along the way, her army, which had at this point become a roaming 230,000-man block party, killed an armed Roman legion, around 70,000 civilians, and became Rome’s worst nightmare. In order to understand how terrifying this was for Rome, one should understand some specifics of Boudica’s uprising:
  • They cut off the breasts of Roman noblewomen, sewed them to their mouths, and hung the bodies or mounted them on spears.
  • The Iceni decapitated people as a matter of religious principle. They’d embalm the heads of their enemies and mount them on chariots. The rest were thrown into rivers (and are still occasionally found to this day).
  • Rome was huge to the point of unwieldy at this point. Stories of an untrained mob wiping out veterans left and right raised the spectre of uprisings happening everywhere.
  • “Moreover,” a prominent Roman historian wrote, “all this ruin was brought upon the Romans by a woman, a fact which in itself caused them the greatest shame.”
Unfortunately, Boudica’s success had largely been predicated on surprise, and did not last long. When they went up against entrenched Roman soldiers, the Iceni fell apart. A mere 15,000 Romans were able to rout Boudica’s massive army, killing 80,000 in the process. So sure had the Boudican mob been of their victory that they’d brought their families out to the battlefield in wagons – wagons that later pinned them in from retreating.

Her methods are almost directly equivalent to tribal headhunters and religious extremists, but she’s held up as a vengeful heroine instead of deranged villain.

Boudica’s final fate is unknown. Some suppose she swallowed poison, and others that she was killed in battle. Her story was all but forgotten for centuries, until the rediscovery of documents from Roman historians. After that, she became a national hero of Britain in short order, soon appearing in textbooks, statues, and movies.


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)