Thursday, February 21, 2019

The Seneca Cliff According to H.P. Lovecraft

It is strange how sometimes fiction manages to catch human feelings and ideas in ways that are not easy to articulate in terms of facts and models. H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) has been one of the world masters of the horror genre, managing to flesh out some of our deep fears.

We can read Lovecraft's story "The Doom that Came to Sarnath" as an allegory of our times. The prosperous and shiny city of Sarnath had a dark origin, the violence against the previous inhabitants of the region. And the whole drama unfolds with all the characters mentioned in the story aware that they'll have to face some kind of retribution for what they did and, yet, refusing to admit it. And the retribution came to Sarnath in a form not unlike what the Roman philosopher Lucius Seneca had noted when he said that "growth is sluggish, but the way to ruin is rapid," the Seneca Cliff.

In our case, we know what we did to the Earth's ecosystem. We know about the greenhouse gases, we know about the slaughter of other species, we know about the pillaging of the Earth's resources. We know all that but, like the inhabitants of Sarnath, we refuse to admit it. What kind of retribution can we expect in the future?

It is curious how the knowledge of the horror we did to our planet takes the shape of the tales of the horror genre. It is something modern, the ancient just didn't have it. Think of Dante Alighieri: his Comedy is all about ghosts, but there is no horror anywhere in modern terms. Think of Shakespeare's Hamlet, there is a ghost, a skeleton, a dark castle, but no horror elements. Why?

But, if it is true that for everything that exists there has to be a reason, there has to be a reason also for us being obsessed with horror and monstrous creatures. And I think it is because we are creating them. Just turn on your TV and watch the news, don't you have the sensation of living a horror story written by H.P. Lovecraft?

Yes, the news looks today like a horror story, complete with eldritch monsters, dark creatures from the abyss, Cthulhu, Nyarlatothep, Azhathot, Shub-Niggurath, and all the others, coming from the lost city of R'lyeh. And you wouldn't be surprised to see that the tv announcer looks like one of the inhabitants of the destroyed city of lb that once stood in front of Sarnath, screaming at you from the screen, Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn! 

And we will be forever prisoners of the monsters we ourselves created.


The Doom that Came to Sarnath
by H.P. Lovecraft - 1920

There is in the land of Mnar a vast still lake that is fed by no stream and out of which no stream flows. Ten thousand years ago there stood by its shore the mighty city of Sarnath, but Sarnath stands there no more.....

Read the whole text on the blog "Chimeras".

Monday, February 18, 2019

No Monday Post this Week

Sorry, folks, no Monday post on Cassandra this week. I am in bed with a nasty bronchitis -- I feel like a whale after having eaten an accordion.

Nothing serious, but it will take a few days for me to recover. Keep following the blog, I plan to restart next week


Thursday, February 14, 2019

And now we are Officially Starting to Slide Down the Seneca Cliff: The A380 Goes the way the Concorde Went

And there goes the A380, too. You would think that the European aerospace industry wouldn't repeat the mistake they made with the Concorde, would they? But they managed not only to repeat it, but too make it bigger.

At the time of the Concorde, everyone said that the future was with supersonic passenger planes. At the time of the A380, everyone said that the future was with large wide-body planes. Now, I wonder what else they could concoct if someone doesn't stop them, and I can easily think of them doing something even worse. Fortunately, with the EU in the sad state it is, maybe they won't have that chance.

In any case, a just punishment for those who think they can predict the future by extrapolating the past.

Monday, February 11, 2019

What's Emperor Trump Doing? He is Busy at Splitting the Empire in Two

Donald Trump seems to be doing what Roman Emperors like Diocletian, Constantine, and Theodosius did long ago: splitting the empire into two halves. Trump may not have consciously decided to do that, but an Empire can only be as large as it can afford to be and the American Empire can't afford anymore to dominate the whole world.

Flavius Theodosius Augustus "The Great" (347- 395 CE) was the last emperor to rule over the whole Roman Empire. His success was probably due in large part to his habit of plundering Pagan temples for the gold he needed to pay his troops. But Pagan temples were a limited resource and Theodosius himself seemed to understand that when, shortly before his death, he partitioned the Empire between his two sons, Arcadius and Honorius. Afterward, the empire would never be united under a single emperor again.

The Roman Empire had been a strong centralized power during its heydays, but it never was very interested in creating an ethnical and linguistic unity among its subjects. The Roman authorities understood that it was less expensive to tolerate diversity than to force uniformity -- a typical policy of most empires. So, the Empire remained split into two main linguistic halves: the Latin-speaking Pars Occidentis and the Greek-speaking Pars Orientis. Theoretically, Latin was the official language but, in practice, the Empire remained a bilingual entity and, during the 2nd and 3rd centuries, the Roman elite would tend to speak Greek -- considered more refined and classy than Latin.

The split of the two sides of the Empire was not just linguistic, it was economic as well. The Pars Occidentis remained based on mineral wealth which, in turn, fueled the Empire's military power. The Pars Orientis was more based on commerce and manufacturing and it exploited its favorable geographical position as the terminal of the silk road that connected China to Europe. During the expansion period, the military strength of the West made it dominant but, with the exhaustion of the gold mines in Spain, it lost the resources needed to pay for its oversized military apparatus. In time, the Western Empire became unable to control even its own territory and it squandered its remaining resources in huge border walls. It collapsed and vanished during the late 5th century CE. The Eastern Empire lasted nearly one millennium longer but was never able to rebuild the power of the old Roman Empire.

Fast forward to our times, and it is clear that the American Empire is facing the same situation that the Romans were facing around the 2nd century AD. Like the old Western Empire, the American Empire's economy is mainly based on mineral resources: crude oil in particular. But, with the gradual exhaustion of these resources, the empire cannot afford to dominate the whole world anymore.

Emperor Trump seems to have an uncanny ability to understand the situation, even though he may not be an expert in Roman history. His actions are perfectly understandable in light of the plan of splitting the empire into two halves. One half (Pars Occidentis) will still be dominated from Washington, the other half (Pars Orientis) will have Beijing as its capital. The Western Part will retain the original Imperial language, English. The Eastern Part may switch to Chinese.

Consistently, Trump is planning to abandon Afghanistan and also Syria, both too far and too expensive to defend and he also was not interested in an all-out confrontation with North Korea. But he seems to consider South America as part of the Western dominion, so he is moving to take control of Venezuela. Trump is also acting to destroy the hegemony of the dollar as world currency. Apparently, the idea is that the Western Empire is safer from financial disasters if the dollar becomes the Western currency only. So, the economic sanctions enacted against Iran, Russia, and other countries are forcing the Eastern Empire to develop new currencies and financial systems independent of the dollar.

Clearly, Emperor Trump is facing strong resistance. Just as many Roman Emperors, he not completely in control of the Imperial military apparatus and a sizeable opposition is trying to maintain the American Empire alive in is most extended and expensive form: dominating the whole planet. But the direction is clear and the situation is simple: an Empire can only be as large as it can afford to be. The gradual depletion of the mineral resources and the increasing costs of pollution are making a global empire impossible.

The Globalized World Empire was a beautiful creature as long as it prospered, but it was burning the dynamite stick at both ends. The time of global dominance is gone and the Empire is now in a convulsive phase: retreat is the most dangerous military maneuver and it is best executed maintaining an aggressive posture. Which is exactly what Emperor Trump is doing with his threats of war. But it is also true that the game of chicken is the second most dangerous game known (the first is the Russian Roulette). So, the retreat of the Western Empire may not involve just a rapid Seneca Collapse, as it was the case for the old Roman Empire, but a final blast of fireworks in the form of a nuclear war which would end civilization as we know it. Not pretty, but that's the way things are.

There remains one point of contention: is Western Europe in the Orientis or in the Occidentis part of the Empire? Surely, Britain tends to remain part of the Western Empire because of its linguistic ties with the United States. But the non-English speaking parts of the former EU don't have this link and they have strong - practically unbreakable - ties with Russia as an energy supplier. So, they might become part of the Eastern Eurasian Empire.

It seems that Trump understands this point very well, too, and it is in these terms that you can interpret his lashing out at the NATO allies at last year's G7 meeting. Trump's message to the states once forming the European Union was simply, "Sorry, fellows, we can't afford to defend you anymore unless you pay us more money than you can afford to pay." In this sense, Western Europe could play the role of Britain and Dacia during the 3rd and 4th century CE, abandoned by the central Roman Government and left to fend off by themselves against the barbarian invaders. Who knows? History rhymes again and we might even have a new King Arthur.


Was the fall of the Western Roman Empire a Seneca Collapse? Yes, by all means it was. Look at this:

From Taagepera, Size and Duration of Empires, 1978 -- the vertical scale is in million square miles

See also "Can Donald Trump be the last world emperor?"

And you may also be interested at how Theodosius's daughter, Galla Placidia, managed to keep the Western Empire together even without plundering temples. The story is here.  

Note also that I used the term "understanding" but that doesn't mean that Trump consciously understands the deep reasons of why he is doing what he is doing in the sense of moving intentionally to the splitting of the empire. He is simply reacting to the stimuli he perceives and he moves accordingly. (which is, BTW, what we all do!!)

Friday, February 8, 2019

The Sower's Strategy: Norway Leads the Way Toward the Energy Transition

This is me, Ugo Bardi, in Oslo, February 2019. Norway is the country with the largest fraction of electric vehicles in the world. The Tesla in the background is not mine. 

I gave the name of "The Sower's Strategy" or "The Sower's Way" to the idea that we should use our remaining fossil resources to build the renewable energy infrastructure needed to replace them. The calculations by myself, Sgouridis and Csala show that it can be done: after all, this is what our farmer ancestors did when they saved some of the crops of the current harvest as seed for the next harvest.

For some reason, the idea that we should wisely invest the energy we have, while we still have it, seems to be incomprehensible to some people who maintain that fossil fuels are evil (which is true) and that for this reason anything you can make with fossil energy is evil, too, including renewables (which is not true). So, the penetration of the "Sower's meme" has been modest, up to now. But from a recent trip of mine to Norway, I noted that the Norwegians put this strategy into practice, even though they probably never heard of the name I gave to it!

Norway, as you surely know, used to be among the largest oil-producing countries in the world, the largest in Europe. The peak was around 2002 and by now production has declined to about half of what it was during the glory days. (data below from Rune Likvern)

The gas production in Norway has not yet peaked but it is plateauing and it is time for the Norwegians to think about a future without oil. So, what did the Norwegian government do? They followed the Sower's strategy using the revenues from oil sales to build up a more and more energy independent system. (and zero dependence on nuclear energy!)

Right now, Norway produces about 100% of its electrical power from renewable sources, mainly hydroelectric power. About one-third of all vehicles bought today in Norway are electric, a continuously growing fraction, with a total of about 13%. Adding the plug-in hybrid vehicles, we get a grand total of 24% of the circulating vehicles. It seems reasonable that it will be possible to achieve the target of 100% of electric vehicles in Norway by 2025.

The Norwegian system is not yet 100% renewable power as a fraction of the total consumption, it is at present around 60%, but it is already a great result if compared with that of other countries: the UK, with a similar climate as Norway, lags behind with less than 9%. Italy, with all the sun it has, doesn't do better than about 16%. So, Norway is well placed to be the first developed country in the world to achieve the great transition to a fully renewable energy system.

There remains a lot to do, of course: after having eliminated fossil powered cars, the internal heating of buildings needs to be electrified -- it is possible. Then, there is a need to reduce plastic use, not counted as energy consumption but still a product of fossil fuels -- also that can be done. Finally, there is the issue of agriculture, right now completely based on fossil fuels. The challenge is difficult, but not impossible. Electric machinery can replace diesel powered machines in agriculture, while the Norwegians are well placed to develop the manufacturing of fertilizers using electric power, bypassing the cumbersome and polluting Bosch-Haber process (look at the site of N2-Applied, it can be done!).

Surely, you may say, it has been easy for the Norwegians: they have made so much money with selling oil! Not so obvious: think of Saudi Arabia, they made even more money with their oil and do you know what fraction of their energy consumption comes from renewable sources? 0.01% according to the World Bank! Apparently, it is not enough to be rich in order to be wise -- but that seems to be part of the way the universe works.

To finish this post, here is me (Ugo Bardi - left in the picture) in Norway, together with Jorgen Randers (right in the picture), one of the authors of the first "Limits to Growth" report of 1972. As you can see, we catastrophists are not sad!

Monday, February 4, 2019

The Biodiesel Disaster: Why bad Ideas are Always so Successful?

This is a modified version of an article that was published on "Il Fatto Quotidiano" in Italian on Jan 31, 2019

Behind the simian mask, there is yours truly, Ugo Bardi, sitting at his desk.  The sign is in Italian, but you can understand that it is against biodiesel and in favor of Orangutans. 

Sometimes it happens that you are asked a question that forces you to reflect. So, a few days ago, I was at a public meeting on energy and climate and I was telling about the work we do at the university and with the Club of Rome. In the debate, someone asked me: "But, professor, from all these models of the world you make, after all, what did you learne?".

Some questions are not easy when the topic is complex and you have to summarize the answer in a few sentences. And you have to come up with something right away! But I think I could put together a good answer when I said, "The main thing we've learned is that the models work well. Even the famous model of 'The Limits to Growth' that the Club of Rome had proposed in 1972 still describes reasonably correctly the state of the world today. But this has a consequence: the system is predictable because it tends to move in a certain direction. And this means that changing things is very difficult ".

The problem of the difficulty of changing things, even when it would be necessary, came back to me by later on, when reading a recent report on biodiesel. This stuff is really terrible: it causes deforestation and destruction of the fertile soil. In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, it is much worse than traditional diesel fuel.

But, you could say, at least biodiesel replaces a non-renewable fuel obtained from oil. In practice, the problem is that we are not getting very far with the replacement. Making the appropriate calculations, we find that, today the production of biodiesel is about 2.7% by volume of the total production of diesel (the details of the calculation are at the end of this post). Considering that biodiesel contains less energy than diesel fuel, it is just over 2% of the total. And for this miserable 2% we destroyed forests all over the world and massacred untold numbers of orangutans?

Maybe you do not care about orangutans or ancient forests, you just want fuel for your diesel SUV. And you could tell me, couldn't biodiesel production be increased? The problem is that there are not many forests left to be razed in the world. To produce more biodiesel we should start using land that is currently used for food production. This means starving people to feed the cars: and we risk to get to that for real if we continue with current trends.

But how is it that we put ourselves in this absurd situation? The beauty is that the idea was to make an "ecological" fuel. Ecological my xxxx! But it is what I was saying before. The system (and the system is us) tends to maintain its trajectory. When we realize that there is a problem, in this case, the lack of diesel fuel (peak diesel), as well as global warming, we launch ourselves towards the solution that seems to keep things as they are. By replacing diesel oil with biodiesel, it seemed to be possible to fix everything with no change or with just minimal change. We use a renewable fuel and we keep our stoves on wheels running. But it doesn't work like that. We only created a lot of damage without getting anything useful.

What we should have done, and we are still in time to do, is to move from the noisy and inefficient internal combustion engines to vehicles that use electric motors powered by renewable energy, much more efficient and non-polluting for real. Of course, this requires making investments, changing habits. Thus, the knee-jerk reaction of so many people when the idea is proposed is "I do not want to change anything, give me biodiesel so that I keep my diesel car". It is understandable, but we are in an emergency situation both for the climate and for the availability of fuels. And change we must.

h/t Virna Quintini  and Veronica Aneris


It is curious that nobody on the Web seems to have bothered to do the calculation of how much biodiesel is actually produced in comparison with fossil diesel. I tried to find the data and the result is a bewildering mess of different units, claims, and counterclaims. Of course, if you are a good conspiracy theorist, you would suspect that the people producing biodiesel don't want to make it easy for us to understand how minuscule is their contribution to the world's fuel production. But, eventually, I could put together a calculation that seems to be correct and that Antonio Turiel kindly checked and validate. And, yes, the contribution of biodiesel to the world's diesel consumption is minuscule. So, let's go with the numbers. gives 1577 Kboe of biofuels (the people who use these weird units should be killed by a lightning strike coming from God herself). I think it means one million and a half barrel of oil equivalent per day. And then, it is reasonable to say that biodiesel could be a fraction of that, as you say, ca 0.65 million barrels per day. That makes 237 million barrels per year. One barrel is 42 gallons, indeed we have some 10 billion gallons per year, a datum which corresponds to one provided by the biodiesel journal. Again, these people he should be struck by lightning for using these units. So far, so good.

Then, back to IEA, they say that the world diesel production was 1234442 thousand tonnes in 2016, or 1234 million tons, or 1.2 billion tons. One toneq corresponds to 6.88 -- 7.33 barrels (depending on the assumptions), let's say it is 7 barrels/ton. The result is that the world diesel production is some 8.5 billion barrels/year, which is a reasonable number considering that the total oil production is some 90 million barrels/day, or 32 billion barrels/year. Converting this to gallons, we need to multiply by 42, and we get 350 billion gallons/year

To recap, the good results are

DIESEL production is 9 Billion Barrels/year OR 350 billion gallons/year

BIODIESEL production is 0.237 Billion Barrels/year OR 10 billion gallons/year

Which means that the total production of biodiesel is 10/360= about 2.8% in volume. A little more than 2% considering the lower heat content in biodiesel.

The poor people who had devised the SI system must be twitching in their tombs when they think at the mess that is the story of the zillion units used in this field.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Tolstoy on War: The Systemic Vision of a Tragedy

Leon Tolstoy set his novel, "War and Peace" (1867) during the Napoleonic invasion of Russia of 1812. But he had not witnessed that war -- rather, Tolstoy had fought in another senseless and bloody war, the Crimean War (1853-1856), an experience that deeply influenced his thought. Tolstoy had a deep vision of the tragedy that wars are and his viewpoint is similar to our modern one based on statistics, although obtained by intuition only. Above, a painting by Vasilii Nesterenko (2005) that celebrates the Russian defense of Sevastopol in 1855.

From Tolstoy's “War and Peace” (1867)

To us it is incomprehensible that millions of Christian men killed and tortured each other either because Napoleon was ambitious or Alexander was firm, or because England’s policy was astute or the Duke of Oldenburg wronged. We cannot grasp what connection such circumstances have with the actual fact of slaughter and violence: why because the Duke was wronged, thousands of men from the other side of Europe killed and ruined the people of Smolénsk and Moscow and were killed by them.

To us, their descendants, who are not historians and are not carried away by the process of research and can therefore regard the event with unclouded common sense, an incalculable number of causes present themselves. The deeper we delve in search of these causes the more of them we find; and each separate cause or whole series of causes appears to us equally valid in itself and equally false by its insignificance compared to the magnitude of the events, and by its impotence—apart from the cooperation of all the other coincident causes—to occasion the event. To us, the wish or objection of this or that French corporal to serve a second term appears as much a cause as Napoleon’s refusal to withdraw his troops beyond the Vistula and to restore the duchy of Oldenburg; for had he not wished to serve, and had a second, a third, and a thousandth corporal and private also refused, there would have been so many less men in Napoleon’s army and the war could not have occurred.

<..> Without each of these causes nothing could have happened. So all these causes—myriads of causes—coincided to bring it about. And so there was no one cause for that occurrence, but it had to occur because it had to. Millions of men, renouncing their human feelings and reason, had to go from west to east to slay their fellows, just as some centuries previously hordes of men had come from the east to the west, slaying their fellows.

<..> it was necessary that millions of men in whose hands lay the real power—the soldiers who fired, or transported provisions and guns—should consent to carry out the will of these weak individuals, and should have been induced to do so by an infinite number of diverse and complex causes.

<..> When an apple has ripened and falls, why does it fall? Because of its attraction to the earth, because its stalk withers, because it is dried by the sun, because it grows heavier, because the wind shakes it, or because the boy standing below wants to eat it?

<..> And so there was no single cause for war, but it happened simply because it had to happen”

Sunday, January 27, 2019

The Making of Greta Thunberg: Memetic Weapons for the Meme War

If I say that this young lady, Greta Thunberg, is a meme I mean no disrespect for her -- we all are memes! Actually, I think she is a great girl. But the story of how this particular meme was pushed up into becoming an important feature of the planetary memesphere is teaching us so much of how our world works. And how fundamental is memetics as a science. Truly, read on. You'll learn of things you wouldn't have suspected existed!!

Ladies and Gentlemen, first of all, let me introduce to you the study on memetics performed by myself and these two wonderful coworkers of mine, Sara Falsini and Ilaria Perissi. Everyone loves their own brainchild and I do love mine (ours): so, allow me to say that this work may be the first (at least one of the first, I believe) that uses system dynamics as a tool to study memetics. Maybe it will open up a whole new field of studies, but let me tell you this story.

So, what is a meme? A meme is a meme is a meme (as Gertrud Stein never said): a wonderful concept! Think of the blind crocodiles in sewers of New York, that was a pre-internet meme. Or, for a more recent one, "Obama was not born in the US." A meme is not just an idea, but an idea that reproduces itself -- analogous to the gene in biology. It was invented by Richard Dawkins in 1976 and he probably didn't suspect what can of memes he was opening.

Later on, Daniel Dennett said, "a human being is an ape infested with memes." Now, pause a moment to think of this sentence: isn't it wonderful? One of those sentences you look at, you pause for a moment to think about, and then -- poof! -- your view of the world is changed. The beauty of the universe is that you can keep learning new things and, boy, there are so many!

The point of memes is that they can "go viral" in the memesphere -- the Web -- you know this already. But what makes memes go viral? Well, there comes the fascinating thing we discovered in our paper: in biology, there is only one way to go viral: by infection. In memetics, there are two ways. One is the properly viral mode, that is with the virus jumping from a host to another. The other is the "fallout" mode - it is like when an atomic weapons kills people by radiations -- everyone is affected at the same time. Here is the description we give in our paper

In the present study, for the first time, we discuss and compare the birth of a meme and its dynamic propagation both on the internet and in mass media environments. To grasp this fundamental difference in the meme’s origin, we built simple and intuitive models, with the system dynamic (SD) methods. SD models are particularly useful in representing the structure of complex systems, especially the non-linear systems, in which the properties-of-the-whole system are different from the properties that characterize the system’s constituent elements so that the behaviour of the whole cannot be explained in terms of a combination of the behaviour of the single parts. The result of our study reveals that the origin of a meme can be due to two different activities: internet propagation or media bombardment.
 ... memes have characteristics that genes do not have. In particular, memes can be “planted” in the mediasphere using a top-down mechanism based on scattershot diffusion on the part of the mass media. This behaviour can be seen as parallel to that of the radioactive cloud generated by a nuclear incident. The distinction between these two mechanisms can be useful to understand whether a specific meme is the result of a “natural” interest of the public that derives from its special virtues or has been diffused as a top-down operation designed to influence the public or the consumers of a specific product.

And here we are: looking directly into the belly of the great beast that is the memesphere -- the great cauldron of human thought as it boils, it quivers, it festers in the giant ecosystem we call the World Wide Web. And we can see the birth of the little beasts we call memes. Some grow by infecting one node after the other, some by being pushed from above: by that giant beast infecting the memesphere, what we call the "media" or the "mainstream media" (MSM). And what the MSM want to grow, grows.

Let me show first at a meme that grew virally: "Gangnam Style" (you remember the Korean song, popular a few years ago). Here it is, fitted with the system dynamics model

But you don't need a quantitative model to note how the viral propagation mode shows a typical exponential growth mode at the beginning: here is the same meme, Gangnam, on a different scale. It has an induction time -- it is clear. It grew by infecting one node after another, just like biological viruses do with cells.

That's not the case for a fallout mode meme. It has no induction time: it is born instantly, pushed by the MSM. Here is an example, Bataclan, the terror attacks in Paris, in 2015.

You see? No induction time. It grows from zero to the maximum in no time.

But we were speaking about Greta Thunberg, right? What kind of meme is she? Well, let's look for her memetic essence on Google Trends, and there you go:

You see how quick is the growth of the meme? It is a fallout mode, not a grassroots mode. Not so sharp as for Bataclan others but, clearly, there was some force pushing her in the Web.

But this was obvious from the beginning. We know exactly where the Greta Thunberg meme comes from: it is a creation of a Swedish company called "We Don't Have Time." The story is told by Cory Morningstar, and also by Nicolas Casaux, I haven't checked all the details, but these descriptions make sense to me, especially in view of the curve from Google trends. In short, Greta Thumberg is a memetic weapon.

That doesn't mean we should share Cory Morningstar's criticism. After all, the relation of Greta Thunberg and the company called "We Don't Have Time" is open for everybody to see -- it is no secret. Besides, the enemies of humankind are using the same memetic weapons, but in secrecy. Look at this

Yes, Climategate, the famous "scandal" that purportedly proved that all the world's scientists had formed a conspiracy to invent a non-existing danger for their personal advantage. Look at how fast the curve grows: there is almost no induction time. Not a grassroots emergence, someone has been pushing this meme. The MSM were immediately involved to diffuse something that, in itself, was just boring: who would have cared about the personal messages that some scientists had exchanged? But who was that "someone" pushing? We don't know -- and probably we never will. The dark side of the memesphere fights against humankind and they use memetic weapons.

So, folks, this is a memetic war that we are fighting. We are fighting for our survival and we need weapons: no war in history was ever won using just moral superiority. If Greta Thunberg is a memetic weapon, then she is a good meme, created for a good purpose. And let's go on and fight.

h/t Philippe Gauthier and Nicolas Casaux

Friday, January 25, 2019

The Decline of Transition Towns: Why do Good Ideas Always Flare up and Then Disappear?

If you don't know what the Transition Town Movement is, you can take a look at their page, here. It is an interesting idea to increase the resilience of the civilization network by making each node less dependent on other nodes. 

The figure above shows how the concept of "Transition Towns" flared up in the late 2000s and then slowly declined in terms of Internet searches, as shown by Google Trends. That not everything is well with the Transition Town Movement seem to be confirmed by this page. What happened? Was it a bad idea? It didn't work in practice? Or people just got bored of it?

Sam Allen finds the reason for the decline Transition Towns in the fact that " we hitched our wagon to the peak oil narrative big time." In reality, complex systems always behave in a complex manner and the attempt to find a simple explanation for why things go in a certain way is normally bound to fail. Here, saying that "peak oil didn't come, therefore people stopped being interested in transition towns" is really forcing the system into an oversimplified narrative.

In the studies we are performing on memetics (1), we are discovering that memes are virtual creatures, only marginally correlated to the real world. So, if the Transition Town meme declined, it doesn't mean that the idea is not valid or not useful, it has to do, rather, with the limited lifetime of memes in our society, something probably correlated with the way the human mind works.

In practice, the transition meme behaved as all virtual memes do: it flared up and declined as the result of its internal dynamics. The same thing happened with the peak oil meme, which started to decline years before anyone could say whether it corresponded to reality or not, as I argue in this post. The same trajectory was followed also by other memes, for instance, "The Limits to Growth" study that declined in popularity decades before it could be said whether the concepts it proposed were right or wrong.

Memetics is a fascinating field, unfortunately not much studied today (2). Maybe, in the future, we'll know much more about memes. For the time being, anyway, we have to realize that the persistence of most good ideas in the memesphere is not long enough for these ideas to have an impact in changing things. And so it goes.


(1) h/t Ilaria Perissi and Sara Falsini

(2) Below, the result of a search on "memetics" on the Web of Science. The number of studies in the field is increasing, but the numbers are still minuscule in comparison to those for other fields of science

Monday, January 21, 2019

Why do Societies Collapse? Diminishing Returns are a key Factor, a new Study Says

In 1988, Joseph Tainter published a fundamental study on the collapse of societies, proposing the existence of a common cause, diminishing returns, for the fact that all past empires and civilizations had eventually collapsed. Recently, myself and my coworkers Sara Falsini and Ilaria Perissi performed a system dynamics study that confirms Tainter's ideas and goes deeper into the origins of the diminishing returns of civilizations. It was published now on "Biophysical Economics and Resource Quality"

Why do civilizations collapse? It is a question that has been haunting the nebulous entity we call "The West" from the time when Edward Gibbon published his "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," in 1776. The underlying question in Gibbon's massive study was 'are we heading for the same destiny as the Romans?' A question that generations of historians have tried to answer, so far without arriving to answer on which everyone would agree.

There are, literally, hundreds of "explanations" for the decline and fall of empires, and the same confusion reigns for the fall of the past civilizations rising to glory and then biting the dust, becoming little more than ruins and footnotes in history books. Is there a single cause for these collapses? Or is collapse the result of many small effects that, somehow, gang up together to push the great beast down the Seneca Cliff?

One of the most fascinating interpretations of the collapse of civilization is Joseph Tainter's idea that it is due to "diminishing returns." It is a well-known concept in economics that Tainter adapts to the historical cycle of civilizations, focusing on the control structures designed to keep together the whole system, the bureaucracy for instance. Tainter attributes these diminishing returns to an intrinsic property of control structures to become less efficient as they become larger.  Below, you can see a rather well-known graph taken for Tainter's book "The Collapse of Complex societies." (1988)

Tainter's idea is fascinating for several reasons, one is that it generates some order in the incredible confusion of hypotheses and counter-hypotheses of the debate on societal collapse. If Tainter is right, then the many phenomena we observe during the collapse are just a reflection of an inner sickness of the society undergoing it. Barbaric invasions, for instance, are not the reason that led the Roman Empire to fall, the Barbarians just exploited the chance they saw to invade a weakened empire.

A problem with Tainter's idea is that it is qualitative: it is based on the available historical data, for instance, the debasing of the Roman currency, but the curve of the diminishing returns is just drawn by hand. One question you might want to ask is: fine, there are diminishing returns, but where is the collapse in the curve? Another one could be: if the system experiences diminishing returns, why doesn't it just retrace the curve to go back to where it was before?

These and other questions are examined in a system dynamics study that myself and my coworkers, Ilaria Perissi and Sara Falsini, performed. The idea is that if a civilization is a complex system, then it should be possible to model it using system dynamics, a tool specifically designed for this purpose. So, we built a series of models inspired by the concept of "mind-sized" models. That is, models that don't pretend to be a detailed description of the system but try to catch the basic mechanisms that make the system move and, sometimes, go through tipping points and collapse. We found that on the basis of some simple assumption, it is possible to produce a curve that qualitatively looks like Tainter's one

The system dynamics model tells us that the origin of the diminishing returns lies in the gradual depletion of the resources that flow through the system. It is not so much an effect of increasing complexity in itself, the problem is sustaining that complexity.

Then, the model also tells us what happens on "the other side" of the curve. That is, what happens if the system continues its trajectory beyond the point where Tainter's curve stop. The curve shows a clear hysteresis, that is, it doesn't follow the earlier path, but it remains always on a low-benefit trajectory. It means that cutting on bureaucracy doesn't make the system more efficient.

These results are not the final word on the question of societal collapse. But they do provide some fundamental insight, I think. It is the fact that the system is "alive" as long as its resources provide good returns -- in terms of energy resources, it means they have a good EROEI (energy returned on energy invested). If the EROEI goes down, then the system falls into the Seneca Cliff.

Of course, since our society depends on fossil fuels, we are bound to go that way because the depletion of the best resources is progressively lowering the EROEI of the system. If we want to keep alive some kind of complex society, we can't do that by scraping the bottom of the barrel, desperately trying to burn what we can still burn. But, unfortunately, it is exactly what most governments in the world are trying to do. It is a good way to speed up toward the impending cliff.

What we should do, instead, would be to move as fast as possible toward a renewable-based society. We are lucky that we have energy technologies efficient enough in term of EROEI that they could support a transition to a better, cleaner, and more prosperous world. Too bad that nobody seems to want them.

There has to be something in the concept of "BAU" that makes it one of the most powerful attractors you can simulate in a system dynamics model. And so we are moving toward an uncertain future, but one thing that we can be sure of is that fossil fuels will not accompany us there.


Our complete paper can be found here. You can also find an abridged version on ArXiv.

And here are the authors

Ugo Bardi

Sara Falsini

Ilaria Perissi

Note: an earlier version of this post was destroyed by the evil minions of the Great Satan -- that is by Google Blogger.

Friday, January 18, 2019

What are the chances of a war that would exterminate most of humankind? It could be more likely than you think

Recently, together with my coworkers, I have been engaged in a statistical analysis of war over the past 600 years. The results were sobering: war, it seems, is a statistical phenomenon similar to earthquakes and forest fires. It strikes according to well defined statistical patterns and there is very little that can be done to avoid it. Aaron Clauset is another scientist who has been working on the same subject and, in a sobering analysis of his, he calculates the probablities of future wars. According to his calculations, a war as large as the Second World War has more than 40% chances to occur within 100 years from now. Then, a war causing more than billion battle deaths, that is exterminating most of humankind, has a probability of 5% to occur in less than 4 centuries from now. That doesn't mean we can relax for 4 centuries, not at all. It means we can expect it at any moment in the future.

From Aaron Clauset, 2018. (highlighting by UB)

.... a stationary model may be used to estimate the likelihood of a very large war occurring over 100 years, one like the Second World War, which produced x* = 16,634,907 battle deaths. Using the ensemble of semiparametric models for the sizes of wars and assuming a new war onset every 1.91 years on average (43), the probability of observing at least one war with x* or more deaths is p* = 0.43 ± 0.01 (Monte Carlo), and the expected number of these events over the next 100 years is 0.62 ± 0.01. Hence, under stationarity, the likelihood of a very large war over the next 100 years is not particularly small.

Under an even stronger assumption of stationarity, the model can estimate the waiting time for a war of truly spectacular size, such as one with x = 1,000,000,000 (one billion) battle deaths. A conflict this large would be globally catastrophic and would likely mark the end of modern civilization. It is also not outside the realm of possibility, if current nuclear weapons were used widely.

Using the ensemble of semiparametric models of war sizes and a longer Monte Carlo simulation, the model estimates that the median forecasted waiting time for such an event is 1339 years. Reflecting the large fluctuations that are natural under the empirical war size distribution, the distribution of waiting times for such a catastrophic event is enormously variable, with the 5 to 95% quantiles ranging from 383 to 11,489 years. A median delay of roughly 1300 years does not seem like a long time to wait for an event this enormous in magnitude, and humans have been waging war on each other, in one way or another, for substantially longer than that.

Monday, January 14, 2019

What Happened in 2015 that Changed the World? "Peak Cement" may Signal the Turning Point of Civilization

"Peak Cement" may have taken place in 2015, stopping the exponentially growing curve that would have led us to turn the Earth into a bowling ball, similar to the fictional planet Trantor, Galactic capital in Isaac Asimov's series "Foundation" (image source).

When giving an example of an exponentially growing production curve, I used to cite cement production. Look at the data up to 2013: a beautiful growing curve with a doubling time of -- very roughly -- 10 years. Then, if we assume that the current concrete covered area in the world is about 2%  (an average of the data by Schneider et al., 2009 and the Global Rural-Urban Mapping Project, 2004) then we would get to Trantor -- bowling ball planet -- in some 50 years.

Of course that wasn't possible, but it was still a surprise to discover how abrupt the change has been: here are the most recent data (the value for 2018 is still an estimate from

Impressive, right? Steve Rocco, smart as usual, had already noticed this trend in 2017, but now it is clearer. It looks like a peak, it has the shape of a peak, it gives the impression of a peak. Most likely it is a peak -- actually, it could be the start of an irreversible decline in the global cement production.

Now, what caused the decline? If you look at the disaggregated data, it is clear that the slowdown was mainly created by China, but not just by China. Several countries in the world are going down in terms of cement production -- in Italy, the decline started in 2010.

My impression -- that I share with the one proposed by Rocco -- is that this is not a blip in the curve, nor a special case among the various mineral commodities produced nowadays. It is a symptom of a general problem: it may be the clearest manifestation of the concept of "peak civilization" that the 1972 "Limits to Growth" study had placed for some moment during the 1st or 2nd decades of the 21st century.

Peak Cement is not alone another major peak was detected by Antonio Turiel for diesel fuel in 2015.

And, of course, we know that another major commodity went through a global peak in 2014: coal. (data from


So, are we really facing "peak civilization"? It is hard to say. On a time scale of a few years, many things could change and, in any case, you don't expect peaking to take place at the same time for all mineral commodities, everywhere. A strong indication that the whole world system is peaking would come from the behavior of the global GDP. Rocco had proposed that also the GDP had peaked in 2015, but the data available at present are insufficient to prove that.

In any case, it has been said that we would see the great peak "in the rear mirror"and this may well be what we are seeing. Whatever is happening it will be clearer in the future but, if it is really "the peak", expect the Seneca cliff to open up in front of us in the coming years. And maybe it won't be such a bad thing(*): did we really want to turn the Earth into a bowling ball?

(*) Antonio Turiel lists in a post of his (in Spanish) all the advantages ensuing from a societal collapse: reducing emissions, less pollution, a saner society and more)

Saturday, January 12, 2019

The Future as Seen by the Doomers. It Will be the Seneca Rebound!

Recently, RE (Reverse Engineer) of the famed "Doomsday Diner" carried out an opinion poll among the people frequenting some of the most doomeristic/catastrophistic/millennialistic sites of the Web (including Ugo Bardi's blog, Cassandra's Legacy).

Refreshingly, a majority of the members of this group of hard-liners are in favor of renewable energy! Only 36% of the group think that renewable energy is useless, while 57% think it will power a sustainable technological civilization.

So, maybe you are one of those people who feel it is their duty to pester the discussions on this subject with your favorite statement that goes as "renewable energy plants are built using energy coming from fossil fuels, therefore will never be anything but fossil fuel extenders." Then, know that not only you are wrong, you also understood nothing of the concept of EROI, and, finally, you are also a minority even among the minority of the millennialists of the Web.

Yes, the transition will not be easy, but renewable energy is the future of humankind. It is the Seneca Rebound, baby!

Monday, January 7, 2019

"Energy Dominance," what does it mean? Decoding a Fashionable Slogan

"Now, I know for a fact that American energy dominance is within our grasp as a nation.” Ryan Zinke, U.S. Secretary of the Interior (source)

"All Warfare is Based on Deception" Sun Tzu, "The Art of War"

Over nearly a half-century, since the time of Richard Nixon, American presidents have proclaimed the need for "energy independence" for the US, without ever succeeding in attaining it. During the past few years, it has become fashionable to say that the US has, in fact, become energy independent, even though it is not true. And, doubling down on this concept, there came the idea of "energy dominance," introduced by the Trump administration in June 2017.  It is now used at all levels in the press and in the political debate.

No doubt, the US has good reasons to be bullish on oil production. Of the three major world producers, it is the only one growing: it has overtaken Saudi Arabia and it seems to be poised to overtake Russia in a few years. (graphic source).

This rebound in the US production after the decline that started in the early 1970s is nearly miraculous. And the miracle as a name: shale oil. A great success, sure, but, if you think about it, the whole story looks weird: the US is trying to gain this "dominance" by means of resources which, once burned, will be forever gone. It is like people competing at who is burning their own house faster. What sense does it make?

Art Berman keeps telling us that shale oil is an expensive resource that could be produced at a profit only for market conditions that are unrealistic to expect. So far, much more money has been poured into shale oil production than it has returned from the sales of shale oil. "Energy dominance" seems to be just an elaborate way to lose money and resources. Again, what sense does that make?

But there is a logic in the term "energy dominance." It has to do with the way slogans are used in politics: a slogan is not just a compact way of expressing a certain political concept, it is often a coded message that hides much more than it says. So, we know that "bringing democracy" to a foreign country means to bomb it to smithereens. "Make America great again" means subsidizing the fossil fuel industry. "The Indispensable Country" means, "The American Empire." And more.

There is nothing wrong in using coded slogans: you only have to know how to decode them. So, "energy dominance" has to be decoded and turned into "military dominance." Then, things start making sense.

One quick note before you accuse me of being a conspiracy theorist: I am reasonably sure that there is no "control room" in a dark basement of the Pentagon or of the White House deciding long-term economic and military objectives. The decision mechanism of modern states is collective and networked. It is akin to that of anthills: there is nobody in charge, plenty of people push in different directions and, eventually, the giant structure may start moving in a certain direction.

So, the fact that so much money has been directed toward the exploitation of shale oil and gas doesn't mean that someone at the top decided that it was the thing to be done. It is simply, that investors tend to direct their financial resources where they think they'll have returns, and that may well be the result of a collective hallucination. Investing in shale oil is, basically, a Ponzi scheme but if Ponzi schemes exist there is a reason for them to exist. Even if investing in something doesn't generate overall profits, it moves money, benefits contractors, raises the GDP, and the more money is invested the more expectations of profits grow. And so it goes until the bubble bursts, but that may take time.

But there is more than that in this story: it is the military side. We all know that wars are won by the side that can pour more resources into the fight. It was in this way that the first and the second world war were won: the allies could produce more energy in the form of oil, coal, and gas. And, with these energy sources, they could produce more stuff: planes, tanks, cannons, bombs, bullets, and more stuff that was thrown at the Germans until they gave up. Matthieu Auzeannau gives us plenty of examples of this mechanism in his book "Oil, Power, and War." The Germans were always lacking enough oil to power their military machine and that's why they were doomed from the beginning.

For the military, the lesson of the past world wars is that wars are won by the side which has the largest oil supply. And they remember it. So, if you want to attain military dominance, energy independence is not enough, you need to attain energy dominance.

Everything makes sense also in view of some recent results on the statistical patterns of wars. Wars, it seems, are correlated to the thermodynamic phenomenon of entropy dissipation in complex systems. The more energy there is to dissipate, the faster it is dissipated. And if this dissipation is really fast, it may take the shape of a war -- war is the fastest way to destroy (dissipate) accumulated resources. But, in order to dissipate resources, you need to accumulate them first, and that's the role of shale oil in the current situation.

Which means that shale oil is not a natural resource, it is a military resource. As such, it doesn't matter if it brings a profit or not for the investors. What matters is how it can be used to maintain and expand that gigantic social and economic structure that we call "Globalization" (another slogan that can be decoded as "the global empire").

As long as the production of shale oil increases, we face the risk of a new, major world war. We can only hope that the shale bubble bursts by itself first. One more good reason why a Seneca Collapse of oil production would be good for all of us.

Friday, January 4, 2019

How do you Stop the Arms Race? By Starting a New War, for Instance

Do you see a ghostly Seneca Cliff in this graph? (source)

There is a good rule that you should always be careful when extrapolating your data, especially over the long term. And there is an even better rule saying that you should never, never extrapolate an exponential growth. The uncertainty in the data of an exponentially growing curve increases exponentially, too, and that makes your extrapolation meaningless very soon.

But, in the figure above, they extrapolated an exponentially growing curve for the military expenses of the US and China over more than 30 years!  The origin of that curve above seems to be the RAND Corporation. I couldn't find the original source, but it has been reproduced in the blog of the Wall Street Journal and on Zero Hedge

It looks like someone seriously proposed this extrapolation. But consider a few numbers: according to the chart, by 2050 the US would spend more than 20% of its present GdP for the military! (it is now about 3%). It might be possible if the US GdP were to increase in proportion. But, from the graph, they assume a growth of nearly a factor of 5 (from ca. 600 billion dollars, today, to 2.9 trillion in little more than 30 years. It means that the GdP should double at least twice in 30 years, that is, the US economy should grow at the rate of 6% (twice the current rate!) every year for the next 30 years. Otherwise, the US government would bankrupt itself even faster than it is doing now. 

Now, you might want to dismiss this graph as one of the many silly forecasts that are part of the everyday chat on how this or that sector of the economy is going to grow -- and therefore everyone should invest on it. But, there is something in this idea that military expenses are going to rise in the future. It has to do with a typical enhancing feedback effect. One side raises its military expenses and causes the other side to do the same. And that's the feedback that creates a ladder on which both contenders climb without knowing how to step down. Another parallel effect is the financial mechanism. Large investments in military expenses create a powerful lobby representing the military-industrial complex. A powerful lobby successfully pushes for higher investments and that, in turn, creates an even more powerful lobby. It is all part of what we call "arms race."

Here is another example of an arms race: how military expenses grew in the years before the 1st World War. (from Our World in Data -- see also this link)

The impression is that, by 1913, nobody knew how to stop the race and that the only "solution" that could be found to block the ever-increasing costs was to start a war -- which they did.

The similarity of the current situation with that of the years leading to WWI has been noted more than once. So, are we going to see a new world war in the near future? We cannot say: history doesn't really repeat itself, although it does rhyme. It might not be necessary to start a new world war to stop the exponential growth of military expenses, but the data are not encouraging. A new war could really be near. And, a nuclear war could generate a Seneca Collapse so drastic and disastrous that it could really be the "war ending all wars" -- as WWI should have been -- at least those not fought with clubs and stone axes only.


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)