Monday, March 25, 2019

Why worry about pollution if life expectancy keeps increasing? Ahem.... are you sure?

It seems clear that we won't get to reach Methuselah's age. In most Western countries, the average life expectancy has started decreasing from 2014 and we are, maybe, on the edge of a Seneca Cliff for longevity. It could be an effect of pollution, but not just that. Image source.

If you ever got into a discussion on the effects of pollution, you know what happens. You list the problems with heavy metals, from lead to mercury, pesticides, fine particles, plastics, everything that is -- or may be -- carcinogenic, including the deadly glyphosate, aka Roundup. Then, there comes always someone who says, "but all that cannot be so bad! After all, people keep living longer and longer!"

Alas, very, unfortunately, that doesn't seem to be the case anymore. Let me show you some data: let's start from the US (source).

And here are some data about European countries, from the World Bank

Clearly, the nearly linear trend of growth of the life expectancy at birth stopped around 2014 in most Western countries. To put things in perspective, it is not the same for other countries: both in China and in Russia, life expectancy is lower, but it keeps increasing. (again, data from the World Bank)

Before going on, a disclaimer: there is sufficient uncertainty in the data that the trend should be considered as weak. We are on a plateau that might see oscillations that could be interpreted as a return to growth.

But, clearly, something has happened in 2014 that interrupted a trend so stable that it was considered not only the way things were, but the way things had to be. What was that? Data from an article by Gilbert Berdine can tell us something about what's happening, at least in the US.

The mortality of old people keeps declining, what's causing the overall decline in life expectancy is the rising mortality of the young. Berdine comments as (highlighting mine):
The rising mortality rates for young people are attributed to suicides in general and opioid overdoses in particular. These are deaths of despair. . . . It is unclear what is causing despair in young people during a period of time when we are told that the economy is expanding.
We are told that the economy is expanding, yes, but something seems to be wrong with that. In some countries, such as Italy, the economy has been contracting for at least a decade. In the US, instead, the data show that the economy is skyrocketing upward, at least if measured in terms of the GDP. America is becoming great again, actually it never stopped being that (again, in terms of the GDP). So, why is the life expectancy going down in both countries?

What's making the young killing themselves by guns and drugs? Might pollution be affecting people's mental sanity? Yes, that's exactly the case. In a recent paper, Shin and others report that not only pollution causes "subjective stress, depressive disorders, health-related quality of life (QoL) and suicide." They don't speak about life expectancy but they say, "The risk of higher stress or poor QoL in subjects < age 65 increased with air pollution more than did that in subjects ≥ age 65"

So, it is clear that pollution is taking its toll on human health, especially among the young. That may explain the "despair" that Berdine considers the cause for the increased mortality. And there may be perfectly good reasons for the young to despair, even without the help of pollution. In any case, we may have reached a Seneca Cliff of life expectancy.

Another dream of our society that turned into a nightmare. Another chunk of future that we stole from our children and grandchildren. No wonder that they are not happy with us.

Monday, March 18, 2019

When the Going gets Tough, Women get Going. "MIddle Ages 2.0" and the Great Transformation Awaiting us

In Europe, Greta Thunberg has smashed all the memetic barriers succeeding in doing what nobody else had succeeded before: bringing the climate emergency within the horizon of the public and of the decision makers. In parallel, on the other side of the Atlantic, another young woman, Alexandra Ocasio Cortez has been doing something similar with her "Green New Deal."

These are remarkable changes and I think it is not casual that they are brought by women. It had already happened during the early Middle Ages, when women took a prominent role in taking the lead in reshaping a dying empire into a new, vibrant civilization, one that we sometimes call the "Dark Ages" but that was a period of intelligent adaptation to scarcity. It was also a civilization displaying a remarkable degree of gender parity in comparison to what the European society was before and what would become later on.

There is a lot that we can learn from the Middle Ages on how to manage the Great Transformation: it will be "Middle Ages 2.0".  Here, I am reposting a text I originally published on my other blog, "Chimeras" that's relevant on the subject. Expect more posts on this subject, the more I think about that, the more I tend to think that the Middle Ages could provide us with a true blueprint for the great transition.

From "Chimeras" March 1, 2016

The war of the sexes: the origins of gender inequality

 The story of Scheherazade of the 1001 Arabian Nights is the quintessence of the "war of the sexes" and of how women tend to lose it. It is said that King Shahryar would have a new lover every night and every morning he would have her killed. He stopped only when Scheherazade started telling him stories. It shows, among other things, that males behave much better when they listen to females. Picture: Scheherazade and Shahryār by Ferdinand Keller, 1880

Some time ago, I was chatting at home with a friend who is a researcher specialized in "gender inequality". I asked her what were the ultimate origins of this inequality but we couldn't arrive at a conclusion. So, I happened to have in a shelf nearby a copy of the "Malleus Maleficarum", the book that Kramer and Sprenger wrote in the 16th century on the evils of witchcraft. I took it out and I opened it to the page where the authors dedicate several paragraphs to describe how evil women are. I read a few of these paragraphs aloud and my friend was so enraged that she left the room, without saying a word. Later on, she told me that she had done that to avoid telling me what she thought I deserved to be told just for keeping that book in my shelves. Maybe she was right, but the question of the origins of gender inequality remained unanswered (BTW, later on, we became friends again). 

Why are women so commonly discriminated in almost all cultures, modern and ancient? Of course, there are plenty of studies attempting to explain the reasons. It is an interdisciplinary field that mixes history, anthropology, psychology, social studies, and even more; you can spend your whole life studying it. So, I don't even remotely pretend to be saying something definitive or even deep on this subject. It is just that, after much thinking on this matter, I thought that I could share with you some of my conclusions. So, here is a narrative of how gender inequality developed over the centuries in Europe and in the Mediterranean world. I hope you'll find it something worth pondering.

Let's go back in time, way back; when does the phenomenon that we call "gender inequality" starts? You probably know that Marija Gimbutas has been arguing for a long time that the pre-literate ages in Europe were characterized by a form of matriarchy and by the predominance of the cult of a female goddess (or goddesses). That is, of course, debatable and it is hotly debated; there is very little that we have from those ancient times that can tell us how men and women related to each other. However, when we move to the first examples of literature we have, then we see at least hints of a different world that involved some kind - perhaps - if not female dominance at least a more assertive role of women. Indeed, the first text for which we know the name of the author was written by the Sumerian priestess Enheduanna at some moment during the second half of the third millennium BCE. From these ancient times, there comes a very strong voice: the voice of a woman asserting the rule of the Goddess Inanna over the pantheon of male Gods of her times, hinting at an even larger role of female goddesses in even more ancient times.

If we follow the millennia as they move onward, it seems that the voice of women becomes fainter and fainter. In Greece, we have Sappho of Lesbos, renown for her poetry, but she comes from a very early age; the seventh century BCE. As the Greek civilization grew and was absorbed into the Roman one, woman literates seem to dwindle. Of the whole span of the Western Roman civilization, we know of a modest number of literate women and there are only two Roman female poets whose works have survived to us. Both go with the name of Sulpicia and you probably never heard of them. As poetry goes, the first Sulpicia, who lived at the times of August, may be interesting to look at. The second one, living in later times, has survived in a few lines only because they are explicitly erotic. But the point is that it is so little in comparison with so much Greek and Latin literature we still have. Women of those times may not have been really silent but, in literary terms, we just don't hear their voices.

On the other side of the sexual barrier, note how the "Malleus Maleficarum" bases its several pages of insult to women largely on classical authors, for instance, Cicero, Lactantius, Terence, and othes. It is not surprising for us to discover that from the early imperial times to the early Middle Ages, most writers were woman-haters. They thought that sex was, at best, a necessary evil that one had to stand in order to ensure the perpetuation of humankind; but no more than that. Chastity, if one could attain it, was by far the best condition for man and woman alike and, for sure, sex with a woman was only a source of perversity and of debasement. An early Christian father, Origen (3rd century CE) is reported to have taken the matter to the extreme and castrated himself, although that's not certain and surely it never became popular.

With the decline and fall of the Western Roman Empire, there appeared something that had never existed before: the monastic orders. Never before so many men and women had decided that they wanted to live in complete separation from the members of the other sex. Read a book such as the "pratum spirituale" by 6th century CE the Byzantine monk John Moschos, and you get the impression that everyone at that time, males and females, were obsessed by sex; how to avoid it, that is. Chastity had never been considered a virtue before and, yet, now it had become the paramount one. At least, however, it seems that women had gained a certain degree of independence, seeking for chastity in their own ways and with a dignity of their own. Reading documents from that age, you get the well-defined impression that men and women had somehow decided that they wanted to avoid each other for a while. It was a pause that lasted several centuries. But why did that happen?

I think there are reasons, but to understand them we must go back to Roman times and try to understand what was the relationship between men and women at that age. And we may find that it was deeply poisoned by a sickness that pervaded the society of those times: social inequality and, in particular, the institution of slavery.

The Roman Empire based its wealth on the work of slaves. Their number is variously estimated as around 10% of the population, but it was larger in the richest regions of the empire. Probably, during the 1st century CE, some 30%-40% of the population of Italy was composed of slaves (1). Slavery was an integral part of the Roman economy and one of the main aims of the Roman military conquests was capturing of large numbers of foreigners, who then were turned into slaves.

Now, most slaves were male and were used for heavy or menial work, in agriculture, for instance. But many of them were female, and, obviously, young and attractive slaves, both male and female, were used as sex objects. Slaves were not considered as having rights. They simply were property. Caroline Osiek writes that (2).

To the female slave, therefore, honor, whether of character or of behavior, cannot be ascribed. The female slave can lay no claim to chastity or shame, which have no meaning. In the official view, she cannot have sensitivity toward chastity. Her honor cannot be violated because it does not exist. .. No legal recognition is granted to the sexual privacy of a female slave.

To have a better idea of how female slaves were considered in Roman times, we may turn to a late Roman poet, Ausonius (4th century CE) who had gained a certain notoriety in his times. He was not only a poet but an accomplished politician who had a chance to accompany Emperor Gratian in a military raid in Germania. From there, he returned with a Germanic slave girl named Bissula. He wrote a poem in her honor that says, among other things,

Delicium, blanditiae, ludus, amor, voluptas, barbara, sed quae Latias vincis alumna pupas, Bissula, nomen tenerae rusticulum puellae, horridulum non solitis, sed domino venustum.

that we can translate as
Delice, blandishment, play, love, desire, barbarian, but you baby beat the Latin girls. Bissula, a tender name, a little rustic for a girl, a little rough for those not used to it, but a grace for your master

It is clear that Ausonius likes Bissula; we could even say that he is fond of her. But it is the same kind of attitude that we may have toward a domestic animal; a cat or a dog that we may like a lot, but that we don't consider our equal. Bissula was no more than a pet in terms of rights. It is true that her master was not supposed to mistreat her, and we have no evidence that he ever did. But she had strictly no choice in terms of satisfying him sexually. In this sense, she had no more rights than those pertaining to a rubber doll in our times. In modern terms, we can say that she was being legally raped. And nobody seemed to find this strange; so much that Ausonius' poem that described this legal rape was considered wholly normal and it was appreciated.

If we can still hear Ausonius' voice, we cannot hear that of Bissula. Probably, she couldn't read and write, to say nothing about doing that in proper Latin. So, what she thought of her master is anyone's guess. Was she happy that she was getting at least food and shelter from him? Or did she hate him for having been one of those who had, perhaps, exterminated her family? Did she ever dream of sticking a hairpin into Ausonius' eye? Perhaps; but we have no evidence that she ever did. If she had done something like that, by the way, she would have condemned to death all the slaves of Ausonius' household. The Roman law practiced a strict interpretation of the principle of common intention and when it happened that a slave killed his/her master, it required that all the slaves of that master were to be executed. And we know that this law was put into practice on several occasions.

So, we cannot hear Bissula's voice, just as we can't hear the voice of the millions of sex slaves that crossed the trajectory of the Roman Empire, from its foundation to its end in the 5th century CE. Exploited, without rights, probably turned to menial work whenever they got older and their masters lost interest in them, their voice is lost in the abyss of time. But, perhaps, we can get a glimpse of their feelings from their reflection on the other side; that of their masters who, in Imperial times, dedicated pages and pages of their writings at insulting women. Yes, because the silent side, that of the slaves, was not without weapons in the war that the masters were waging against them. The masters may have expected gratitude from them, perhaps even love. But they got only hatred and despise. Imagine yourself as Bissula. Do you imagine she could have loved Ausonius? And can you imagine how could she have taken some revenge on him? I am sure there were ways, even though we can't say whether Bissula ever put them into practice. No wonder that so many men in these times accused women of treachery. In the war of the sexes, the women had to use guerrilla tactics, and, apparently, they were doing that with some success.

If slavery turned woman slaves into sex objects, the resulting war of the sexes must have had a negative effect also on free women. They were not supposed to be legally raped as the slaves, but surely they could not ignore what their husbands were doing (and, by the way, free Roman women were not supposed to rape their male slaves and, if they did, they were not supposed to write poems about how cute their male sex dolls were). Very likely, this situation poisoned the male/female relations of generations of Roman citizens. Thinking of that, we cannot be surprised of the avalanche of insults that Roman male writers poured on women (want an example? Seneca in his tragedies [11 (117)]: "when a woman thinks alone, she thinks evil")

That kind of poisoned relationship continued for a long time but, at a certain moment, not much later than Ausonius' times, the Empire ceased to be able to raid slaves from anywhere, and then it disappeared. Slavery didn't disappear with the Empire: we had to wait for the 19th century to see it disappear for good. But, surely, the whole situation changed and slaves were not any more so common. The Christian church took a lot of time before arriving at a clear condemnation of slavery, but turning people into sex toys was not seen anymore as the obvious things to do. So, things changed a lot and we may understand how during Middle Ages men and women were taking that "pause." It was as if they were looking at each other, thinking "who should make the first move?" A shyness that lasted for centuries.

And then, things changed again. It was an impetuous movement, a reversal of the time of hatred between men and women: it was the time of courtly love. With the turning of the millennium, the Amour Courtois started to appear in Europe and it became all the rage. Men and women were looking again at each other and they were looking at each other in romantic terms: they loved each other. The love between man and woman became a noble thing, a way to obtain enlightenment - perhaps better than chastity. From the Northern Celtic tradition, the legend of two lovers, Tristan and Iseult, burst into the literary scene. And it was a dam that gave way. Lancelot and Guinevere, then Dante and Beatrice, Petrarca and Laura, Ibn Arabi and Nizham. West European and Mediterranean poets couldn't think of anything better to express themselves than to dedicate their poetry to noble women whom they loved and respected.

And we hear again the voice of women: and what a voice! Think of Heloise, pupil and lover of Abelard, the philosopher, in a tragic love story that took place during the early 12th century. Heloise  burst onto the scene with unforgettable words: "To her master, nay father, to her husband, nay brother; from his handmaid, nay daughter, his spouse, nay sister: to Abelard, from Heloise. And if the name of wife appears more sacred and more valid, sweeter to me is ever the word friend, or, if you be not ashamed, concubine or whore." What can you say about this? I can only say that my lower jaw falls down as I utter "Wow!!"

It was a long journey from Heloise to our times. Long and tormented, just think that not much later than Heloise, the French mystic Marguerite Porete wrote her book "The mirror of the simple souls" in a style and content that reminds the works of the Sumerian Enheduana, four thousand years before. And Marguerite Porete was burned at the stake for what she had written. And, some centuries later, the war against females continued with the various witch hunts, fueled by books such as "The Malleus Maleficarum" (1520). And think that it was only in the second half of the 20th century that women were generally considered smart enough that they were allowed to vote in general elections. But we have arrived somewhere, to an age in which "gender inequality" is considered something wholly negative, to be avoided at all costs. An age in which, at least in the West, the idea that women are equal to men is obvious, or should be. And an age in which using woman slaves as sex toys is (or should be) considered as an absolute evil.

And yet, if history moves forward, it also moves along a tortuous road and sometimes it goes in circles. The similarities of our times and Roman ones are many. Certainly, we don't have slaves anymore, not officially, at least. But that may not be so much a social and ethical triumph but a consequence of the fact that our society is much more monetarized than the Roman one. The need for money can easily make a man or a woman the monetary equivalent of a slave of Roman times. We call "sex workers" those people who engage in sex for money; they are supposed to be free men and free women, but freedom can only be theoretical when, if you really want it, you have to pay for it by starvation. And while the armies of the globalized empire do not raid any more the neighboring countries to bring back male and female slaves, it is the global financial power that forces them to come to the West. They have little choice but to leave countries ravaged by wars, droughts, and poverty. In general, the social equality that the Western World had been constantly gaining after the industrial revolution, seems to have stopped its movement. Since the 1970s, we are going in reverse, social inequalities are on the increase. Are we going to re-legalize slavery? It is not an impossible thought if you think that it was still legal in the US up to 1865.

So, maybe the rich elites of our times would again turn women into sex objects? Maybe they are doing that already. Think of Italy's leader, Silvio Berlusconi. Enough has been diffused of his private life for us to understand that he behaved not unlike Ausonius with his female toys, except that, luckily for us, he has not imposed on us some bad poetry of his.

So, is the war of the sexes going to restart? Are we going to see again the relations between men and women souring because of the deep inequality that turns women into sex toys? And maybe we are going to see the monastic orders returning and, perhaps, in a far future, a new explosion of reciprocal love? It is, of course, impossible to say. What we can say is that the world empire that we call "globalization" is all based on fossil fuels and that it is going to have a short life; very likely much shorter than that of the Roman Empire. Maybe the cycle will not be restarting, maybe it will; we cannot say. Humankind is engaged in a travel toward the future that is taking us somewhere, but we don't know where. Wherever we are going, the path is something we create with our feet as we march onward.

h/t: Elisabetta Addis

1. Harper, Slavery in the Late Roman World, AD 275-425. Cambridge University Press, 2011,

2. Carolyn Osniek, Female Slaves, Porneia and the limits to obedience, in "Early Christian Families in Context: An Interdisciplinary Dialogue" David Balch and Carolyn Osniek eds. Wm. Eedermans publishing Co. Cambridge, 2003


Saturday, March 16, 2019

The Thunberg Effect Seems to be in Full Swing: Will it Last?

This young lady, Greta Thunberg, is breaking all the memetic barriers: the effect is weak but already evident. Most likely, we'll see it growing in the coming days. It might be the start of an epochal change in the way the challenges ahead are perceived.

On the other hand, expect a reaction from the Powers That Be to put this girl back in her proper place. Interesting times ahead, as always.....

Monday, March 11, 2019

The Cryptocurrency of the Middle Ages: Relics

I am re-proposing here a post that I published on "Insurge" about one year ago. It is part of the idea of rediscovering the European Middle Ages not as an age of Barbarism and decline, but as a period of intelligent adaptation to a dearth of resources. Our ancestors of those times faced the problem of maintaining some fundamental elements of the collapsed Roman Empire. One was currency, that in Roman times, had been based on mineral commodities: gold and silver. With the mines producing them gone, the people of the Middle Ages had to reinvent money: they did so by using relics. It was a successful idea that maintained commerce alive in Europe through a difficult period. 

Cryptocurrencies are surprisingly similar to Medieval relics

Published on "Insurge" on Jan 9, 2018

By Ugo Bardi

Ancient relics that the author inherited from his grandparents. A chest full of fragments of bones of unidentified saints enclosed in small boxes, these objects probably date back to the 18th century or perhaps they are even older. Relics were supposed to be venerated, but note also the shape and size of the containers: they look like coins and, in a certain way, they were coins. This hoard of saintly relics was a small treasure that the family kept in the same way as today some people keep gold coins and jewels. Today, these objects have no commercial value just like money out of circulation.

Maybe you think that bitcoin and the other cryptocurrencies are a completely new form of currency. After all, nothing like that could ever exist before the age of the Internet, right?

Well, not exactly. It is true that the modern cryptocurrencies are based on the Internet, but the basic concept of “virtual currency” predates the Internet, by at least a millennium. During the Middle Ages, people made extensive use of virtual currency in the form of holy relics.

It is a story that needs to be told from the beginning. First of all, all human societies are kept together by means of money. Without money, there cannot be commercial transactions, and without that, no complex society can exist.

For a long time, thousands of years of human history, money was based on precious metals, mainly gold and silver. Coinage was the technology that propelled the Romans to become an empire: they used precious metal money to pay their legions, to bribe their enemies, and to keep the empire together.

But the same technology that created the empire also doomed it. When the imperial mines ran out of precious metals, the Empire ran out of money. That generated a complex chain of events and the agony of the Empire lasted for a few centuries. But the origin of all the troubles was simple: it was a financial collapse. No money, no legions. No legions, no Empire.

Then, the Middle Ages came. An age of scarcity of precious metals, it was not by chance that it saw the birth of legends involving dragons hoarding gold in their lairs. People desperately needed some kind of money. But what to use if gold and silver were mostly gone?

The Romans of imperial times had already tried virtual currency — for instance paying their soldiers with pottery. Eventually, the last breed of Roman troops were simply paid with food. But these ideas didn’t work very well, as you may imagine.

The disappearance of the Western Roman Empire didn’t eliminate the need for some kind of currency. Something that could play the role of money was desperately needed and it was found: relics! Yes, exactly that. The bones of dead holy men (and women) had all the characteristics of money. They were rare, hard to find, limited in quantity, had no value of their own, and they could be traded, exchanged, and hoarded. They were also supposed to have thaumaturgic virtues but, really, they were the true currency of the Middle Ages.

As you start thinking of relics in terms of currency, then a lot of things click together in the history of the Middle Ages. For instance, the rise of the power of the papacy in Rome. How could it be that the Germans Emperors couldn’t use their mighty armies to defeat the popes who had little or no military resources? It was because the Catholic church controlled the relic-based financial system. And it is well known that money is often more powerful than armies.

The church had the power of determining whether an object claimed to be a holy relic was real or not, so it acted in some respects as a bank. It validated relics, even though it couldn’t create them (not explicitly, at least). But that was enough to play a pivotal rule in the medieval financial system. The papacy gradually lost its power grip in Europe only when new mines in Eastern Europe provided enough precious metals for coinage and that allowed kings and empires to gain the upper hands with new armies.

If relics were currency, then you can also understand the incredible craze that had overtaken people during the Middle Ages. People were digging everywhere for holy relics, an activity that was mostly virtual because nobody could prove that the bones that were found had been there before.

Sometimes the craving for bones was so strong that people who had a saintly reputation were literally cut to pieces immediately after their death by crowds craving for their bones. Having such a reputation could even be dangerous, the life of a saint could be cut short by someone who wanted to make a profit out of his bones.

The holy remains of st. Fausto kept in a church in Castellina in Chianti, in Tuscany (photo by the author)

Relics were a virtual currency, just like bitcoin. They had no more substance than the stuff dreams are made of. Nobody could really tell whether a fragment of bone claimed to be holy came from a cow or holy man. Nobody could tell whether a wood splinter was really a chunk of Christ’s cross. To be sure, the Church could declare (or deny) the authenticity of a specific relic; but it was still a declaration wholly based on faith. It was all virtual: a game of make-believe, just as today is the case for all kinds of money, including bitcoin.

But if money is a dream, don’t discount its power. Dreams (and money) are what keeps human societies together. Bitcoin — or some other form of cryptocurrency — is the new money. Maybe it will turn out to be a nightmare, but maybe it will help us keep our dreams alive.



As far as I know, so far historians have not noted that Medieval relics can be seen as a form of currency. However, I may cite Gibbons in his “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” (1776) when he says (Book XXVIII) that “the relics of saints were more valuable than gold and precious stone”, hinting at the commercial worth of these objects.

To give you some idea of the craze for relics that had overtaken our ancestors, let me translate for you an excerpt from the book by Edgarda Ferri “The Great Countess” (“La Grancontessa”) (2002) which tells the story of Countess Matilda of Canossa. All this takes place around the year 1000 in Europe. Note how the relics are mined out with some effort (just like bitcoins) and how the pope acts as the “bank”, validating the find. But note also how, just as in the case of bitcoins, it is not the bank (the church) that creates the new money. This particular trove of relics was created by a group of citizens (“miners”) of Mantua who had the resources and the clout needed to carry the enterprise to completion, eventually involving in the game even the Pope and the Emperor. And nobody dared to cast doubts on the improbable story.

Longinus the Roman soldier pierced with his lance the side of Christ on the cross on the Golgotha. Out of the wound, there poured blood mixed with water which, falling on his sick eyes, suddenly healed him, converting him to the Christian faith. Searching for safety, Longinus arrived in Mantua carrying with him a little box which contained a sponge and a fistful of sand soaked with lumps of the blood that came from Christ’s body. He was martyred by the Romans outside the walls of the city, in the place that today takes the name of Cappadocia. All traces of his body were lost for a long time. 800 years later, on a summer night, the apostle Andrew appeared to a Christian of Mantua and showed to him the place in the garden where Longinus had buried the precious box. The Mantuans dug there, found the relic, and they also found the bones of the martyr. The very Christian king Charlemagne charged the pope to go there to have more precise news. The Pope examined the find, released a document, he declared the relics of the holy blood to be authentic, dedicated to them an oratory near the hospice of St. Madeleine, ordered that the day of the ascension the relics were to be exposed to the veneration of the believers. In the end, he brought with him a little of the holy soil to give it to the Emperor as a gift, who devoutly deposed it in the royal chapel of Paris.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

The real Energy Return of Crude Oil: smaller than you would have imagined


A simple but important study by Luciano Celi shows what is the real energy return that oil companies manage to attain. Much smaller than you would have believed, in several cases it is today well below 10. Which means that renewable energies already produce a larger EROI than oil and gas. No more excuses for not switching to renewables as fast as possible!And we have to do it fast because, as Celi shows, we are on the edge of the Net Energy Cliff of fossil fuels.

By Luciano Celi

Researchers involved in the energy sector know very well what the EROI (acronym of Energy Return on Investment) is and how frequently is cited in scientific publications, in spite of differences of definition among researchers.
Well aware of the fact that I arrived last in the middle of a dispute that has engaged researchers for decades, I accepted the challenge and tried to understand, with Claudio Della Volpe, Luca Pardi, and Stefano Siboni, if there was a way to know something that is difficult know: the EROI of oil companies.

The method we have implemented is quite simple, even if with some useful simplification that we have discussed in details in our paper.

The denominator in the EROI value is the Energy Invested, while the numerator is the Energy Return (how much energy is gained with respect to the investment). Knowing the numerator it is quite simple (we are talking of oil companies) because this value corresponds to the production of a day (or of a year). The issue in different cases was knowing the value of energy cost of that production. It is difficult to know how much energy they use to produce what they produce in a year (or in a day), sitting at a desk without wandering the world knocking on the doors of companies. However... we have found an indirect way to have these data.

The oil companies are requested to compile a Sustainability Report (SR) yearly. Even if not mandatory many companies have accepted to prepare them probably under the pressure of the public opinion or/and the business branch named CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility), especially after the alarms launched at the last world conferences on climate.

In these reports, it is possible to find the emissions of their up- and downstream activities expressed in CO2 equivalent. This is good news because we can try to do a mental experiment: to burn all oil that a company produces and convert it in CO2 equivalent, with a simple stoichiometric ratio. In this way, we have the equivalent value in CO2 of production (numerator) and the equivalent value in CO2 of emissions (denominator).
As already mentioned this is an approximation - first we have many kinds of oil, moreover the petroleum production almost always includes a quota of natural gas that has a different composition (mostly methane) and a different HHV (Higher Heating Value) compared to oil - but we have corrected our estimation taking into account these variables. The interesting side of the issue is that the data are above criticism because they come directly from the oil companies reports (Sustainability, Annual, Commercial, and so on).

The choice of companies

I focused my research activity on SR 2015 and looked at the companies with the highest revenues in the world. I have found this list (on or Wikipedia: both these sources - the second one takes the data from the previous one - are updated to 2017) and I have chosen to make a cut off for a market share above 1%. According to this criterium the companies selected are 30:

Billions $
Market share %

Saudi Aramco

China National Petroleum Co.


Exxon Mobil

Royal Dutch Shell

Kuwait Petroleum Corporation


Total SA



Valero Energy


Chevron Corporation



National Iranian Oil



China National Offshore Oil

Marathon Petroleum



JX Holdings



Indian Oil Corporation


Reliance Industries

< 1%


Total amount >>>>

Highlighted in green is found the total amount of the market share for the first five companies: this value is quite high considering that the first thirty companies represent almost the 90% of the market share, and only the 16,6% of them hold the 34,7% of the market share.

The EROI values

Applying the method briefly described above, the estimated values of EROI are represented in the graph below:

If we consider that the total contribution of oil and gas to the world primary energy demand in 2016 was 57.41% of the total (as shown in the graph below), the weighted mean of the EROI is rather low. Why does it seem that nothing happens?
The explanation is found in the relation between EROI and Net Energy.

The net energy and the Seneca Cliff

Net energy is defined as:

Net Energy (NE) = Energy Return - Energy Investment.

If we divide all terms for a single quantity ER, the result is:

NE/ER = 1-(1/EROI)

and, under the hypothesis of the ER always equal 100, the NE value can be expressed in percentage. 

So, the equation is:
NE(%)= [1-(1/EROI)]*100.

If we graph NE vs. EROEI the result is the following:

The industrial society experiences Net Energy, not EROI, decline. As shown in the graph above, there is a strong non-linear relation between Net Energy and EROI. For a long range of EROI values, say from 100 to 10, the Net Energy is declining very slowly. Presently although the EROI decline is quite clear the Net Energy is still well above 90%. The society feels pretty safe. The problem is that we are walking along a cliff and it is increasingly urgent to make an energy transition, before finally ending up in the abyss.


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