Monday, April 23, 2018

The road to the Seneca Cliff is paved with evil intentions. A new cycle of destruction of the world's forests may be starting


The oldest stories of human lore have to do with cutting trees and with the disasters that followed as a consequence. Above, legendary Sumerian heroes Gilgamesh and Enkidu kill the guardian of the trees, Huwawa (image source). Several thousand years afterward, we don't seem to have learned much about how to manage our natural resources.


I expected this to happen, perhaps not so soon and not in this form, but it had to come. With the era of cheap fossil fuels coming to a close, what's left as low-cost fuel is wood and that had to be the target of the next wave of exploitation.

Naively, I was thinking that the rush for wood would have taken the form of desperate people moving toward the mountains with axes and chainsaws, but no, in Italy it is coming in a much more destructive way. It is a government decree approved on Dec 1st, 2017 which allows local administrations to cut woods, even against the will of the owners of the land. It is the start of a new wave of deforestation in Italy, probably an example that the rest of the world may follow in the near future.

It is a long story that goes back to the roots of Italian history. Already in Roman times, deforestation was a major problem, believed to have generated the marshes still present in Italy in modern times. During the Middle Ages, woods returned. Sometimes, the regional governments took good care of the forests (as, for instance, in Tuscany) but a new cycle of deforestation came with the political unification of Italy, in 1861. At that time, the Piedmontese government treated the newly acquired lands as spoils of war, razing down ancient forests without any regrets. The story is reported in a novelized form by the British writer Ouida, in "A village commune." (1881).

Gradually, with fossil fuels becoming more and more important -  first coal, then oil and gas - trees ceased to be the crucial economic resource they had been before. In the 1920s the Italian government engaged in a serious reforesting policy whose effects are still visible nowadays. After the end of the war, in 1945, the Italian economic system prospered mainly on industry. For the local administrations, the main source of revenue was concrete and that led to the paving of large areas with buildings of all kinds, but the woods in their mountains were left more or less in peace. With agricultural land left abandoned, in many places woods advanced and covered new areas.

Then, there came the 21st century and with it the increasing costs of fossil fuels. Prices have been going up and down, generating occasional screams of "centuries of abundance." But, by now, nobody sane in their mind can miss the fact that the old times of cheap fuels will not come back. One consequence has been the diffusion of pellet-fueled stoves in Italy, often done in the name of "saving the environment." (figure on the right, source) Theoretically, wood pellets are a renewable fuel - but only theoretically. If they are consumed faster than trees can regrow, they are not. And the appetite of Italy for pellets is insatiable: Italians consume 40% of all the pellet burned in Europe while Italy produces only about 10% of the wood it burns.

With the housing market stagnating, someone was bound to realize that the only remaining source of profit from the land would come from turning forests into pellets. The consequence is the just approved evil piece of legislation. All in the name of the universally agreed concept that a tree is worth something only after it is felled, the new law gives to local administrations the power to cut everything, when they want, as they want. Let me leave the description of this disaster to my friend and colleague Jacopo Simonetta, writing in a recent post in "apocalottimismo".
[The law] says that if the landlords refuse to cut the woods they own, the local administrators can occupy - even without the landlord's agreement - the land and leave the "productive recovery" (that is the cutting of the trees) to companies or cooperatives of their choice (which means, "the friends of their friends"). And not just that. The companies which obtain the grant to cut the trees will provide economic compensation to the city administration in a form that the administration will define. For example, new streets, new parking lots, new street lighting, or anything the mayor will deem necessary for his or her electoral campaign. Or in the form of money, this time to the regional government, in order to "cash in" something - as people say.
It is easy to see here the hidden hand of the pellet industry, but there is - or at least there will be - much more. Anyone who has a minimum knowledge of how the administrations of small towns in Italy work can understand how this law is a formidable incentive for every administration to install a gang of local notables who will organize squads of henchmen financed with the cutting of other people's woods. And those who, like me, have 40 years of experience in these matters know that the line that separate a squad from a Fascist squad  (a "squadraccia") is thin and it tends to become thinner and thinner as the power of the state fades away. 
From my personal experience, I can completely confirm Simonetta's analysis. Even in the theoretically civilized Tuscany, the local administrations have little or no resources to enforce the law outside urbanized areas. What had saved the woods, so far, is that at least the national laws were rather strict in protecting trees and that provided at least a veneer of protection. Now, the central government has abandoned even the pretense of governing the territory, leaving it all in the hands of the local bosses. It is normal, the collapse of civilizations comes first and foremost with the collapse of the central authority.

You may wonder whether anyone in Italy is speaking against such a horrible law; shouldn't the government protect people's property, including woods? In practice, just a few of the usual suspects have been protesting: environmental associations, a few experts, university professors, and the like - all people without any real power in the Italian society. From everybody else, especially at the political level, the silence has been deafening.

It is understandable: fighting this law implies going against an unholy alliance of 1) local politicians looking for funds for their re-election, 2) people living in the countryside, desperate for a revenue of some kind, of any kind, 3) the pellet industry, seeing a good market developing, and 4) city dwellers who want to warm their homes. And if you are thinking of defending a forest you believe should not be destroyed, you don't need to live in places where mafia rules to understand that "they" know where your children go to school.

In the end, it is all the result of the harsh law of EROI the energy return on energy invested. Humans exploit first the resources which give them the best yield (high EROI) and, in the recent history, these resources have been fossil fuels. Then, they move to progressively lower EROI resources. Now, it is the turn of woods in Italy, but it is not limited to Italy. Most civilization of the past fell together with a wave of deforestation that destroyed their last resources. Ours is not different, why should it be?

But a battle is surely going to be lost only if one refuses to fight it. So, if you want to give your contribution to this probably unvinnable battle to help the Italian woods, you can sign this petition. And, who knows? It might do something.


As a final consideration, you surely noted that I mentioned the Fascist government as having protected the trees in Italy. Surely, it did that better than the democratic governments which preceded and followed it. You may also know about the case of Japan: during the Edo period, the Japanese government enacted draconian laws to protect the Japanese forests: the unauthorized cutting of a single tree could be punished with death. 

Does that mean that we need an authoritarian government to keep alive the world's forests (and with them, humankind)? Perhaps, but the problem is more complex than that. An authoritarian government is expensive - it needs a police, an army, a bureaucracy, a propaganda system, and more - all things which need resources to be maintained. In times of collapse, an authoritarian government cannot survive better than a democratic one. Right now, we are clearly moving towards more and more authoritarian forms of government, but that doesn't seem to be leading to a better management of the ecosystem. Rather, these governments seem to be more adept at sponsoring the plunder of whatever is left.

What is needed for keeping the ecosystem alive is a stable economic system, which is exactly what we don't have and we won't have in the foreseeable future. So, it looks like we have to go through collapse. Then we'll re-emerge, perhaps, wiser than before. In the meantime, we have to put up with the limits of human nature.

33 comments:

  1. If recall rightly, you wrote a piece about the Medici having done something to save the woods of Tuscany, too?

    Oh well, isn't Democracy beautiful?

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    1. Democracy is based on consensus, and that makes it usually less expensive than dictatorships. Unfortunately, sometimes consensus is about doing bad things....

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    2. BTW, the previous paper of mine on the subject is here

      http://cassandralegacy.blogspot.it/2013/01/plant-trees-disband-army-work-together.html

      It says, basically, that Tuscany had a reasonably good set of forest policies as long as it was an independent state. Then, well...

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  2. Professor Bardi,
    Unbelievable arrogance and stupidity displayed by your government. I trust there will be pushback - legal challenges, demonstrations, and political pressure to reverse this disastrous law.

    While wood heat is useful, and we use wood here in British Columbia, it is a cumbersome chore to heat a home with it.
    Surely in sunnier parts of the world, appropriate technology i.e. passive solar space heating and solar water heating are economical propositions.

    As an architect, I'd be delighted if an inexpensive, non-combustible, stable over 10,000+ cycles, phase change material (PCM) at around 22C melting & freezing point were readily available for passive solar augmentation of thermal storage. CaCl.6(H2O) i.e. calcium chloride hexahydrate with additives could fit the bill. And the formula should be freely available world-wide.

    Any thoughts on this?

    Robert Beckett

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    1. There is still some hope to reverse this decision by the Italian government, although I don't see that as likely. And, of course, there are excellent technologies that would make wood burning useless for heating homes. But, as someone says, for every problem there is a solution that's simple, attractive, and wrong.

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    2. The problem here is that one is dealing with regional politicians, who operate on the old Roman client system of politics, and who also have to please an ignorant electorate: essentially short-termist. Same problem in the Spanish regions: all about pleasing one's 'amiguitos'.......

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    3. That private property should be subject to arbitrary expropriation while the country is not even in a state of war or national emergency justifies the reservations of a half-Italian friend of mine who has Dutch and British passports, but hesitates to acquire an Italian one -which he would like for sentimental reasons - as he fears being robbed by unscrupulous politicians.

      Incidentally, his grandmother, a poor peasant from Bergamo, was sent to Libya during WW2 as a forced labourer -hence, by a long route, his British passport. Which gave him his chance in life, to get rich in the City of London. Another good turn Mussolini did. :)

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  3. Ugo: You don't need to publish this comment, just wanted to show you this article

    But this is a very interesting article. I got money that says you will go OOHHH.

    https://arxiv.org/pdf/1804.03748.pdf

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    1. You gained the bet. But I already knew that paper. An interesting stunt - but I think it is weak. The idea is that a Silurian civilization could have strongly perturbed the earth's environment but left no recognizable traces. In order to create the kind of perturbation observed in the fossil record, it should have massively used fossil fuels. But it would be impossible to massively extract fossil fuels without metals and that implies metallurgy and all the related technologies. Then, we should find a world-wide layer containing all sorts of heavy metals whose presence can't be explained by geological processes - something like the iridium layer associated with the asteroid event at the end of the Mesozoic, but containing a lot more metals. It is at least unlikely that such a layer has not been observed so far - mass spectrometry should make it easily visible. So, I think that - no - there haven't been earlier industrial civilizations on this planet. Unless someone finds such a layer....

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    2. BTW, an article to REALLY go "Oooh..."

      http://science.sciencemag.org/content/360/6386/310.full

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    3. UGH: Being a giant breed myself (2 meters, 160kg) I find this article oddly depressing.

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  4. Ugo, indescribably sad report. You are correct it is another marker of collapsing modern energy centric societies. Regrettably we are really now in the age of limits and alas it is becoming increasingly chaotic. To chart a way through this and forge something sustainable for any sort of future would require compassionate, clear and snesible thinking, discussion and behaviour. None of the latter characteristics are found in collapsing societies. It is going to be a hard and very dangerous ride down to what can be sustained at any level.

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  5. in the meanwhile the denigration campaign against "the club of Rome" go on ( https://www.facebook.com/massimo.fontana.52/posts/1923445951020298 ) (this is an economist)

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    1. A bit of a depressing article. Full of sound and fury and nothing else

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  6. We are in war and if we want to have some chance to survive as humankind we have no other choice, we must fight at all levels against the unsustainable ignorance, for that it requires unlimited constant altruistic effort.
    Regards
    Gio

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  7. This is absolutely horrifying. In the US people are being arrested for trespassing on their own land if they try to block oil or gas pipelines, and most of us in my region don't own our "mineral rights" and are just "surface owners" and consequently have no say in decisions to drill and frack under our land. But the idea of seizing people's trees and demanding they be cut and chipped--for heat, or for power, I wonder? I myself am all for wood heat, but within buildings designed to need as little as possible. In rural areas in regions of good forest cover, wood heat doesn't require deforestation. In ten years, heating entirely with wood, we have never cut a live tree just for firewood. We've harvested dead trees, and those that needed cut for other reasons, and recently the emerald ash borer has killed virtually all the ashes.

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    1. Yes, private property is an interesting concept - I feel like defining in the same way as when they asked "what do you think of the Western Civilization" to Gandhi and he answered "it would be a good idea" (probably apocryphal, but good anyway)

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  8. BTW, the petition against the law is having some success, getting close to 42,000 signatures. If you have a moment, do sign it, please! It needs 50,000 signatures.

    https://www.change.org/p/sergio-mattarella-no-all-uso-di-boschi-e-foreste-a-fini-energetici-nelle-centrali-a-biomasse

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  9. My "this would never happen in the USA" programming kicked in. Then I remembered the assent forfeiture being employed by our police in the "drug" war.

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  10. Ugo
    I am slightly surprised the threat is coming from government not from the Corporate sector via 'de-regulation'. I judge this latter threat is the bigger one in my own country, Britain. I gathered from Italian friends in the past that local government in Italy was often enough, especially perhaps in rural areas, in the hands of local oligarchs, perhaps some of them criminal and others more likely based on traditional class structures. Of course,'wars'of influence between different factions can create bizarre scenarios anywhere.

    best of luck - I signed and 'chipped in'(sic)
    Phil

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  11. Not directly related but worth reading:

    https://www.zerohedge.com/news/2018-04-24/visualizing-prolific-plastic-problem-our-oceans

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  12. In the 1970s in Sweden the government could force you to cut and replant a forest if they thought it was ready for harvest or if it was a "bad" forest, i.e. not productive enough. I was obliged by the government to cut, but refused and at more or less the same time the changed the law and its focus to nature preservation being equally important (on paper at least). A few years later the government paid us to set aside the same bad forest as a nature reserve, where no logging was allowed. Today, most forst owners experience that the government sided totally with "the environment". Even though I don't really agree with that perspective it is still true that the government restricts logging in many different ways. Absurdly, Sweden is also an importer of pellets for heating....We use 135 TWh of biomass fuel every year, not included household wood furnaces.

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  13. Ugo, upon reflection for Italians to do this also brings to the forefront a number of consequences, which will have further consequences. Putting aside the issue of ownership, to begin to cut down your forests for energy will have serious outcomes none of which are positive for all living things by the further destruction of biodiversity. A further affect will be it will reduce the rainfall in those areas where the trees are removed which will further increase the aridity and warming of the surrounding land areas over time. It is very poorly understood and widely not at all that trees create micro climates with water, humidity, shade and hence micro weather patterns in wind movement, atmospheric water vapour transfer and finally their very critical role in the carbon cycle. Global climate patterns are now changing due to excessive carbon in the atmosphere and oceans,shifts at this magnitude effect everybody everywhere and to talk of acceleration is to use the incorrect terms, this is not acceleration this is deterioration from stability to instability from temperate to hot. To think of cutting down any trees (forgetting the loss of what could haven been a sustainable alternative resource for many other things; domestic artifacts, buildings, cellulose, etc.) in the face of these global climatic shifts is stupidity on a grand scale.

    Deforestation will ensure that Italy will become a hot rock strewn arid grassland and exacerbate the deterioration of a stable temperate climate in the rest of the Mediterranean area. Ecological and hence social collapse and violent anarchy and misery is basically now guaranteed if collectively to destroy and plunder the remaining natural resources and hence, the live now forget about tomorrow, is the only thought process capable of being engaged upon, so to is the social and biological experiment of communal human societies. Fukushima used the correct words but for the wrong reasons, this is the end of history. You cannot change what you cannot control, we do not control the planet or is biosphere but we have changed it and continue to do so in ways inimicable to our humans and the majority of other species continuance on it, we thought we had become gods and masters of a universe which we were not.

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  14. We are as gods: but those who bring only slavery, destruction, madness and death......

    'When a tree is felled, it weeps the blood of every other living thing.'

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  15. And now even this:

    https://www.globalresearch.ca/the-moment-of-truth-has-come-what-now-threat-to-life-on-planet-earth-ozone-dying-and-the-deadly-ultraviolet-cosmic-radiation/5637864

    Seneca Cliff is certain.

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    1. An interesting link however I was not convinced by geo-engineering conspiracy supposition which it contained. There is not doubt that ozone and its depletion is a serious matter and it is known that ozone has deleterious affects on plants and is easily identified once you know what to look for and this is backed up by proper research. I am unconvinced by this grand conspiracy that its being done, if it was, somebody would have talked and loud by now and they have not (not to my knowledge). All aircraft engines produced some sort of particle residue (soot) it is not coal dust and you could not add it to the fuel system without serious engine performance issues. That given the sheer volume of high level carbon and oxide emissions at the upper levels of the stratosphere is something that needs to be considered not just carbon emissions and use by air travel.

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  16. This is an excerpt of the Critia (111 a-e) of Plato's (ca 427 - 348 BC), who every clearly describes the consequences of deforestation in ancient Greece almot two and a half millenia ago. You would think that this is ample time to learn from our previous mistakes.

    "The whole of the land lies like a promontory jutting out from the rest of the continent far into the sea and all the cup of the sea; round about it is, as it happens, of a great depth. Consequently, since many great convulsions took place during the 9000 years—for such was the number of years from that time to this1—the soil which has kept breaking away from the high lands during these ages and these disasters, forms no pile of sediment worth mentioning, as in other regions, but keeps sliding away ceaselessly and disappearing in the deep. And, just as happens in small islands, what now remains compared with what then existed is like the skeleton of a sick man, all the fat and soft earth having wasted away, and only the bare framework of the land being left. But at that epoch the country was unimpaired, and for its mountains it had high arable hills, and in place of the “moorlands,”1 as they are now called, it contained plains full of rich soil; and it had much forestland in its mountains, of which there are visible signs even to this day; for there are some mountains which now have nothing but food for bees, but they had trees no very long time ago, and the rafters from those felled there to roof the largest buildings are still sound. And besides, there were many lofty trees of cultivated species; and it produced boundless pasturage for flocks. Moreover, it was enriched by the yearly rains from Zeus, which were not lost to it, as now, by flowing from the bare land into the sea; but the soil; it had was deep, and therein it received the water, storing it up in the retentive loamy soil and by drawing off into the hollows from the heights the water that was there absorbed, it provided all the various districts with abundant supplies of springwaters and streams, whereof the shrines which still remain even now, at the spots where the fountains formerly existed, are signs which testify that our present description of the land is true."

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  17. and it's all happened before---the results are predictable and horrific

    https://www.truthdig.com/articles/chaco-canyon-chaco-earth/

    but as it says at the end of that piece---this time there's no new lands to extract fresh resources from

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  18. Another Seneca Cliff contributing factor we need to consider:

    https://www.globalresearch.ca/the-methane-time-bomb-and-the-future-of-the-biosphere/5638298

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  19. Surprised no one posted this;

    "EPA's Scott Pruitt says burning wood is renewable energy" CO2 neutral too.

    https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/policy/energy/epas-scott-pruitt-says-burning-wood-is-renewable-energy

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    1. It is part of the great scheme. There will be a comment on that in an upcoming post

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  20. It's an excellent post and the article is effective also .

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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)