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 "deception by omission." If a subject is not mentioned in the media, just like the extermination of the Jews in Germany, it disappears from the collective consciousness. The same phenomenon may be at work with the Trump government in fields such as climate change. And it seems to be working.

This post was slightly updated in 2021

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 the 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 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. 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 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.

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. 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 deception by omission. There is no doubt that the US government is muzzling scientists and scientific agencies and Trump himself has been silent on climate change despite his many tweets. Nowhere the strategy of the 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 boil (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? Something like: "Ho-hum, yes, so what? 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, 1st century AD. 
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. The Britons exported metals and imported 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 Prasotagus, died, the Romans intervened, seized his lands, had his widow flogged, 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 - 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 portrayed 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 (and 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.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Overpopulation Problem? What Overpopulation Problem?

Some people seem to be horrified at the sight of these images. For me, it is more a sensation of melancholy. These masses of people can exist only for a brief moment in the history of humankind. Overpopulation is a problem that will solve itself rather quickly although, unfortunately, not without pain.

I keep reading more and more comments about overpopulation on the social media. It is not just an impression: the trend of increasing interest in population matters is visible in Google Trends. Still weak, but it is there.

It is puzzling how the question is returning. It had disappeared from the media after it had been popular in the 1970s, at the time of the first "The Limits to Growth" study. At that time, there were less than 4 billion people and that was viewed as a huge problem. Then, somehow, it became unfashionable to mention overpopulation, just as it became unfashionable to consider "The Limits to Growth" as anything more than a completely wrong study written by people not smarter than Chicken Little (it wasn't the case).

Now, with twice as many people - 7.6 billion humans - we see a return of the idea that - really - there may be a little problem of overpopulation. Humans are so many that they are appropriating a larger and larger fraction of the ecosystem. That means less and less space for other species which are, indeed, fast disappearing. When you read that, in a not too remote future, the only large animal left on the Earth will be the cow, well, that makes you think.

A specific streak of the discussion is that overpopulation is not just a problem, it is "the" problem. If we could reduce the number of humans, it is said, then all the other problems, pollution, global warming, resource depletion, would all become automatically much more manageable - if not completely solved. This opinion is often accompanied by statements that the reduction must be accomplished by fair and nonviolent means: voluntary birth control only. That doesn't prevent some people from accusing the "Greens" or the "global elites" of planning the extermination of most of humankind. Others see an evil plot in the growing population, accusing the powers that be - governments, religious organizations, the Illuminati, the gnomes of Zurich, or whatever - to be engaged in a global conspiracy aimed at hiding the dangers of overpopulation.

Personally, I am not too worried about human overpopulation, nor about these pretended evil conspiracies. Not that I think that there aren't too many people around. The point, I think, is that if today overpopulation is a problem, and it is, it will solve itself rather quickly (although not without pain). No need for evil elites plotting extermination, nor of well-intentioned activists teaching the poor how to use condoms. The system itself will cause the human population to collapse.

The current 7.6 billion people on the Earth are alive in a very special moment of human history. It had never happened before and it is unlikely that it will happen again the foreseeable future. So many people are alive today because there exists a sophisticated and incredibly complex system engaged in keeping them alive. The stupendous transportation system that carries food all over the world is powered by fossil energy and controlled by the financial and political system we call the "globalization." As long as fossil energy and globalization exist, people will be fed and population may continue growing.

But for how long? The whole system is under heavy strain because of depletion and pollution. Natural resources are more and more costly to produce while fighting pollution - also in the form of global warming - is becoming more and more expensive. A new major financial collapse will be sufficient to disrupt the transportation chain which ships food it all over the planet. Without this system, the food will rot where it is produced and the people at the other end of the chain will starve. It will be the Seneca Cliff of the whole system, including the human population.

There are other factors which may also work in the direction of reducing the human population. Think how interesting are the 400+ million tons of human flesh existing today for predators such as viruses, bacteria, and assorted parasites - we are their prey and we are rapidly becoming an abundant and easy prey. And there are more possibilities, from reduced fertility caused by heavy metal pollution to the old-fashioned, but always effective, large-scale wars. (1)

Recently, I published a paper on the Journal of Population and Sustainability where I looked for some historical examples of how populations (not just human ones) crashed down in the past. I found more than one reason that can lead to an abrupt collapse. An especially poignant example is that of the horse population in the US. It experienced a fast when the horses went down from some 27 million in 1920 to about 3 million in 1960. No one called for the extermination of horses but they had lost their economic value - replaced by machines -  and so they were not cared for anymore and not even allowed to reproduce. And that was the Seneca Cliff for horses.

Why not a similar cliff ahead for humans? They, too, have lost their economic value, being replaced by machines. You say that humans are not horses? Sure, but think about something: who decided the fate of horses? And who decides the fate of humans? You get my point, I guess. With humans rapidly becoming technologically obsolete, there would be no need to wait for an energy cliff to bring down civilization as a whole before seeing their numbers radically curtailed.

So, you may like to read my paper in the Journal of Population and Sustainability.

(1) I know that Paul Ehrlich cried wolf too early about population collapse, in 1968. Sure, that means population will keep growing forever, right?

(2) To explain this point, the fate of horses in the US 


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)