Monday, August 27, 2018

So, You Think Science Will Save the World? Are You Sure?

I understand that by publishing this post I may be giving ammunition to the anti-science crowd. But we can't just hide in the ivory tower and tell people that science is perfect as it is. We need deep reforms in the way science is done.



In Italy, we have a term for those who engage in a task much too big and too difficult for them. We call them a "Brancaleone Army" (Armata Brancaleone), a term coming from the title of a wonderful 1966 Italian movie where an Italian self-styled knight tries to lead a ragtag army of incompetent fighters. The sad conditions of science nowadays sometimes look to me like the story of the Brancaleone army.


What is truth? These famous words come not from a scientist but from a politician, Pontius Pilate, governor of Palestine in Roman times. As a politician, Pilate knew very well how truth could be twisted, stretched, sliced, cooked, flavored, and rearranged in many ways in order to be sold to people. Things are not different, today. In politics, truth is what you perceive to be true. After all, isn't it true that we can create our own reality? (a US government official is reported to have said that at the time of the invasion of Iraq, in 2003).

Eventually, the Roman Empire drowned in its own lies, it was an epistemological collapse. Something similar may happen to us: we cannot continue for long to ignore reality, believing that we can manufacture our own, and deceive everyone in the process.

But how about science? Isn't science able to tell us what reality is according to its much-praised "scientific method?" In principle, yes, but science is far from being a perfect truth-seeking machine. The attacks that science is receiving from all quarters have some justification: as scientists, we cannot claim to be able to save the world if we don't clean up our act first.

A critical element of the soft belly of modern science is the process called "Peer Review." If you are not familiar with this procedure, let me explain it to you. The idea is that when scientists want to diffuse the results of their studies in the form of a "paper", they will submit it to a "peer-reviewed" journal. Their manuscript will be sent to a number (typically 2 or 3) anonymous reviewers - scientists working in the same field - who will recommend rejection or publication and, in the latter case, changes to improve the paper. (for details, see this excellent paper by Jon Tennant)

So far, so good: if everyone does their best to do the reviewing job, the process might provide good results. And, indeed, peer review is supposed to be the "golden standard" of science. The typical accusation that climate scientists direct to their critics is that their papers are not peer-reviewed: they are often published in politically motivated blogs, and they lack the rigor that real scientific papers have. This is often a correct viewpoint, climate science is one of the most advanced and vital fields of science, today, and the criticism made at it is normally of poor quality and politically biased.

But there is a problem: the gold standard called Peer Review is neither gold nor a standard. First of all, it doesn't prevent bad science from filtering through. It is always possible with some effort and some patience to find a favorable combination of reviewers and editors and manage to publish on a serious journal a paper that's wrong from top to bottom. It has happened and some cases are truly a scandal. You can see this one, for instance, where the authors invented out of whole cloth a completely new nuclear physics based on shaky (to say the least) experimental evidence, and all in order to explain phenomena that had other, perfectly good, explanations.

At this point, get ready for a surprise: Scientific Journals have NO WAY to remedy a mistake. Once a paper is published in a peer-reviewed journal, it is enshrined in the corpus of "officially approved science." Unless there are evident scams involved, such as plagiarism or fake data, the fact that most scientists in the field think that the paper is wrong is not sufficient to have it removed. The best that other scientists can do is to submit a comment to the editors - who will be usually as happy to publish it as they are happy to see their dentist. Then, the authors of the commented paper will be able to submit their counter-comments and the whole process will only serve to give them more visibility - and that's exactly what happened with the paper I was telling you about.

On the other side of the peer review process, the filter makes it nearly impossible to publish innovative ideas, especially for young researchers. Reviewers are a self-selected group, often formed of elderly gentlemen, whose purpose seems to be to make sure that nothing that contrasts with their views goes through the filter. To say nothing about the incredibly slow, time-consuming, and frustrating process of dealing with reviewers who understood nothing of one's work but nevertheless think that they can demolish it, even poking fun at it. Reviewers can always manage to transform a perfectly good paper into an ugly mongrel just because they want to throw their weight around. The worst is when they won't be happy until they have imposed their views on the authors, forcing them to write the paper the way they (the reviewers) want.

How about standards in reviewing? Again, brace for a surprise: there are none, zero, zilch, null. The whole process is carried out in secrecy, the authors don't know who is the person who has somehow gained the right to abuse them from a comfortable anonymity position, there is no standard for what kind of criticism is supposed to be acceptable or not, nor for what kind of rebuttal is supposed to be acceptable or not. The editors can do whatever they want with a submission and normally there is no procedure that an author can follow to protest against what they see as an unfair treatment of their paper.

Now, would you assign to someone the job of - say - designing a plane on the basis of this review method? Would you fly in it once it is built? So, if you are a scientist, do you think that you can save the world in this way? And peer review is not the only problem plaguing modern science!

You may wonder how come that scientists - who are supposed to be so smart - behave in such a sloppy manner when it is question of publishing their results. I am baffled by myself on this point; the only thing I can propose is that they are good at whatever they are specialized in, but not necessarily in all fields. In other words, many scientists can be defined as "Idiot Savants," interested only in their narrow specialized field. The final result is something like the Brancaleone Army I was mentioning at the beginning of this post.

Fortunately, science is not yet the scam it is accused to be, for instance, by those engaged in rejecting climate science. But, if we don't do something fast to improve, we risk seeing science perceived by everyone to be a scam. And  didn't we say that in politics truth is what you perceive to be true?




This post was inspired by a paper by Jon Tennant. http://fossilsandshit.com/the-state-of-the-art-in-peer-review/  and by a post by Jem Bendell


And here is the original Brancaleone in action!

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Why so Many People on Earth? The Ideology of Natalism


(Above: a 19th century English family). 

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

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




Brief manifest of ethical-political anti-natalism 

Guest post by Natan Feltrin & Eleonora Vecchi

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



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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Monday, August 13, 2018

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


The figure above, showing a cooling trend in the United States, was posted by Steven Goddard (aka Tony Heller) on his blog with the remarkable title of "The Deplorable Climate Science Blog" (actually there is a slightly different one on the blog, right now, but it is simply a difference in the smoothing procedure). The author claims that this graphic is based on real data and that turns out to be true: but is it a honest graph?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

___________________________________________________________________

USA Temperature: can I sucker you?


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


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

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


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


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

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



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

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


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

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

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

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

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


Imagine that.


Monday, August 6, 2018

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



______________________________________________________________

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

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

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

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

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

___________________________________________________________________



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


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

Who

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