Sunday, June 24, 2018

The Betrayal of a Nation. How the Kiribati People Will be Left to Drown

Anote's Ark is a film by Matthieu Rytz describing the plight of the Kiribati islands, threatened by the rising sea level. 


Anote's Ark is a beautiful movie that follows the fight of Kiribati's president, Anote Tong, on behalf of his people, trying to save them from the rising sea. The movie succeeds in telling the story and in making its case without preaching or pleading. But it hides the last phase of the story: the betrayal of an entire nation, taking place right now.

It is just a hint at the end of the movie: a line of text appearing on the screen, stating that the new Kiribati President, elected in 2016, has been reversing the policies of his predecessor. Nothing more is said but, if you look at the story on the Web, you see that it is true. For instance, we read on CBS news of November 2017, that the new government,
. . . proclaims the goal of promoting tourism by attracting foreign investors to develop "5-star eco-friendly resorts that would promote world-class diving, fishing and surfing experiences" on currently uninhabited islands. It says the nation's 20-year plan "has an ambitious aim to transform Kiribati into the Dubai or Singapore of the Pacific." 
And the new president Taneti Maamau, says that,

". . . we don't believe that Kiribati will sink like the Titanic ship. Our country, our beautiful lands, are created by the hands of God."
We all know that "whom the gods would destroy they first make mad" which seems to be describing the situation in the Kiribati islands. But we also know that there is method in some madnesses, and this may be one of those cases.

I already noted the case of the government of the Maldives, which went through the same policy U-turn as in Kiribati - that is from trying to save the islands to turning them into world-class tourist resorts. I titled my piece as "Those whom the Gods would destroy, they drive toward the Seneca Cliff" noting that,
Imagine that you are part of the elite of the Maldives. And imagine that you are smart enough to understand what's going on with the Earth's climate. As things stand today, it is clear that it is too late to stop a burst of global warming that will push temperatures so high that nothing will save the Maldives. Maybe not next year but in a few decades, it is nearly certain. So, given the situation, what is the rational thing for you to do? Of course, it is to sell what you can sell as long as you can find a sucker who will buy. Then you can say good riddance to those who remain. What we are seeing, therefore, is a game in which someone will be left holding the short end of the dynamite stick. When the elites of the Maldives will have left for higher grounds, the poor will be stuck there. For them, the Seneca Cliff ends underwater.
Exactly the same thing seems to be going on with the Kiribati islands. You don't have to be especially smart to understand that the rest of the world will not do anything to help the islanders. They will be left to drown while the people of the "developed" world will keep driving their SUVs. But, for those Kiribati people who have bank accounts on dry land, the road to salvation is clear.

It is, in the end, a new manifestation of what I called "The Camper's Dilemma." It is what happens when betrayal is judged to pay more than collaboration. In this case, overt betrayal is often preceded by a phase of active deception - it is something that governments are masters at doing with their citizens (as I argued for the case of Italy during ww2).

The cases of small islands are not isolated, only more evident than others. Look at what Donald Trump is doing: he downplays climate change in favor of economic development, just what the Kiribati's and Maldives' governments are doing. If the US elites have decided that there is no hope to save everyone, the logical thing for them is to move into "cheating mode" and let most people die not just by sea level rise, but by starvation, sickness, and other consequences of climate change. That gives them the time to prepare, accumulating resources for the coming emergency.

If this interpretation is correct, the elites of most of the developed world will soon follow suit in the denial of climate change. We have just to wait and see.

Note 1: The Kiribati islands, just like the Maldives, are coral islands. That gives them a certain resilience. They can cope with modest rises, but that's not enough fo the kind of changes that we are expecting 

Note 2: For a fictionalized version of this post, see "The True Story of the Fall of Troy"

Note 3: I don't mean that the elites of the world tend to get together in smoke-filled rooms where they discuss the grand plan for the extermination of the poor. I mean that there is a certain logic in a certain kind of actions and that this logic may even be followed without consciously realizing that. In other words, H.E. president Maamau may be sincerely convinced that God will save the Kiribati Islands

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Trump Takes Italy by Storm: the Rise of Matteo Salvini and of the Italian Right

Matteo Salvini, the leader of the Italian League and Minister of the Interior since June 2018. During the past few weeks, he has gained political prominence in Italy by adopting Trump's style and policies. Here, you see him together with the slogan "Italians First."

During the past few weeks, we have seen a true political revolution in Italy. Matteo Salvini, leader of the Italian League, has successfully exploited his new position of Minister of the Interior to gain personal prominence. The M5s movement had won the elections, this year, but it has been emarginated to a secondary role, while Salvini acts and looks like if he were the real Prime Minister. If new elections were held now in Italy, Salvini and the League would win hands down

All politics is, after all, about blame shifting. So, political success means simply finding someone to blame. Matteo Salvini was successful by adopting the same style and content that made the political fortune of Donald Trump. Both Trump and Salvini found a good target to blame with immigrants and foreigners in general. Both used harsh language, insults, callousness, and plain racism. Both found that the more shrill and violent their utterances were, the more they were approved by the public. It took a remarkably small effort to convince a large majority of Italians that all their troubles are caused by immigrants and, in particular, by the Roma people (less than the 0.2% of the Italian population). Salvini also capitalized on demonizing the Euro and the European Union, although he can't afford (so far) to exaggerate with insults and threats in that field. In any case, right now, it seems that 72% of Italians approve Salvini's actions
For everything that happens there is a reason and there has to be a reason for the outburst of hate and of racism in Italy. It has to do, probably, with the return of nation-states as protagonists in the world power game and with the ongoing disgregation of the American Empire. 

After the end of WW2, the European Union took the role of an agent of the American Empire to keep the European states under control. But the EU itself had to be kept under control, least it could become another empire that could have challenged the American supremacy. So, the EU wasn't allowed to develop an army, nor all the paraphernalia that would have turned it into a recognizable state, from an official language to a decent flag. It was an exercise in political acrobatics and it is remarkable that it worked reasonably well for more than half a century. 

But, today, the EU is weakened by the economic crisis and probably fatally wounded by the loss of Britain. All Empires tend to collapse in times of economic hardships, an even more likely outcome for a entity, the EU, which was a failed empire from the beginning. So, the old states are rising again - a trend that we see also outside Europe. Even in the US, Donald Trump is busy at turning the American Empire back into a nation-state. That changes many things, not necessarily for good.

Normally, empires are not racist and they don't engage in ethnical cleansing. They cannot afford that, since they are composed of heterogeneous entities which may need to be kept together by force. That makes Empires expensive: one of their characteristic is the large and costly military apparatus they are forced to maintain. Excessive military expenses is the most common cause of the collapse of empires. It happened to the Ancient Romans, just as it happened to the Soviet Union. And it is happening right now to the American Empire. It just can't survive for long without the influx of cheap energy and resources that created it.

Nation-states, instead, are relatively homogeneous entities in linguistic and ethnical terms, less likely to fragment in smaller pieces. What they need in terms of military force may be just a militia able to put down or exterminate ethnical or ideological minorities. That makes them less expensive and more resilient than empires. They can survive the economic hardships that shattered the most powerful empires in the world's history.

Nation-states often generate great enthusiasm among their citizens, but they are far from being benign entities. Their ethnical and linguistical homogeneity may be more a dream than reality and their survival may need to be propped up a poisonous mix of aggressive nationalism, hate, and racism directed against foreigners. It was one of the methods used in Italy by Mussolini's government in the 1920s and 30s, so it is not surprising that Mr. Salvini's government (formally known as Conte's government) is using the same methods today. As we know, hate and racism may not remain confined to insults.

And here we stand. The message that the current economic hardship is the result of resource depletion and of the negative effects of ecosystem disruption didn't pass, and maybe it never will. At this point, accusing Salvini or Trump of "populism" or of "racism" is not going to stop the trend. It is clear that their methods work wonderfully well. The skunk is out of the bag and we don't have to wait for long before other leaders will follow their example. A new round of ethnical cleansing in Western Europe, if not the start of a new European war, may be a plausible scenario for a non-remote future

But nothing is unavoidable. With enormous changes going on worldwide, with the ecosystem collapsing, with natural resources dwindling, with the human population still expanding, we may be rather facing a Seneca Collapse that will make short work of the European nation-states, just as the current crisis is destroying the American Empire. The future is never like the past and the only thing we are sure about it is that we cannot be sure of anything.


Monday, June 18, 2018

The Impossible Battle against Fake News: The Horse Manure Crisis in London

Illustration and initial text from a recent post on WUWT

Sometimes, I have this horrible feeling that the battle against fake news and propaganda is just impossible to win. The latest example is an article appeared on the unnamable WUWT blog, which repeats the story that someone in 1894 "predicted" that 9 feet of horse manure would soon accumulate in the street of London. And, of course, since that didn't happen, we are free forever and ever from any and every possible kind of catastrophe.

Let me repeat it, this is a legend. I wrote that two years ago on the Cassandra blog: nobody ever wrote such a thing on "The Times" nor anywhere else. People keep repeating what they hear from other people and keep thinking that sheer volume means truth. It is pure invention, fake news.

What I found most bewildering is how slick it is the report on WUWT - note how subtly they link an article with the words "but fake". It is a recent article by Rose Wild where she says exactly what I said in my 2016 article: There never was such a headline on The Times.

But the WUWT author, Larry Kummer, never states that explicitly. The hurried reader will surely think that the term "but fake" refers not to the existence of the 1894 article, but to its wrong predictions. This is reinforced by the sentence "accurately describing the views of the time." It is hard to think that a non-existing article could be accurate about anything. Slick, indeed.

You would think that people have had enough of propaganda after having been duped so many times on so many issues but, no, propaganda continues to exist and thrive. Actually, it seems to be increasing in volume and importance. Maybe it is part of the way the universe works. Maybe the universe itself has been created as a giant propaganda machine to convince the Gods that the Ragnarok will never come and that Odin will never be eaten by the wolf Fenrir. Who knows? Maybe we are all the dream of a sleeping God who is having a nightmare.

Note: there are hundreds of thousands of Web pages reporting the story of the "Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894" as if it were a historical fact - If there are any which say it is a hoax, they are extremely difficult to find.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

In Memory of David Lafarga Santorromán

I met David Lafarga only twice, at the two meetings on oil depletion held in Barbastro, in Spain, a few years ago. It was enough for me to be impressed by his dedication, his competency, and his friendly attitude. It was a shock for me to hear of his untimely death, this month. I leave to Antonio Turiel - who knew him better than me - to write a memorial for him on Cassandra's Legacy. The text below is Google-translated (with some retouches of mine) from the original in Spanish published on Turiel's blog "The Oil Crash." 

Rest in peace, friend and colleague David.

by Antonio Turiel Martinez

Perhaps some people will be surprised to learn that two of the most important meetings (and with good international presence) on the issue of the depletion of fossil fuels that have taken place in Spain have been held in Barbastro (the First International Congress in May 2011 and the Second International Congress in October 2014). Despite its undeniable charm, the capital of the Somontano region is quite far from the main urban centers of Spain and does not occupy a position too central in modern communications networks. That in this place two editions and of great quality of these meetings have been celebrated, doing much necessary publicity of the problem of peak oil, is the result of the eff(ort of many dedicated and conscientious people who work in the UNED
(Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia); and among them there has been one who stood out for the quality of the work, his commitment and his human qualities: David Lafarga Santorromán. 

I met David in early 2011, when he was organizing the first congress. At that time The Oil Crash was a blog of minor importance (did not add up to 100,000 page views) and my dissemination activity still had a very modest impact. Nevertheless, David found me and asked me to give a presentation on petroleum liquids. I was very interested in the subject, and thanks to the bibliographic search that I did at that time I was able to write a few related articles.I did not meet David in person until I arrived in Barbastro, in May. He was a young man (he was or at least appeared to be then in his thirties), tall, good-looking, athletic, always polite, and always friendly but with that closeness and familiarity so Aragonese, and above all a frank and honest person. David was the factotum of the meeting, the person who had devised the whole structure, a cultured person and very well aware of what was involved there; and even more, very aware of the seriousness of what was being talked about. A man who, with his personal commitment, the support of his superiors and the complicity of his colleagues had managed to move forward a congress of this magnitude. And he made the most of the occasion, getting UNED and even TVE (Televisión Española) to do several interviews with the attendees. 

During the days of the congress, especially after each session or at the end of the day in a more relaxed atmosphere, I had the opportunity to talk at length with David. When I left Barbastro, I promised to keep in touch and meet again when the occasion permitted.A year later, I returned to Barbastro, again invited by David. On that occasion, I gave a plenary lecture. I was by then a little better known (within the marginal that is this world of peak oil). Again, David took full advantage of my visit and also, being a much smaller event, we had more time to discuss personal issues during dinner. I think it was then that he told me about his serious illness, fortunately overcome at the time; but how it had forced him to make important changes in his life. He explained it with simplicity and naturalness, with that smile of a bit of a rascal that he had. David 2.0, he said. We toasted to that. 

We saw each other again in the vortex that was the congress of 2014. On that occasion, David entrusted me with the inaugural talk, an honor considering who the speakers were. With my colleagues from the CSIC, we worked with David to write the conclusions of the congress. David, as always, was kind and correct, focused and close. I could not see then the shadow that loomed over him. 

A few months ago, I contacted him. I had had no news and I feared the worst. I decided to write him an email with the excuse of asking if there would be a new edition of the world-renowned Barbastro congress. Always kind, he answered me, and with the simplicity of a good man he told me that the disease had returned. He wrote positive sentences about his future prospects, but it was clear between the lines that this time he faced an enormous problem.Almost a week ago he wrote an emotional farewell on his Facebook profile. He knew they were about to administer terminal sedation to him, and he wanted to take advantage of his last hours of lucidity to leave us a message that sums up very well the kind of person David was:
"Dear friends, my star fades out very fast, I never thought I would write something like this in FB but these days I received so much and so good that I dare to do it to tell you that today I will try to be available for a last hug to anyone who wants to come to the hospital. I love you and thank you all for being part of my life and making it so full in spite of its brevity."
I could have called him, but I was not able to. I almost can't even write this.On June 8, David lost his last game, and he left us alone here for our disgrace.

Rest in peace. Goodbye, friend David.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Climate Change as a Game of Russian Roulette

Ugo Bardi speaks at an event on climate change in Florence, on May 25th, 2018. Obviously, what I am holding is a toy, not a real gun. I was discussing guns as a metaphor for our penchant for doing dangerous things without exactly knowing what we are doing - for instance injecting large amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. With climate, we are playing a dangerous Russian Roulette game involving the whole of humankind (photo courtesy, Ilaria Perissi). 

In a science fiction story I read years ago, the protagonists live in the future and have forgotten what guns are. Then, someone finds a still working handgun and starts playing with it. As you may imagine, the results are tragic.

Now, let's make a small exercise in epistemology. Suppose that you are one of the characters of that sci-fi story. You have never seen a gun before and you would like to understand what it is and what it does. Basically, there are two ways of approaching the question: the scientific/reductionist way and the Bayesian/evolutionary way. Let me explain these concepts.

The scientific/reductionist way. You dismantle the unknown object and try to build a model of its inner workings. You note the mechanical system that makes a metal hammer hit on the chambers of a spinning drum. One of these chambers contains a brass cylinder partly filled with a mixture of chemicals that you can analyze. You find that the mechanical stress generated by the hammer may ignite the chemicals, producing high-pressure gases which might push an ogival chunk of some 100 g of lead through the front barrel at a speed of the order of 300 m/s. If you align the barrel with a human head, the effects of the chunk of lead passing through the brain would be hard to simulate, but they might involve serious damage. You conclude that it is, most likely, a weapon.

The Bayesian/evolutionary way. You examine the gun and try to build a probability estimate based on empirical tests. You note a small lever at the bottom and proceed to pull it, noting that it generates a clicking sound. You pull it a few more times: nothing happens as long as the hammer doesn't hit the loaded drum chamber (which you don't know about since you didn't dismantle the gun). Then, you conclude that it is probably a musical instrument.

The difference in this approach shows mostly if you use the gun to play the Russian Roulette (*) with one bullet in a six-chambers drum. Then, after five "clicks" the frequentist would tell you, "pull the trigger one more time and you are dead." But the Bayesian would say (**), "since you tried five times and nothing happened, then you are reasonably safe if you try once more."

Of course, these two viewpoints are extreme, there are plenty of intermediate ways to approach a problem, but they indicate how difficult it may be to deal with something unknown. And that's the big, big trouble with climate change. It is gigantic, enormous, complicated, and most likely dangerous. But we are like the characters of the science fiction story of the unknown gun: we have no direct past experience to rely upon. Without disparaging the Bayesian method, surely helpful in many cases, it may be a suicidal approach to use when dealing with something dangerous for which you have insufficient statistical data. That's the case of the Russian Roulette and also of climate change.

There follows the question: do people think Bayesian of Frequentist? It is a controversial subject but, personally, I'd say that it makes sense to say that most people think Bayesian. That may be the reason why humankind has such a cavalier attitude toward the danger of climate change. The statistics we have on climate for the recent past don't tell us anything about the possibility of a true catastrophe. So, we might be tempted use a Bayesian approach to conclude that we have no reason to be worried - and the more time goes by without catastrophes occurring, the more this conclusion seems to be reinforced. After all, haven't we pulled the trigger of this thing you call "gun" already five times? It has to be harmless.

Of course, the scientific/reductionist approach tells us otherwise when the climate system is analyzed and modelized. It tells us that the change may be extremely destructive - actually catastrophic. But that approach seems to be reserved for a small fraction of the population trained in the scientific method. There follows that humankind is playing the Russian roulette with the Earth's climate. And that might well end the way a Russian Roulette game must eventually end.

(*) During the past two decades, the number of suicides in the US has increased by some 25% and the most common method was using firearms. A peculiar form of suicide consists in playing the game of the Russian Roulette. There are no worldwide statistics but 10 years of records in Kentucky alone reveal 24 cases of people who killed themselves in this way. Clearly, it is not a form of mass entertainment, but it does happen. It is hard to say what goes on in the mind of the people who engage in this kind of game, but likely it has to do with the fascination we feel for guns. Nobody knows exactly how many small firearms exist in the world, but the number could be more than half a billion. In the US, there is about one gun per person although, of course, they are not evenly distributed. Some people take guns as true objects of worship and some seem to believe in the existence of a Gun God requiring human sacrifices - that may be the ultimate reason why some people play the Russian Roulette.

From the paper by Lisa Shields. "In one situation, a 22-year-old African American man used a 0.22 caliber revolver in a game with a friend. Each participant pulled the trigger on 2 occasions; the victim discharged the fatal bullet on his third attempt. The decedent was a university student, a member of the varsity football team, and was studying electrical engineering with a 3.0 GPA. Blood and urine toxicology screens yielded no ethanol or other drugs. In another circumstance, a 46-year-old divorced white man employed as a custodian engaged in Russian roulette with his “drinking buddy,” a male friend suffering from cancer. After placing 2 shells in a .38 special, the victim died with the first pull of the trigger. Four of the victims had pulled the trigger at least 3 times before their fatality. A 19-year-old white man significantly increased the likelihood of a Russian roulette fatality. He had a history of depression with a previous commitment at a mental hospital and several previous suicide attempts. Playing a variation of traditional Russian roulette with his brother and 2 friends, the victim placed 5 live rounds in the cylinder, leaving one empty chamber, of a .357 Traus revolver. He spun the cylinder, put the gun to his right temple, and pulled the trigger. <..> The decedent had played Russian roulette on 2 occasions in the previous several weeks, each time placing only one live round in the cylinder." 

(**) A formal statement of Bayes' theorem is:

In the problem of the Russian Roulette, X= you pull the trigger and A= you die

P(A|X) is what we want to estimate: what is the probability that you die when pulling the trigger? P(X|A) is the probability that when you die it is because you pulled the trigger. We may take it as equal to one, neglecting the occasional heart attacks that might strike the player when they pull the trigger on an empty chamber. For the P(A)/P(X) term, we need statistical data but it is obvious that, in a limited number of attempts, as long as the player is alive, the more times they pull the trigger, the larger P(X) becomes and hence P(A|X) becomes smaller. So, you wold be led to conclude that the more times you pull the trigger, the safer you are. Then, of course, for a large number of players (and a large number of deaths), the Bayesian analysis will converge to the reductionist results: n*3.5 attempts are needed in order to kill n people, assuming that the drum contains six chambers and one bullet. The problem is that the Russian Roulette doesn't allow a large number of attempts when played by a single person (or by a single planet in the form of a climate catastrophe).

See also this article on freakonometrics


Sunday, June 10, 2018

Is the Empire on the Edge of the Seneca Cliff? Italian Prime Minister Conte Opens to Russia at the G7

It is rare that a province of the Empire tries to pursue an independent foreign policy but, at the last G7 meeting, the new Italian Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, did something like that. He stated that Russia should return to the G8 (now G7) and called for the lifting the economic sanctions against Russia.

In the past, such deeds on the part of provincial politicians didn't go unpunished by the Imperial Powers, but this time the Empire seems to be in disarray - with Emperor Trump himself seeming to pursue a policy of disengagement. Might Conte's statement be part of the start of a radical change in the Empire's structure, with the provinces becoming more independent from Washington? For sure, the Empire is not yet sliding down the unavoidable Seneca Cliff which will lead to its disgregation. But it seems that we are moving in that direction.

As a comment to Mr. Conte's declarations about Russia, I thought I could reproduce here a piece that I was planning to post on another blog of mine ("Chimeras") but which suddenly became appropriate for Cassandra's Legacy. It is the translation of a text written by Giuseppe Iannello in occasion of the centennial of the Earthquake of Messina - an Italian city on the North-Eastern tip of Sicily. The 1908 earthquake was a major disaster and the role of the Russian sailors helping the victims is still remembered nowadays in Italy.

Here, Iannello states, correctly in my opinion, "The people of other nations, offering their help, proved to be friends to the Italians, but the Russians turned out to be brothers."

 The Russian Sailors in Messina: Beyond the Myth

 by Giuseppe Iannello - 25 Dicembre 2008

A Russian sailor from the ship "Slava" standing in front of the rubble of the Messina Earthquake of Dec 28th, 1908.

by Giuseppe Iannello - 25 Dicembre 2008

Those were days of true glory in Messina. But organization and discipline are not enough to explain the undisputed fame of saviors and heroes of the Russian sailors. 

Six days of glory. Real glory, glory able to challenge time and the judgments of the scholars in retrospect. A glory told to us by the press, but above all told by the people, by the people who saw with their eyes and heard with their ears. The Russian sailors entered the collective memory as heroes, as saviors, obscuring all the other rescuers. Why? A useless question if we ignore the narration of those six days and embark on historical and psychological analysis. Because the answer lies, in fact, in the deeds of those thousands of sailors who arrived on six ships of the Russian military fleet. 

There are many myths to dispel and "adjustments" to be made to avoid that the heroism of a people is identified with that of individual figures who, in reality, were only catalysts of needs that were born from a collective soul. We refer, for example, to generals and admirals. The command of the expedition of the Baltic Sea Fleet in the Mediterranean had been entrusted to Admiral Litvinov and he was sent to him while in the port of Augusta on request from the local authorities to provide assistance to the people of Messina. But it was not he who "decided" to move, he needed approval from his superiors, he needed an order; which would mean the loss of many hours waiting for that order. It was because his subordinates, officers, ensign, simple sailors, understood the situation and pressed to leave for the Strait of Messina. And so they did. In his memories ("The Imperial fleet of the Baltic between two wars, 1906-1914") Garald Graf, then ensign in the Admiral Makarov, the first of the Russian ships to leave, tells us, "Litvinov was not a man who knew how to make up his mind," but in the end he was persuaded. 

From the beginning, obedience and discipline do not explain the efficiency and the success of the Russian relief work. In "La terra trema" (the ground shakes) by Giorgio Boatti it is even possible to talk about an "almost inhumane discipline". It is true, during the hours of navigation from Augusta the Russians had had time to organize themselves in teams, to prepare everything that could have been necessary for them. But the same could have been done by others. The merit of the Russians is not there. And it is not in the discipline nor in the organization, it is not in the method of their remarkable action. Michail Osorgin, a compatriot of those sailors, debunks the myth of the "method". And he does so immediately, just a month after the catastrophe, in a long correspondence from Rome for his newspaper, the "Vestnik Evropy". The reputation of the Russian navy had been nearly destroyed by the defeat that it had suffered in the Japanese-Russian War. The only method that led the sailors was for Osorgin to save as many "souls" as possible, the difference with everyone else was this tremendous need to wrest as many people as possible from death. 

The organization was dictated by this need: the schedules, the shifts, everything was functional for this purpose, the sailors placed no value in themselves; people's lives came before the orders and the simple sailors were the ones convincing their superiors to reshape orders. On the other hand, it must have sounded really strange in the ears of a Russian to be praised because of the organization of their army: what to say then - says the Russian journalist - about the organization and discipline of the Germans, who were also present at the place of the disaster? 

The Russian sailors became the catalyst of all the positive energies against the resignation, the discomfort, which often turned into apathy, in a sort of indifference that was often transmitted to rescuers. On the contrary, the action of the Russians was contagious and the cadets of the Sutley, the first British military ship to arrive, perhaps a few tens of minutes before the Makarov, felt it and understood how to distinguish themselves.

No stain therefore on the work of the Russians? That of the immediate shooting of the looters, thieves caught in the act: it is interesting to note how this particular is expressed only in journalistic reports and has been judged irrelevant by the collective memory, the oral and written memory handed down by the survivors from father to son, from generation to generation. The Russians did not actually deal directly with the hunting of the looters, but they used their weapons to defend themselves and defend a population totally exposed to the evil of the profiteers or to despair. The Russians (and the English) did not take care of the defense of property - as they did not bother to bury the dead - they took care of the people whom they heard whining under the rubble and to cure the wounds of the survivors.

We discuss this story with Tatiana Ostakhova, a researcher at the University of Messina, who lets us read something from her work in progress: the letters of Russian sailors published in Russian newspapers and other articles published in the weeks immediately following the earthquake. The letters are in part those already published by the Province of Messina in 2006, which however were based on an original edition in French. They are letters all characterized by common feelings: the inability to describe the indescribable, the horror of the scenario in which they operate, the madness of the survivors and the absurdity of which every hour are witnesses. The sailors are not exalted, they do not glorify, they only narrate and at times with amazement, they also take note of the immobility of the Italian forces. The comparisons will be made by the others, the correspondents, the other rescuers and above all the people who will not forget the good received. And the news of those good deeds will run like the wind: in Naples, the first landing of the wounded by Makarov turns into a sort of apotheosis for the Russian sailors, who are acclaimed. Wherever they were recognized in the city, the Russian sailors could not escape the warm manifestations of gratitude. 

Michail Pervuchin in his article "The Russians and the Italians", translated by Ostakhova, sums up the difference between the Russians and everyone else. The people of other nations, offering their help, proved to be friends to the Italians, but the Russians turned out to be brothers. The correspondent affirms it on the basis of the testimonies gathered and of what was read in the Neapolitan newspapers: "the others certainly helped; but the Russians have not only helped, they gave everything they had to the refugees, including their spare shirts". "In Palermo and Naples - continues Pervuchin - women and children, refugees from the destroyed cities, still show off their jackets and their sailor's jackets, the officers' jackets. There are no German or English clothes on refugees. Russian clothes, yes ". Then another testimony: "all have given, but while others gave the superfluous, the surplus, the Russians, and we saw it, they gave us what was necessary to themselves, even the last thing they had. Yes, to the last thing they had. This is what struck us ".

However, good does not always beget more good. In January, the Russian sailors were told, "thank you but your help is no longer necessary". A Russian correspondent speaks of envy in this regard, Colonel C. Delmè-Radclif, military attaché of the British Embassy in Rome, in a confidential report speaks of jealousy of the Italian authorities. The fact remains that only the Italian soldiers and a few other volunteers remained in the rubble: the gates were blocked for everyone else, including Italian civilians. The same refrain was repeated to all: there is no need for more help because the army has taken control of the whole city. The fate of many people, still alive under the rubble, was sealed.

Giuseppe Iannello

Friday, June 8, 2018

Exponential Growth Towards a Sustainable Future: the Limits of Solar Panel and Wind Turbine Production

Solarplant near Rüdersdorf, Germany 2014, © Molgreen, CC BY-SA 4.0
Solar plant near Rüdersdorf, Germany 2014, © Molgreen, CC BY-SA 4.0

(Reblogged from

Guest post by Gregor Hagedorn

Many people, including myself, fear that the great acceleration (1, 2) of our consumption and destruction of resources such as land, biodiversity, soil, minerals, and fossil energy sources, could lead us into a catastrophe. Other people point out the positive side of near-exponential growth in various fields: renewable energy production, "biotechnology and bioinformatics; computational systems; networks and sensors; artificial intelligence; robotics; digital manufacturing; medicine; and nanomaterials and nanotechnology" (Peter H. Diamandis & Steven Kotler 2012. Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think). Others propose that the roadmap to prevent the climate catastrophe should follow an exponential "carbon law", modeled on Moore's law for the semiconductor industry (Rockström et al 2017).

Exponential growth models leading towards sustainability certainly offer hope. An example might be the renewable energy transition: the growth of cumulative solar energy capacity is indeed almost exponential.

Exponential Growth in Renewable Energy Production (© Gregor Hagedorn, CC BY-SA 4.0)
Exponential Growth in Renewable Energy Production Capacity. The gray target final energy capacity is assumed to be slowly increasing as a result of a combination of energy savings in rich countries and equitable growth in poor countries. (© Gregor Hagedorn, CC BY-SA 4.0)

However, looking at the graph, it is clear that the assumption of unchecked exponential growth makes no sense. An extrapolation of the historical annual growth rate (39.14%) means that the final doubling of capacity occurs in the last 25.2 months. Huge productions facilities would have to be built for the necessary solar panel and wind turbines – to be used only for a very short time.

Most scientist and economists are aware of this, but I have experienced many lay people and politicians taking “exponential problem solving” at face value – which may be a problem.

Renewable energy capacity growth as an example

What would a more realistic model be? As a biologist, I am acquainted with logistic growth models limited by a capacity factor such as the available food or land. But organisms will reproduce until the capacity is exhausted, often going into overshoot followed by a period of population collapse (die-off). Humans have foresight (at least sometimes). And investors usually calculate the profitability of investments.

Bardi & Sgouridis 2017 evaluate the effect of time of return on energy investment of renewable energy production installations (e.g. photovoltaic installations, wind parks). In my understanding, this is relevant but different from the effect of the economic return on investment on the factories producing the solar panels, wind turbines, etc. What effect does a minimum life-span of these factories have on the energy transition? As I could not find a publication (please comment, if you know one!), I decided to investigate this.

As I could not find a publication (please comment, if you know one!), I decided to investigate it myself. I will focus on a single of these transformation dynamics, the economics of investing. This is not meant to be a comprehensive model, encompassing the complexities of the real world and aimed at making actual predictions. I think of it more as a thought experiment to estimate the difference between exponential growth and a reasonable return-on-investment on production facilities under otherwise ideal growth conditions. Basically, I assume that any new factory should be running, with reinvestments and upgrades, for 30 years. The following indented text documents the assumptions behind the model (skip ahead, if you like).

1. To simplify, I use the capacity growth value for solar photovoltaic panels (0.105 GW 1992 to 405 GW projection 2017, = 39.14% annual or 2.78% monthly growth) as representative for the entire renewable energy mix needed in the future (the combined growth rate of wind turbines, concentrated solar, geothermal, etc. would lead to a more complex and more realistic picture).
2. Global Final energy consumption values are from Wikipedia (partly interpolated and partly estimated from primary energy supply).

3. After 2014, consumption is extrapolated using assumptions about energy savings and equitable growth needed for poorer countries. I assume that the combination of energy savings and additional energy needed for equitable growth for a good life on 9-12 billion humans will be doubling global final energy consumption between 2014 and 2100 to about 220 PWh/year. The slope of this increase is significantly smaller than the past increase, but the sudden transition into linear growth is a strong simplification. The end result roughly matches the common assumption of a demand of 2kW average equivalent power/person in 2100 (see., e.g., Bardi & Sgouridis 2017); 12 billion people * 2 kW = 24 TW average = ca. 210 PWh/year.

4. Global final renewable energy capacity is calculated by assuming we need 8 × average output as peak output; compensating for within-day volatility, seasonal volatility requiring long-term storage, average capacity factor (cloudy/non-windy days), regional volatility (if Portugal and Germany are to supply each other to reduce volatility, they both need large excess capacity). This is a wild guess. The capacity factor for solar in Germany is around 10%, wind between 20 and 50%, but we talk global here and I have not good data for a global average. Please help if you can provide better global, cross-technology estimates for the relation between peak capacity and annual final renewable energy consumption!

5. The model assumes that factories producing solar panels, concentrated solar plants, wind turbines, etc., require a production time of 30 years for an economic return on investment.

6. During this time, re-investments occur making production cheaper or increasing the production capacity (higher wind turbine/solar panel output, or more efficient technologies, generating more power per item). Since both solar panels and wind turbines are relatively mature technologies, I assume an increase in capacity for a given factory of 30% over the 30-year lifetime (modeled as 1.32% per year in the first 20 years, with no further investments and gains in the final years). Again, this is a wild guess; better estimates are most welcome. (Different assumption for improvement rates change the outcome only marginally since it is mostly equivalent to the addition of small factories with a shorter lifespan, decreasing the average lifespan of a factory per production capacity.)

7. The model includes a replacement rate for older renewable energy installations. The aging-related yearly capacity loss of various renewable energy solutions (e.g. 0.5-1% in solar panels) is ignored here, considering the assumptions for overcapacity above. For solar the panel warranty is usually 20-25 years, but usability may be much longer. I assume 20% replacement for yearly cohorts after each of 20, 25, 30, 40, and 50 years (i.e. max lifespan 50 years). The 20-year category includes replacements for storm damages, etc.

8. After 2051, the production time of some factories is extended for a number of years, to reduce the ensuing production fluctuations. Again: The real world is much more complex. Investment into production plants depends on many economic factors: workers, capital, interest rates, location and regional planning, regulatory conditions, supply chains for raw material and preprocessed parts, etc. And, again, this is no prediction model, but a mind-sized analysis of one factor!

The resulting graph looks like:

Factory Depreciation limited versus Exponential Growth in Renewable Energy Production (© Gregor Hagedorn, CC BY-SA 4.0)
Factory-depreciation-limited (blue) versus exponential growth (yellow) in renewable energy production (© Gregor Hagedorn, CC BY-SA 4.0)

What did I learn?

"Exponential growth" only matters in the beginning. The vast majority of capacity increase happens between 2027 and 2051 in a near-linear fashion. Under the parameters chosen, only 7.8% of the capacity is produced under the exponential growth model. Clearly, this result depends on the growth rate and the expected lifespan of production facilities for solar panels, concentrated solar power, wind turbines, etc. The result will be similar whenever the factory lifespan is similar to the time it takes to reach the capacity growth target.

Some additional, minor observations (skip ahead, if you like):

1. Whereas under a fully exponential calculation the energy production capacity for 100% Renewable Energy is reached 2034, it takes until 2051 in the present calculation. (Note that this may still allow reaching the Paris climate goals; but also note that the calculation does not deal with issues like volatility, storage, transport, stranded assets, etc.).

2. With regard to new production capacity (factories) in the present calculation: 2027 is "peak acceleration", followed by five years in which production capacity continues to increase, but with less new capacity each year. And that is it. Under the (arbitrary!) assumption that you need at least 30 years return on investment into a new plant, it would be uneconomical to build additional production facilities between 2033 and 2051. From 20151 on, replacement of older factories and increasing demand for solar panel and wind turbine replacement creates a new market for the establishment of new production facilities.

3. Between 2051 and 2100, a period of alternating over- and underproduction occurs in the present calculation, which uses global yearly factory cohorts and an inflexible re-investment / capacity upgrade scheme. In reality, many individual factories would have different lifetimes, be upgraded at different times, and some factories might make losses and be closed prematurely. All of this would enable the markets to track demand more flexible. Still, being able to track a market which transitions from a strong growth market to a weak growth market which then transitions into an increasingly strong replacement market will be a challenge. Some Lotka–Volterra-like oscillations are in fact not uncommon in markets, see, e.g., the DRAM production in the semiconductor industry.

4. The production capacity for solar panels, wind turbines, etc. in 2017 is about 114 GWpeak/year (please comment if you think this number is incorrect!). Under my assumptions (and in order to achieve the target capacity by 2051), production capacity must very quickly rise to about 5700 GWpeak/year in 2032. It then grows slowly, through productivity increases in existing factories to a peak of 6643 GWpeak/year in 2047. The exact values and years depend on many assumptions in this calculation and are likely to be only very rough estimates. However, the estimates show that building sufficient production capacity for the energy transition is a huge challenge – and a huge market opportunity.

5. Comparing the results with the return-on-energy models from Sgouridis et al. 2016 (see the crude graph below): a) total peak capacity in 2075 is about 100 TWpeak, less than then 165 TWpeak in our calculation; b) total capacity is falling after 2050 in Sgouridis et al. 2016; c) the main growth occurs about 8 years earlier; d) the transition towards capacity is smoother, i.e. in the last 8 years capacity is added slower than in my (purely factory-output-optimized) model.
Comparison of model with result of Sgouridis et al. 2016 (© Gregor Hagedorn, CC BY-SA 4.0)

General Conclusions

The idea that a future acceleration of technological progress at an exponential rate will solve many problems has several proponents, the best known of which are perhaps Diamandis & Kotler. Their 2012 book has been widely reviewed and criticized. Patrick Tucker (2012, An Awesome Adventure to the Future) applauds them for encouraging the view that problems can be solved. But as Dale Carrico (2012, Schlock and Awesome; Or, The Futurists Are Worse Than You Think) points out, uncritical wishful thinking without regard to problems and limitations is "escapism from the real present, what it offers as solutions are nothing but distractions from problems". Gregor Macdonald (2012. 'Cornucopians in Space' Deliver a Dangerously Misguided Message – Optimism has its dangers) notes that Diamandis "is an adherent to the notion that exponential growth in technology will eventually reach a crescendo, thus offering humankind super-solutions at a kind of hyperspeed rate of change." But while technological progress is helpful and welcome, "the magnitude of the world’s present challenges cannot wait for the array of potential solutions that may start to work". He warns that "celebrating the success of solutions before they have actually arrived – indeed, well before they have arrived, is no solution at all". Michael Marien (2012, globalforesightsbooks Book of the Month) observes that the "techno-ecstatic focus of Singularity … serves to obscure the need for “soft” social technology that is of equal if not greater importance" and "questions are ignored about how the new abundance will be distributed in a world of massive and increasing inequality, where many governments are running huge deficits and hamstrung by ideological gridlock and obsolete ideas", conceding that "As inspirational futurism suggesting possibilities of a better world for all, there are certainly many good budding ideas here that may bloom."

Some of the general problems of belief in unchecked growth are very nicely exposed by Tom Murphy (2012, Exponential Economist Meets Finite Physicist) - highly recommended!

One of my own conclusions is, that exponential decay, such as the aforementioned "carbon law", makes more sense than the growth case. Overall, however, the assumption that initial large reductions can be achieved with relatively low investment, followed by decreasing reductions at increasing cost is more plausible than the case of exponential growth. Again, this cannot be repeated forever, as cost becomes prohibitive, but this is not really necessary to achieve the goals intended by the "carbon law" proposal.

My own view is that it is good to point out signs of hope and progress (some of my favorites are, e.g., Hans, Ola & Anna Rosling - do read the new book 'Factfulness', Max Roser and his co-workers, or Dina D. Pomeranz). And we all hope that innovation can solve at least some of our problems.

However, most people already expect miracles from technology. While innovation may follow exponential growth for some time, this will in all likelihood always change to a different growth model over time1. The calculations above are only an example.

Scientific limits of the earth system, economic limits (as in the example above), sociological and psychological limits of humans and their societies, as well as the potential for exponential technological growth, need to be viewed together. Ignoring parts of the system will not lead to a solution.

But worse: I see the perceived need for and the creed in endless future technological innovation as a distraction. As misleading. as prolonging our current phase of procrastination and not solving the many problems we can already solve right now.

It is not true that we are currently desperately trying to survive and have no other option than to send our own children into a slavery of food, energy and resource scarcity. It is not true that our only chance is to hope for yet non-existent technologies.

The truth is: We have the technologies, we can solve the energy (see, e.g., Bardi & Sgouridis 2017), food, biodiversity, transportation, equity, etc. problems.

But we are not using the solutions at the necessary scale. We are procrastinating and seeking excuses: whether it is that the problem cannot be solved or that they will solve themselves thanks to a sudden explosion of exponentially growing innovation. We are celebrating ourselves in the media for deploying positive solutions at small scales. At the same time, we are directing the general economy through taxes, tariffs, and subsidies at many orders of magnitude into the opposite, destructive direction.

We are not building a house for our children, we are burning it down. Our greed for money, for personal power and sex, for eating meat and other luxury foods, for playing with ivory tower problems has us care more about ourselves than about the future of our children.

1 I believe this even applies to the tech development under the scenario of technological singularity, wiping out humanity – but this is a different discussion...



Ugo Bardi & Sgouris Sgouridis 2017. In Support of a Physics-Based Energy Transition Planning: Sowing Our Future Energy Needs. BioPhysical Economics and Resource Quality, December 2017, 2:14, doi:10.1007/s41247-017-0031-2

Rockström, Gaffney, Rogelj, Meinshausen, Nakicenovic, Schellnhuber 2017. A roadmap for rapid decarbonization. Science 355: 1269-1271. doi:10.1126/science.aah3443

Sgouris Sgouridis, Denes Csala & Ugo Bardi 2016.The sower's way: quantifying the narrowing net-energy pathways to a global energy transition. Environmental Research Letters, Volume 11, Number 9.

(© Gregor Hagedorn 2018, CC BY-SA 4.0, first publ. 2018-05-15, last updated 2018-06-11. Image: a cropped version of Photovoltaic installation near Rüdersdorf, Germany, © Molgreen, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Sunday, June 3, 2018

The Emergence of the Superorganism: Susan Kucera's Movie "Living in The Future's Past"

Imagine you are an ant. All you have seen in your life are only other ants, touching their antennas and moving on. Then, one day, the Ant God, who is benevolent and merciful, lifts you up in the air and shows you the world from there. And, miracle, you see the anthill for the first time. You see the teeming, organized, complex, superorganism which you never suspected to exist but of which have been a single cell for all your life.

That would be quite an experience for an ant and we, humans, might be subjected to something similar: the sudden, unexpected, and amazing perception of the human superorganism - a planetary-scale creature, not unlike a giant anthill, engaged in changing the world.

Physicists enjoy talking about "emergent phenomena," that is about entities appearing as the result of the interaction of smaller and simpler elements. An anthill is a good example: a single ant is not an anthill and knows nothing about anthills, but the behavior of many ants creates the anthill.

Humans can do something similar, it is an emergent characteristic which appeared only in recent times in the human evolutionary history. Collecting first into bands, then villages, then cities, then states, now humans form a single, giant creature - the superorganism - which is literally devouring the planet to keep itself growing. In a sense, it is like a science fiction novel, but it is real: you can see it at work - one good place to get a feeling of its presence is in Susan Kucera's movie "Living in the Future's Past."

The concept of a human superorganism is not new - its origins may go back to the work of Gustave Le Bon, "The Psychology of the Crowds" (1895). The idea of a single, worldwide human anthill is relatively recent, but it is clearly appearing in the human memesphere. Gaia Vince gave the name of "Homni" to it, and you can find the concept scattered over a number of sites and discussions (although often mixed with that of the human microbiome, a different emergent phenomenon).

The superorganism is explicitly mentioned by Nate Hagens in his several appearances in the movie, but it is present all over it. It is one of the threads, perhaps the main one of the whole story. The movie itself is an emergent phenomenon, it is amazing how Susan could weave together many different and complicated concepts, told by different people who are not speaking to each other, into a coherent whole. And out of this whole, a fundamental concept "emerges:"  humans have taken control of the planet, but they lost control of the superorganism.

So, once you discover that you are surrounded by this giant creature - you are actually part of it - what is to be done? This is the classic question asked in all the discussions on how to "save the environment." Turn off the lights when you leave home, bicycle when you can, eat less meat, that kind of stuff. All that, of course, will have no effect on a planetary-size monster devouring you and everything else.

But is the superorganism evil? If so, what should be done about it? A possible suggestion could be to break it down into smaller parts which could do less damage to the planet. But that would probably change little to the situation. Or, we could try to tame the superorganism, turning it into something benevolent and merciful. Is it possible? Let's say that it may not be impossible. And this seems to be the gist of the movie when, at the end, we hear Jeff Bridges citing Teilhard de Chardin as

Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides, and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire. (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin)

And that makes perfect sense: if the superorganism can be tamed and educated, it can only be done by means of love.


Susan Kucera speaks at the presentation of "Living in the Future's Past" in Florence on May 31, 2018. In the picture, you see also Stefano Dominici (University of Florence) and Gloria Germani (Odeon Cinema)

Below, Nate Hagens speaks about the Superorganism


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)