Monday, April 29, 2019

The Great Fossil Cycle and the Story of a Family

Last week, I published a post on how the economic decline of Italy led me to move to a smaller house, abandoning the mansion that my parents had built during better times. Complementing that post, I thought I could repropose a post I had published in 2017, reproduced here with some minor modifications. You can find more data about the story of the Bardi family on the "Chimeras" blog.

My great-great grandfather, Ferdinando Bardi. The story of the branch of the Bardi family to which I belong is inextricably linked to the great world cycle of the fossil fuels. (this painting was made by Ferdinando's son, Antonio)

There was a time, long ago, when the Bardis of Florence were rich and powerful, but that branch of the family disappeared with the end of the Renaissance. The most remote ancestors of mine that I can track were living during the early 19th century and they were all poor, probably very poor. But their life was to change with the great fossil revolution that had started in England in the 18th century. The consequences were to spill over to Italy in the centuries that followed.

My great-great grandfather Ferdinando (born in 1822) lived in an age when coal was just starting to become commonplace and people would still use whale oil to light up their homes. He was a soldier in the infantry of the Grand-Duke of Tuscany and then of the King of Italy, when Tuscany merged into the newly formed Kingdom of Italy, in 1861. The family lore says that Ferdinando fought with Garibaldi in Southern Italy, but there is no trace of him in the records as a volunteer of Garibaldi's army. He may have fought there with the regular army, though. In his portrait, we can see the medals that he gained. Today, I still have the ribbons, the medals were lost during the 2nd world war when they were given to "the country" to support the war effort.

Despite the medals, there is little doubt that Ferdinando was poor; his condition is described as "dire poverty" in some documents we still have. But things were changing and the conditions of the Bardi family would change, too. The coal revolution had made Northern Europe rich. England had built a World Empire using coal, France had its revolution and Napoleon, and the industrial age had started. Italy had no significant coal resources but coal could be imported from England and that changed many things. Tuscany was slowly building up a certain degree of prosperity based on a rapidly developing industry and on a flow of tourism from Northern Europe that, already at that time, had Florence as a favorite destination.

That had consequences on the life of Florentines. Antonio Bardi (1862 - 1924), Ferdinando's son and my great-grandfather, was little more than a street urchin when he was befriended by a "gentleman in the service of the Emperor of Brazil," then visiting Florence. It may have happened in 1877 and some of the newspapers of that time report the story of how this gentleman, whose name was "Pedro Americo," paid for the studies of this boy in whom he had somehow noticed a special artistic talent. The papers of that time don't seem to have considered the implications (obvious for us, today) involved in the story of a mature and rich gentleman befriending a poor boy, but those were different times. In any case, Antonio started a career as a painter.

That such a career was possible for Antonio was due to tourism becoming more and more common in Florence. Tourism had not just brought there the Emperor of Brazil, but a continuous flow of foreign tourists interested in ancient paintings and works of art. Color photography didn't exist at that time and this led to a brisk market of hand-made reproduction of ancient masterpieces. These reproductions were especially prized if they were made by Florentine artists, in some ways supposed to maintain the genetic imprint of the people who had created the originals. So, the main art galleries of Florence would allow local artists to set up their easels in their rooms and they would later provide them with a stamp on their canvases guaranteeing that it was "painted from the original". It seems to have been a rather diffuse occupation and, already at that time, Florentines were adapting to the opportunities that the world changes were offering to them. My aunt Renza, grand-daughter of Antonio, was still doing the same job -- making copies of paintings from the originals -- in the 1930s.

Some of the paintings of Antonio Bardi are still kept by his descendants and, for what I can say, he seems to have been a skilled painter with a special ability with portraits. But he never was very successful in this career: Florence was not Paris, it was a backwater of Europe and there were little chances for artists to become rich and famous there. As he got old, Antonio developed health problems with his eyes and he couldn't paint anymore, so he moved to a job as a guardsman. Still, he had escaped the poverty trap that had affected his ancestors. Many other Florentines of that time were doing the same, although in different ways. From our viewpoint, Tuscany in the 19th century was still a desperately poor place, but its economy was rapidly growing as a result of the ongoing coal age. That opened up opportunities that had never existed before.

My grandfather, Raffaello Bardi, was born in 1892. His instruction was limited but he could read and write and perhaps he attended a professional school. When he was drafted for the Great War, he had a hard time with the defeat of the Italian Army at Caporetto, in 1917, but he managed to get back home, all in one piece. There, he married Rita, a Florentine seamstress, and he found a job in a Swiss company that had established a branch in Florence and that manufactured straw hats, exporting them all over the world.

There were reasons for that Swiss company to exist and to be located in Florence. One was the tradition of making straw hats in Tuscany: it had started already during the 18th century. Another was that the Italian economy in the 20th century was rapidly growing. Many Italian regions were playing the role that today is played by Eastern European countries or South-Asian ones. They were being colonized by North European companies as sources of cheap labor. Tuscany had a well developed hydroelectric energy system and could offer a skilled workforce. Swiss, German, and British companies were flocking there to establish profitable branches for their businesses.

That was the opportunity that my grandfather exploited. He was only a modest employee in the company where he worked but he could afford a lifestyle that his ancestors couldn't even have dreamed of. In 1922, he bought a nice home for his family in the suburbs. It was no mansion, but a step forward in comparison to the small apartments where the Bardi family had been living before. It had a garden, three bedrooms, a modern bathroom, and it could lodge my grandparents, their four children, and the additional son they had adopted: a nephew who had been orphaned when his parents had died because of the Spanish flu, in 1919.  Raffaello could also afford to take his family on vacations at the seaside for about one month every summer. He could send his sons to college, although not his daughters; women were still not supposed to study in those times.

There came the Fascist government, the great crash of 1929, and the 2nd world war. Hard times for everyone but this branch of the Bardi family suffered no casualties nor great disasters. Raffaello's home also survived the allied bombing raids, even though a few steel splinters hit the outer walls. With the end of the war, the Italian economy experienced a period of growth so rapid that it was termed the "economic miracle". It was no miracle but the consequence of crude oil being cheap and easily available. The Italian industry boomed, and with it tourism.

During this period, the Italian labor was not anymore so cheap as it had been in earlier times. The activity of manufacturing straw hats was taken over by Chinese firms and the Swiss company in which my grandfather had worked closed down. Still, there was a brisk business in importing Chinese-made hats in Florence, adding to them some hand-made decoration and selling the result as "Florentine hats."  One of my aunts, Renza, continued to manage a cottage industry that did exactly that. My other aunt, Anna, the youngest of the family, tried to follow the footprints of her grandfather, Antonio, and to work as a painter but she was not very successful. Tourism was booming, but people were not anymore interested in hand-made reproductions of ancient masterpieces.

For my father, Giuliano, and my uncle, Antonio, both graduated in architecture, the booming Italian economy offered good opportunities. The period from the 1950s to the early 1970s was probably the richest period enjoyed by Italy in modern times and the moment of highest prosperity for the members of the Bardi family in Florence. All my relatives of that generation were rather well-off as employees or professionals. Their families were mostly organized according to the breadwinner/housewife model: even a single salary was sufficient for a comfortable life, with my mother being an exception, like my father she had graduated in architecture and worked as a high-school teacher. Most of them could afford to own their homes and, in most cases, also a vacation home in the mountains or on the seaside (also here, my family was somewhat an exception, preferring a single home on the hills). They also owned at least one car, often two when their wives learned how to drive. On the average, the education level had progressed: some of the wives attended college. Few of the people of that generation could speak any language but Italian and very few had traveled outside Italy, even though some of my uncles had fought in North Africa.

Then, there came the crisis of the 1970s. In Italy, it was normally defined as the "congiuntura economica" a term that indicated that it was just something temporary, a hiccup that was soon to be forgotten as growth were to restart. It never did. It was the start of the great oil crisis that had started with the peaking of the US oil production. The consequences were reverberating all over the world. It was in this condition that my generation came of age.

Our generation was perhaps the most schooled one in the history of Italy. Many of us had acceded to high university education; we traveled abroad, we all studied English, even though we were not all necessarily proficient in it. But, when we tried to sell our skills in the labor market, it was a tough time. We were clearly overskilled for the kind of jobs that were available in Italy and many of us had to use again the strategy of our ancestors of old, emigrating toward foreign countries. It was the start of what we call today the "brain drain".

I moved to the US for a while. I could have stayed there, but I found a decent position with the University of Florence and I came back. Maybe I did well, maybe not, it is hard to say. Some people of my age followed the same path. Some moved to foreign countries and stayed there, others came back to Italy. Some worked as employees, set up their own companies, opened up shops, they tried what they could with various degrees of success. One thing was sure: our life was way more difficult than it had been for our fathers and grandfathers. Of course, we were not as poor as our ancestors had been in the early 19th century, but supporting a family on a single salary had become nearly unthinkable. None of us could have afforded to own a home, hadn't we inherited the homes of our parents. Fortunately, families were now much smaller and we didn't have to divide these properties among too many heirs.

There came the end of the 20th century and of the 2nd millennium as well. Another generation came of age and they faced difficult times again. They were badly overskilled, as we had been, perhaps even more internationalized than we were; perfect candidates for the brain drain trend. My son followed my example, moving to a foreign country to work; maybe he'll come back as I did, maybe not. It will have to be seen. My daughter still has to find a decent job. The oil crisis faded, then returned. The global peak of oil production ("peak oil") was closer and closer. The Italian economy went up and down but, on the average, down. It was a system that could grow only with low oil prices and the period of high prices that started in the early 2000s was a hard blow for Italy, causing the start of a de-industrialization trend that's still ongoing.

Only agriculture and tourism are still doing well in Italy. That's especially true for Florence, a town that went through a long-term cycle that transformed it from a sleepy provincial town into a sort of giant food court. Tourists are still flocking to Florence in ever-increasing numbers, but they don't seem to be so much interested in art anymore; their focus today seems to be food. It is for this reason that, today, almost everyone I know who is under 30 is either unemployed or working in restaurants, bars, or hotels.

People in Italy keep adapting to changing times as they have always done, everywhere in the world. It is hard to say what the future will bring to us, but one thing is certain: the great cycle of the fossil fuels is waning. The hard times are coming back.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Who is Cassandra?

A wonderful interpretation of the ancient Trojan prophetess in a performance by the theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder on her always interesting blog "Backreaction."  You can find more of her songs at her youtube page.

But who was Cassandra? I can tell you that from personal experience. She appeared to me in person -- well, as a ghost, actually. Let me reproduce the relation of that encounter as I published it in 2015 on my other blog "Chimeras."

The prophetess Cassandra was cursed to be always right in her prophecies, but never to be believed. That places her on a par with modern climate scientists. (image: Cassandra as interpreted by Marvel comics)

I don't have to tell you that this story is a work of fantasy, but several details are taken from modern historiography, for instance the character of the Hittite king Mutawalli, the possible contemporary events of the battle of Kadesh and the fall of Troy, the habits of the Babylonian temple priestesses, and more, including the fact that Hittite is a language vaguely related to English and an attempt of inventing a Sumerian root for the name "Cassandra", whose etymology is unknown. You may also like to know that this story came to my mind, nearly complete, while I was mounting some bookshelves at home; maybe I have to consider it as a gift from the Goddess Ikea.

After that I had googled "summoning spells" on the web, I found one that I liked. I needed some peculiar stuff to perform it, including crocodile liver, platypus' whiskers, bat's earwax and more. But once I got all that (via, I thought I could try. And, immediately, there materialized in front of me, right in my office, a translucent image of a dark haired lady wearing gold jewels and a curious dress. No less than the ghost of Cassandra, the Trojan prophetess. And I could interview her!

Ahem..... Lady Cassandra, I humbly welcome you here....

Oh.... Where am I?

I summoned you, Lady Cassandra.... you are far in the future. More than three thousand years.

Three thousand years in the future, you say? You must have some really powerful magic, here. Where did you learn it?

Well, we have something we call the "Internet"

A library? Plenty of scrolls you must have in there.

Not exactly scrolls, lady Cassandra, but you can find a lot of things in it. But I must say that I am not a great expert at summoning ghosts; it is the first time I try.

You have to be careful with these spells, you know? It is dangerous stuff. You could have summoned some Galla demons of the underworld and they would have shred you to pieces. You are lucky that you summoned me in your first try. But the Gods of the underworld must like you - really! They even granted me the gift of being able to speak your language. A curious language, by the way; it sounds a little like Hittite, you know?

We call it 'English', lady. But you say it sounds like Hittite? I am not sure I understand....

Well, Hittite is a language that I came to learn. But never mind that; evidently the Gods like me to speak this.... this "English". But enough with this "Lady Cassandra". Why do you call me like that?

Well, after all, you are the daughter of King Priam.

The daughter of King Priam? You believe that story?

Well, it is what is said about you. Are you that Cassandra.... ?

Oh, yes, I am that Cassandra - the one they say was the daughter of King Priam of Troy. A lot of things have been said about me, I know; some are even true. But the daughter of King Priam? No, no.... It is just a legend, one of the many. Actually, I came to know Priam very well; and I was in Troy when the Achaeans destroyed it. But I am not Priam's daughter. You see, I was born in Babylon.....

Born in Babylon? Really? Lady Cassandra, this is surprising!

Well, Babylon is where I was born. And I was born as Kashanna before those silly Greeks mangled my name turning it into "Cassandra". But I wasn't born as Cassandra. Besides, I have been in the underworld long enough that I can drop all those silly titles. But, if you really like to call me Lady Cassandra, it is fine for me. So, who are you, by the way?

Oh.. you see, I am nobody of any importance. I was just reading about you, and I was curious.

Enough that you risked being shred to pieces by a Galla demon? You have to be a very curious person.

It is my job to be curious. I am called, well.... we say, "scientist"

Something like a priest? You make prophecies?

Sometimes I make prophecies..... you know, for instance how climate will change in the future.

And are you believed?

Oh... well, that's a big problem.

I know, I know! It happens all the time. Anyway, if you are so curious, I figure I could tell you a few things about me. I don't think that the demons of the underworld will leave me chatting with you for a long time. But as long as the spell lasts, why not?

Thank you, Lady Cassandra. It is an honor to be told this story

Let me see.... I have to start from the beginning. As I told you, I was born in Babylon. And I became a shamhatu of the temple of Ishtar. You probably don't know what a shamhatu is; well, in the old language she would be called a Karkid, or also a Harimtu the way we used to say. But in the end she is a hierodule of the temple. A temple girl, just that. It was my job. The job of the temple girls is to celebrate the goddess of love, Ishtar. We also call her "Inanna" in the old language, in Sumerian, that is. Actually, the work of the temple girl is not so sophisticated, normally. You do what you have to do as a service to the temple; people pay, and they go away happy. But I was, well, it seems that my Ensi,  the high priestess of the temple, thought that I was especially smart; a little more than the average girl; at least. So, I was studying to become a priestess. That meant I had to learn the old language of the Sumerians, to recite the hymns, to perform the sacrifices. It is a complicated job, you know? You have to study a lot and then, when it is time to perform the sacred marriage rite, well, as a priestess it means to have sex with the king, celebrate the sacred marriage of Tammuz and Ishtar - or, as they said in the times of our Sumerian ancestors, Dummuzi and Inanna. So, you have to look all coquettish with the king, wear jewels, sexy clothes, all that..... Ouf.... Not all kings are nice... But all kings like a lot to play the role of Dummuzi in the sacred marriage rite. And a priestess plays the role of Inanna, the goddess. In a way, it is fun.

Now, in my times, the big man, the king, was someone called Muwatalli the second, an Hittite. His father had conquered Babylon earlier on and, at that time, in Babylon we were part of the Hittite Empire. So, the king of the Hittites would come to Babylon once in a while, just to make sure that everything was quiet and that everybody pays their taxes to him. So, he came to Babylon from the capital of the Empire, from Tarhuntassa. Quite a retinue he carried with him. Soldiers, slaves, concubines, servants, cooks, all the rest. And he arrived in time for the rite of the sacred marriage. And you can imagine who was the hierodule who had the task of performing the rite that year. Just the modest me; Cassandra - or rather, the way they called me in Babylon, Kashanna.

So, I performed this rite with King Mutawalli. Not a bad guy, I'd say, although he had this idea that everyone should call him Nergal, which means the God of War, but kings have these bizarre ideas. Anyway, he must have been impressed by our rituals. You know, in Babylon, at that time, we knew how to impress people! Fancy dresses, songs, harps playing, all the rest. But I think he was more impressed by the way the priestesses could perform divinations. Kings are always interested in divinations - they must feel very insecure all the time. Or so I think.

Anyway, King Muwatalli was impressed enough by the whole circus that he wanted to take me to Tarhuntassa. People used to say that I was a nice looking girl at that time, but I am not sure that he wanted me for my looks. I think he was thrilled by the idea of having a personal Babylonian priestess at his court - available anytime. Whatever, I had no choice. I remember that my Ensi, told me that I had to be careful, because I had learned a lot of things in the temple, even how to make prophecies, but that of prophetizing is not an easy job and that I had not learned yet how to make myself believed, and so I risked to be misunderstood all the time. She was right, of course. But I was young and I must say that I was excited at the idea to go with king Muwatalli. You know, I could have given a son to the king, then he would have married me and I would have become Queen, or Empress, or something like that. I knew that it wasn't likely that it would happen; and it didn't happen. But - you know - a girl can always dream!

So, let me keep going. I went with King Muwatalli to Tarhuntassa and I became one of his concubines; he had a lot of them, as kings use to have. He also had a wife, or perhaps more than one - I am not sure. Anyway, I was not to be his wife, just a concubine. Which is fine, after all; you know, the job of the concubine is not very difficult. You just have to be ready when the king wants you, which is not so often, because the king has a lot of concubines. It was a little boring, sure, but after a while you get used to that. After that I had learned some of the local language, Hittite, I spent my time chatting with the other concubines, eating, drinking, and laughing. So, that could have been all of my story; to get old in the king's harem; it is the lot of concubines, But, instead, my destiny was to be completely different.

As a concubine, I was a little special, because I was from Babylon, and I had been a hierodule of the temple of Ishtar and the priests and the priestesses of Babylon have this fame of being able to make prophecies. So, one day, the king summoned me, and I went to see him all dressed up nice, kohl on my eyes, good perfume all over, and gold bracelets on my wrists and my ankles. But that day I found that he didn't want to play Dummuzi and Inanna with me. I saw right away that he was worried, very worried. So, he told me that messengers had come from Egypt and had told him that the Egyptian army was marching North in full strength, toward the lands of the Hittites, led by the young Pharaoh Ramses. And, of course, he had to stop them. So, he asked me to make a prophecy for him. A prophecy about the coming battle.

What could I do? When a king asks you something, you can't refuse. So, I wore the dress of the prophetess, had a liver from a freshly killed goat brought to me and I made this prophecy for him. And it was not a good prophecy. I saw a lot of dead people, plenty of smashed chariots, and the remains of the Hittite army retreating. I told him that, and he got angry at me. He said that he was going to lick these Egyptians as they deserved. And that he would teach this stupid Ramses a good lesson. And that he didn't believe a word of my prophecy. It was what my Ensi had said. That nobody would believe my prophecies; actually she had said it was a curse, and maybe it was true. But what could I do about that? King Muwatalli assembled the army; all the chariots and the infantry, and off he went, marching south.

A few months later, we saw the king coming back. But half of the army was not there anymore. Of course, the king told everyone that it had been a big victory for him, at the city of Kadesh. But the survivors told different stories; people being hacked to pieces and drowning while trying to swim across the Orontes river, pursued by the Egyptians. Later on, there came messengers from Egypt; they said that king Ramses had come back home telling of the great victory he had won against the Hittites.

So, you can understand how things were at the court of Tarhuntassa at that time. The king was worried that the Egyptians would attack again, that the provinces would rebel, that the nobles would try to overthrow him... a mess. And about me.... ow... you can imagine that. It is no good having been right about a king's disgrace. I was afraid that King Mutawalli would kill me; he didn't, but for sure he didn't care any more for me to play Inanna and Dummuzi with him. But at this point there happened something else.

Not that I was supposed to be told about these political things, I was just a concubine. But everything becomes known in court after a while, and so I learned that there had come a messenger from the West, from king Alaksandu of Wilusa. You probably never heard these names, but you can surely understand if I say, instead, "King Priam of Troy". So let me call him Priam, even though the Hittites called him in a different way.

Now, this messenger arrived, and he said that King Priam was in trouble because there was this king Akagamunash, ruler of the Ahhiyawa, who was planning to attack the city of Troy. Even these names, you probably never heard of, unless you speak Hittite. But they are also known as king Agamemnon and the Achaeans; people living across the sea from Anatolia. So, this messenger said that King Priam had always been a faithful vassal of king Mutawalli, and that he would remain a faithful servant forever, and that his sons would be forever faithful servants of King Muwatalli, too, and he kept going like that for quite a long time. Then, while still paying homage to the victorious king of the Hittites, he - king Priam - said that he badly needed some help from King Muwatalli and that the great Hittite ruler was surely able to chase away these barbarian Achaeans with his powerful army as if they were ants pushed away by fire.

That message made king Mutawalli even angrier and more worried than before. He had no army that he could send West to defend Troy. And if he tried to defend Troy, he would have to leave the Eastern provinces unguarded, and that could have been truly the end of him. But if he did nothing, he risked the whole left flank of the Hittite Empire. So, he had this idea: to send me to king Priam.

I don't know if that was to be taken as a joke or if he really thought I could help the Trojans - maybe yes, you know, these Babylonian priestesses have strange powers. Anyway, the king had his scribes write a pompous letter to Priam, saying that because of his faithful service he wanted to reward him with a precious gift, a gift of great value. And he was sending him this wise woman, Kashanna from Babylon, prophetess of renown, and that he - king Muwatalli - was sure that King Priam would appreciate the gift for what it was worth.

All that I came to know later. What happened is that the king summoned me in front of him and he told me "Kashanna, you are going to Wilusa." And I knew nothing of that story and I said, "What?" And he laughed and he said, "Aren't you a prophetess, Kashanna? You should know!" Silly humor of kings. But let me say nothing about that.

One month later, I was there, in front of the walls of Troy, with a caravan that had traveled all the way from Tarhuntassa. And I was in front of King Priam, who came out of the door of the city to meet me. I still remember his face. He was expecting an army to help him, and all what he got was a dressed up concubine escorted by eunuchs and slaves. Oh, that he was disappointed!! But he put on a brave face, and he took me into the city with all the pomp of the occasion.

Now, King Priam was too old to be interested in playing Dummuzi and Inanna with me. But his sons were young enough, and I was the new girl in town, and I think that Priam didn't want anyone to quarrel because of me. There was a war that was going to start, and he didn't want Trojans to kill each other because they were quarreling for me. So, he placed me in the temple of the goddess with the other hierodules. In Troy, things were much different than in Babylon and the hierodules were all supposed to be virgins. Now, it is a bit strange for a hierodule of Isthar to be said to be a virgin. Curious uses they had, there. It would be like saying that Nergal, the God of War, fears blood! And, about those girls being really virgins, well, let me say nothing. But, anyway, the king placed me there, and there I had to stay. And not just that. He adopted me, telling everyone that from then on I was supposed to be his daughter and that any offense against me, any attempt to jeopardize my virginity, would be seen as an insult to the king and to the whole royal family. Well, what could I say? At least I didn't have to worry about too many things.

So, while staying in the temple, I learned a little of the local language - not so different than Hittite. It was then at that time that they started calling me "Cassandra" instead of Kashanna, apparently Cassandra sounded better in their language. Then, I learned about the city and all the buzz there was about this woman, Helen. One of the sons of King Priam, Paris, had snatched her away from her husband, a big Achaean boss called Menelaus. This Helen was supposed to be extremely beautiful, but I can tell you that she was kind of overrated. Anyway, it was none of my business whether this Paris and Helen were playing Dummuzi and Inanna together. But it didn't seem to me that it had been such a good idea to steal this woman from her husband, who was a powerful Achaean King. Now the Achaeans were buzzing like angry bees and that was the reason why Priam was expecting an invasion.

Sure enough, not long after I had arrived, there appeared on the sea a big fleet of those Achaeans, right in front of the city of Troy. They landed, and out of the ships they came with their chariots, swords, lances, and all what is needed for war. And the Trojans, including the hierodules of the temple, went up the walls and looked down to the plain in front of the city and - by the sacred name of the Goddess - there was a huge band of those Achaeans there. Truly an awful lot of them.

Later on, that day, King Priam summoned me and he asked me to perform a divination for him. And I told him, "King, I don't need to make a prophecy for you; haven't you seen how many of these Achaeans there are, out there?" And he told me not to be silly and to make this divination. So, what could I do? I got myself a goat liver and I performed the ritual and I told him what I saw. Which was a lot of blood and the city in flames. And, of course, he wasn't happy. He got angry at me and he started screaming things I didn't understand. So, I told him, "king, don't you think it was a silly idea that your son, Paris, snatched away this girl, this Helen, from her husband? Now he is here with all his friends and he wants her back. So, why don't you give her back to him, and so you save the city?" But he muttered something like "the Trojans' honor is not negotiable!" And he left, angry, saying that he didn't believe a word of my prophecies. As if that was new.

Not that King Priam was stupid, not at all. One problem was that he was old, he couldn't really tell to his people what to do. But there was this idea in Troy that the honor of the city was at stake and that they had to fight, even though they understood that they had done something wrong and that the Achaeans, after all, were right at being angry at them. I know this because I spoke with other people of the city, including one of Priam's sons, a guy called Hector. He seemed to be smarter than the average, but still he didn't budge from that position: they were fighting for the honor of Troy and that was it. So, what could I do about that? I even made a divination for him, and you can imagine what came out: more blood and disasters. And he started looking at me askance as if I was a traitor or a spy; after all I was a foreigner. Don't misunderstand me; these Trojans were not bad people - actually I liked them. But they had this idea that there is no other way to solve problems than hacking at each other with swords. I told them that swords create problems, don't solve them, but they looked at me as if I had been a Galla demon from the underworld, just materialized in front of them. Nothing to do about that.

So, there started the war. In the temple, with the other hierodules, we couldn't see anything of what was going on, out there, but, every evening, the warriors came back to the city and told stories of the battle. We heard of this guy having killed that guy, and of another guy coming up and killing the first in revenge. I figure this is the way wars are; not very interesting for a hierodule. Anyhow, I must say that the Trojans put up quite a good fight, though badly outnumbered. And they trusted their walls, they thought they were safe behind them.

There is a legend that says that the siege of Troy lasted for ten years, but it is not true, it lasted just for a season - what do you think those Achaeans would have eaten if they had to stay in the plain for ten years? But never mind that. One day, someone came up to the temple and he told me, "Cassandra, come! The Achaeans have gone!" So, they told me that the Achaeans had left in a hurry and that it was a big victory for the glorious city of Troy. Everyone was happy about that, but they were also perplexed, because the Achaeans had left something weird in front of the city walls. So, I walked up the battlements and I saw a big wooden thing right in front of the walls. And everyone was wondering about what the hell that was and they asked me because they knew I was a priestess and I had seen a lot of things. And, of course, I knew what it was, I had read about those things; not for nothing we have a big library in the temple of Babylon. So, I told them, "it is a siege engine!" And they looked at me with bovine eyes and they said, "what?" And I told them, "it is made to smash down the city walls!" They looked at each other, shaking their heads. They didn't believe me. What's so new about that?

So, they kept discussing about that big wooden thing and someone came up with this brilliant idea that it was a horse and that it was a votive offering for the God Apollon. And I told them, "Look, you idiots, you must set that thing on fire before it is too late." I was trying to do my best to help them, after all. But they just looked at me, askance and again, they started muttering that I am a foreigner and that I could be a spy and that I should not be trusted. What could I do about that?

So, I went back to the temple, and night came, and I went to sleep and I woke up when I heard a lot of noise, people screaming, and the smell of things burning. I understood immediately what was going on but, again, there was nothing I could do about that. I could only note how silly these people were. And, again, I was sorry for them, they were not bad people, these Trojans. Then, at some moment, the door of the temple was smashed open from the outside and there came inside a hirsute idiot wearing armor and carrying a sword. You can imagine that I was afraid, so I clung to the statue of the Goddess, but the idiot tried to pull me away - I mean, so stupid: if he had wanted to play Dummuzi and Inanna with me, he could have asked in the proper manner, after all I was a temple girl from Babylon, it is my job! Instead, he tried to force me away, I got even more scared and I clung to the statue more, and in the end I got a dislocated shoulder, quite some bruises, and the hirsute idiot carried me away.

You can imagine how angry I was, in addition to the dislocated shoulder, this idiot had managed to desecrate the temple of the Goddess. So I cursed him for good, using some curses that my Ensi had taught me; while telling me that I should never use them, but I did. So, the Goddess had his ship sink at sea, and he drowned. When I came to know that, I was sorry for him, but that was how things went.

So, while Troy was burning, I ended up playing Inanna and Dummuzi with the king of the Achaeans, someone called Agamemnon. I said that I was a good looking girl at that time, so he took me with him on his ship, when he sailed back to his city, Mycenae. Before leaving, he asked me to make a divination for him; which I did - the usual work with a goat's liver. I told him that I saw blood and murder at his home, and he just laughed and he said that his loving wife was waiting for him and that everything would be fine. He didn't believe me. Nothing unusual.

So, we arrived in Mycenae, and Agamemnon took me with him to his palace. His wife, Clytemnestra, didn't like that -- not so much because of me, but because she had a lover, and she didn't want her obnoxious husband back. So she killed Agamemnon by stabbing him while he was taking a bath - loving wife, yes! - and then she ran after me with an axe. She almost got me, but I managed to run away. Later on, the legend spread that said that she had killed me. That was not true, but I was perfectly happy with that. I had had enough troubles with all those stories and I much preferred if people thought I was dead.

That was not the end of the story, but I'll skip several details of what happened after I ran away from Mycenae, chased by a madwoman yielding a battle axe. Let me just say that I managed to meet another Achaean who was also getting back home - Odysseus his name. He took me on board of his ship and he played a little Dummuzi and Inanna with me, then he asked me a prophecy for his return home. I don't have to tell you that I saw bad things there, but he didn't believe me - of course. But this Odysseus was nice enough to land me in Byblos, in Lebanon. There, I found a ride on a caravan that was bringing cedar wood to Babylon.

And there I was, a few years had gone by, but in the meantime my Ensi priestess had died and now they recognized me, and they wanted me to become the new Ensi of the temple. But I didn't want to - I had had enough of prophecies. I stopped being a hierodule, I stopped being a prophetess. I married a tavern keeper in Babylon, I had children and grandchildren, and I died very old. I had a happy life and now I am a ghost. And that's the end of the story of Cassandra - known as Kashanna in Babylon.

Just one more detail; I think it may interest you. One day there came someone to the tavern, an old Greek. He was blind and he had no silver to pay for his beer, but he said he could sing for me in exchange. So, I served him some good beer, and he sang for me the story of the war of Troy. It was nice, but I told him that it was wrong in many details. I tried to tell him that Cassandra was not the real daughter of King Priam, he didn't believe me - imagine that! So, I told him that he could have his beer for free, and might the Goddess bless him. And that's truly the end of this story.

..... Lady Cassandra, it is a nice story to hear. Thank you very much. So, you even meet Homer...

Yes, I remember that Homer was the name of that blind Greek. I think he became famous.

But, Lady Cassandra.. You said that your name in Babylon was.... how did you say?

My name? Kashanna.... it was my name in Babylon.

What does it mean?

Oh... it is an old Sumerian name. Kash is beer and Anna is heaven. So, Kashanna means "heavenly beer."

A very nice name.

Thank you. Do you like beer?

I do. Although sometimes it gives me headaches.

Not the beer I served in my tavern, in Babylon. I am sure that it didn't give headaches to anyone.

I don't think they make that kind of beer any more.... unfortunately. Do you like beer Lady Cassanra?

Well, I used to. But, you know, as a ghost......

Oh.... sorry, I didn't mean...

No, it is all right. It is the way the Gods have arranged things to be. Everyone has to become a ghost. Sooner or later.

But, Lady Cassandra, I was thinking that I might ask you something.....

You want a divination, don't you?

Well, if possible.... I am not sure I can find a goat liver for you, but.....

Oh... don't worry about that. As a ghost I can make divinations even without a goat liver. No problem. And what would you like the divination to be about?

That's very nice of you, Lady Cassandra. So, you know, we have plenty of problems, here. But there is this one we call "climate change".... I am not sure you are familiar with this concept.

Ghosts have special powers, you know? So, I know what you are talking about. It is very dangerous, indeed. More dangerous than having the whole Achaean army lined up in front of the city doors. So, let me make this divination for you.

Well, maybe it takes time...

No.... as I said, we ghosts have special powers. I just have to think about the matter, and the prophecy comes. And, you know, I am sorry, I am really sorry.....


It is not a good prophecy. It is even worse than for Troy. Everything on fire. People dying, blood everywhere. But many, many more.

But am I not supposed to disbelieve you?

Oh... no, that curse was for when I was alive. Now that I am a ghost, not anymore..... I think you believe me. I can see that.

Not that I am happy about that, but....

It seems that people in your time are even more stupid than the Trojans. They just had to give back Helen to the Achaeans to save the city, and they didn't want to do that. And or you, all what you have to do is to stop burning that awful black stuff you keep burning. Is it so difficult?

Apparently, yes. It seems to be very difficult.

I see..... I am sorry that I upset you.

It is all right. I should have expected that.

I am really sorry. I see that you are very upset. I should really go back to the underworld....

No, no... there is no hurry. But, Lady Cassandra, do you really think your prophecies.... I mean, do they always come true?

The Gods send them to me.


See, I was sorry for the people of Troy, and I am sorry for your people, too. You see, maybe you should pray to the Goddess Inanna, maybe she can help you.

I think we should try that, yes.....

Really, I guess it is time for me to go...... Ghosts are not supposed to chat with the living for such a long time. And good luck, you really need it.

Thank you, Lady Cassandra.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Greta Thunberg heavily insulted by an Italian newspaper. She's smashing all the mediatic barriers!

The front page of the Italian newspaper "Libero" of April 18. The main title says "La Rompiballe va dal Papa," translatable as "The pain in the ass Girl goes to see the Pope." The red text "vieni avanti Gretina" elegantly plays on the similarity in Italian of the diminutive "Gretina" (little Greta) and "cretina" (cretin).

"Libero" is an Italian newspaper, in terms of level, it is probably below such egregious insults to human intelligence as the British "The Sun" and the "Daily Mail." Similar, but perhaps even worse, than Fox News in the US. So, being insulted by "Libero" is a mark of honor, to say the least.

But, as I argued in a previous post, these and other insults show that Greta Thunberg is smashing through the media: she is a memetic equivalent of the Chicxulub meteorite and she has a chance to destroy the intellectual dinosaurs that populate the earth nowadays.

Of course, the battle is still to be fought, but it is impressive how fast Greta is growing in the memesphere: note how she is pushing down to irrelevance such evil characters as John Bolton and Mike Pompeo.

Will Greta's action last? Difficult to say: so far she has been able to arouse the worst rabble existing in the mediasphere and they are spitting their lungs out in their screams against her. But they can do much worse than screaming and they will do their best to destroy her and what she represents. It will be a difficult battle for them, though. Maybe Greta is burning her candle on both ends, sure, but it is such a lovely light!

If you can read Italian, at this link you can find a commented list of the insults that Greta received in Italy.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Italy Becoming Poor -- Becoming Poor in Italy. The Effects of the Twilight of the Age of Oil

The living room of the house that my parents built in 1965. An American style suburban home, a true mansion in the hills. I lived there for more than 50 years but now I have to give up: I can't afford it anymore. 

Let me start with a disclaimer: I am not poor. As a middle class, state employee in Italy, I am probably richer than some 90% of the people living on this planet. But wealth and poverty are mainly relative perceptions and the feeling I have is that I am becoming poorer every year, just like the majority of Italians, nowadays.

I know that the various economic indexes say that we are not becoming poorer and that, worldwide, the GDP keeps growing, even in Italy it sort of restarted growing after a period of decline. But something must be wrong with those indexes because we are becoming poorer. It is unmistakable, GDP or not. To explain that, let me tell you the story of the house that my father and my mother built in the 1960s and how I am now forced to leave it because I can't just afford it anymore.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, Italy was going through what was called the "Economic Miracle" at the time. After the disaster of the war, the age of cheap oil had created a booming economy everywhere in the world. In Italy, people enjoyed a wealth that never ever had been seen or even imagined before. Private cars, health care for everybody, vacations at the seaside, the real possibility for most Italians to own a house, and more.

My father and my mother were both high school teachers. They could supplement their salary with their work as architects and by giving private lessons, but surely they were not rich, typical middle-class people. Nevertheless, in the 1960s, they could afford the home of their dreams. Large, a true mansion, it was more than 300 square meters, with an ample living room, terraces, a patio, and a big garden. It also had many fancy details: windows in high-quality wood, door frames in hand-wrought iron, a home-intercom system (very rare at that time), and more. It was in a green area, on the hills near Florence: a pure American-style suburban home.

My parents lived in that house for some 50 years and they both got old and died in there. Then, I inherited it in 2014. As you can imagine, a house that had been inhabited for some years by old people with health problems was not in the best conditions and I had some grand ideas about how to restore and improve it. With my wife, we started doing just that: rebuilding the patio, refurbishing the greenhouse, restoring the living room, repairing the roof, and more. But, after a couple of years, we looked into each other's eyes and we said, "this will never work."

We had spent enough money to make a significant dent in our finances but the effect was barely visible: the house was just too big. To that, you must add the cost of heating and air conditioning of such a large space: in the 1960s, there was no need for air conditioning in Florence, now it is vital to have it. Also, the cost of transportation is a killer. In an American style suburb, you have to rely on private cars and, in the 1960s, it seemed normal to do that. But not anymore: cars have become awfully expensive, traffic jams are everywhere, a disaster. Ah.... and I forgot about taxes: that too is rapidly becoming an impossible burden.

And so we decided to sell the house. We discovered that the value of these suburban mansions had plummeted considerably during the past years, but it was still possible to find buyers. So, we are just now packing up. We expect to leave the old house in the coming weeks, moving to a much smaller apartment downtown where, among other things, we should be able to abandon the obsolete concept of owning a car. It is not a mansion, but it is a nice apartment, not so small and it even has a garden. As I said, wealth and misery are mostly relative terms: surely we are experiencing a certain degree of "de-growth," but it is good to be able to get rid of a lot of the useless stuff that accumulates in decades of living in the same house. It is a little catharsis, it feels good for the spirit. (and it is also a lot of work with cardboard boxes).

What's most impressive is how things changed in 50 years. Theoretically, as a university teacher, my salary is higher than that of my parents, who were both high school teachers. My wife, too, has a pretty decent salary. But there is no way that we could even have dreamed to build or buy the kind of house that I inherited from my parents. Something has changed and the change is deep in the very fabric of the Italian society. And the change has a name: it is the twilight of the age of oil. Wealth and energy are two faces of the same medal: with less net energy available, what Italians could afford 50 years ago, they can't afford anymore.

But saying that depletion is at the basis of our troubles is politically incorrect and unspeakable in the public debate. So, most Italians don't understand the reasons for what's going on. They only perceive that their life is becoming harder and harder, despite what they are being told on TV. Their reaction is to lash out at whoever or whatever they think is the cause of their economic decline: Europe, Angela Merkel, politicians, immigrants, gypsies, foreigners in general. Italy is rapidly becoming a nasty place to live in: racism, hate, fascism, poverty, the rich getting richer and the poor poorer. It is normal. It has already happened, things will be better one day, shall pass, one day, but I am afraid it will not be soon.

It is also impressive to think that I am moving back to the southern area of Florence, the area called "Oltrarno" where the Bardi family has its roots since Medieval times. The Bardis living there were not rich, they were mostly low-class workers and some of them were wretchedly poor, I told this story in a post of two years ago. It was only with the prosperity of the golden age of oil that some Bardis could feel rich enough to afford a mansion in the hills. Not anymore. I suppose that my descendants will live there, just as my ancestors did. It is the great cycle of life.

And here is me, engaged in packing up my collection of science fiction novels. More than one thousand books, most of them in Italian. They have no commercial value but I don't want to throw them away. For the time being, I'll store them in boxes, then -- who knows? -- one day the great cycle of life may have them resurface again.

Note added after publication: Some people wrote to me worried that we are going hungry or that we'll be living in a shack. No, no....  Not at all! As I said, we are moving to a nice apartment in the Southern area of Florence. Look, it even has a bomb shelter in the garden in the form of an ogival thing in heavy concrete. Someone built it during WW2 and, who knows? It may become useful again!

Sunday, April 14, 2019

The Empire of Lies: How we are collapsing in the same way as the Roman Empire did.

(Image source: Wikipedia) The Devil is sometimes said to be "The Father of Lies." It is an apt definition for a creature that doesn't even exist except as a figment of human imagination. Satan is an evil egregore that we ourselves created, a creature that seems to loom larger and larger behind the current chronicles. The recent arrest of Julian Assange is just the latest deed of an Empire that seems bent on truly creating its own reality, something that, in itself, wouldn't necessarily be evil but that becomes so when it implies destroying all other realities, including the only true one. 

Initially, I thought to comment the recent news about Assange by reproducing a post "The Empire of Lies" that I published here about one year ago, where I described how the transition from the Roman Empire to the Middle Ages had taken place, in large part, because people just couldn't trust their Imperial rulers anymore. The Roman Empire had become an empire of lies and it was left to Christianity to rebuild the trust that the old empire had squandered - the Middle Ages were far from being "Dark Ages."  But, eventually, I thought to publish something I had in mind about how the Roman Empire and the modern Western Empire are following parallel trajectories in their habit of telling lies as they move toward their respective Seneca Cliffs.

So, here it is my assessment of the Roman Collapse, based on the excellent book by Dmitry Orlov, "The Five Stages of Collapse." Just one note: in the book, Orlov doesn't describe the post-collapse phase of the Soviet Union that ended with Russia becoming again as a prosperous and united country, as it is nowadays. It was a good example of the "Seneca Rebound" -- there is life after collapse and there will be new life after that the Evil Empire of lies will be gone.

The Five Stages of Collapse of The Roman Empire.

By Ugo Bardi

Dmitry Orlov wrote "The Five Stages of Collapse" as an article in 2008 and as a book in 2013. It was an original idea for that time that of comparing the fall of the Soviet Union with that of the United States. Being an American citizen born in Russia, Orlov could compare the two Empires in detail and note the many similarities that led both to follow the same trajectory, even though the cycle of the American Empire is not over, yet.

To strengthen Orlov's analysis I thought I could apply the same five stages to an older Empire, the Roman one. And, yes, the five stages apply well also to that ancient case. So, here is my take on this subject.

To start, a list of the five Stages of Collapse according to Orlov.

  • Stage 1: Financial collapse.
  • Stage 2: Commercial collapse.
  • Stage 3: Political collapse.
  • Stage 4: Social collapse.
  • Stage 5: Cultural collapse.

Now, let's see how these five stages played out during the fall of the Roman Empire.

Stage 1 – Financial Collapse (3rd century AD). The Roman Empire’s financial system was not as sophisticated as ours, but, just like our civilization, the Empire was based on money. Money was the tool that kept together the state: it was used to pay the legions and the bureaucrats and to make the commercial system supply the cities with food. The Roman money was a physical commodity: it was based on silver and gold, and these metals needed to be mined. It was the Roman control over the rich gold mines of Northern Spain that had created the Empire, but these mines couldn’t last forever. Starting with the 1st century, the cost of mining from depleted veins became an increasingly heavy burden. By the 3rd century, the burden was too heavy for the Empire to carry. It was the financial collapse from which the Empire never could fully recover.

Stage 2 – Commercial Collapse (5th century AD). The Roman Empire had never really been a commercial empire nor a manufacturing society. It was specialized in military conquest and it preferred to import luxury items from abroad, some, such as silk, all the way from the other side of Eurasia, from China. In addition to legions, the Empire produced only two commodities in large amounts: grain and gold. Of these, only gold could be exported to long distances and it soon disappeared to China to pay for the expensive imports the Romans were used to buy. The other product, grain, couldn’t be exported and continued to be traded within the Empire’s border for some time – the supply of grain from the African and Near Eastern granaries was what kept the Roman cities alive, Rome in particular. After the financial collapse, the supply lines remained open because the grain producers had no other market than the Roman cities. But, by mid-5th-century, things got so bad that Rome was sacked first by the Visigoths in 410, and then by the Vandals in 450, It recovered from the 1st sack, but the second was terminal. The Romans had no more money left to pay for the grain they needed, the commercial sea lanes broke down completely, and the Romans starved. It was the end of the Roman commercial system.

Stage 3 – Political Collapse (late 5th century AD). The political collapse went in parallel with the commercial collapse. Already in the late 4th century, the Emperors had become unable to defend Rome from the Barbarian armies marching across the empire and they had retired to the safety of the fortified city of Ravenna. When Rome was sacked, the Emperors didn’t even try to do something to help. The last emperors disappeared by the late 5th century but, already decades before, most people in Europe had stopped caring about whether or not there was some pompous person in Ravenna who wore purple clothes and claimed to be a divine Emperor.

Stage 4 – Social Collapse (5th century AD). The social collapse of the Western Empire went in parallel with the disgregation of the political and commercial structures. Already during the early 5th century, we have evidence that the Roman Elites had gone in “escape mode" – it was not just the emperor who had fled Rome to take refuge in Ravenna, patricians and warlords were on the move with troops, money, and followers to establish feudal domains for themselves where they could. And they were leaving the commoners to fend off by themselves. By the 6th century, the Roman State was gone and most of Europe was in the hands of Germanic warlords.

Stage 5 - Cultural collapse (starting in the 6th century AD). It was very slow. The advent of Christianity, during the 3rd century, had not weakened the Empire's cultural structure, it had been an evolution rather than a break with the past. The collapse of the Empire as a political and military entity didn't change things so much and for centuries people in Europe still considered themselves as Romans, not unlike the Japanese soldiers stranded in remote islands after the end of the second world war .(in Greece, people would still define themselves as "Romans" well into the 19th century). Latin, the imperial language, disappeared as a vernacular language but it was kept alive by the Catholic clergy and it became an indispensable tool that kept Europe culturally united. Latin kept a certain cultural continuity with the ancient empire that was only very gradually lost. It was only with the 18th - 19th centuries that Latin disappeared as the language of the cultural elite, to be replaced by English nowadays.

As you see, Orlov’s list has a certain logic although it needs to be adapted a little to the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. The 5 stages didn’t come one after the other, There was more than a century lapse between the 3rd-century financial collapse (stage 1) and the three subsequent stages arriving together: commercial, political, and social collapse. The 5th stage, the cultural collapse, was a drawn-out story that came later and that lasted for centuries.

How about our civilization? The 1st stage, financial collapse is clearly ongoing, although it is masked by various accounting tricks. The 2nd stage, commercial collapse, instead, hasn't started yet, nor the political collapse: the Empire still maintains a giant and threatening military force, even though its actual efficiency may be doubted. Maybe we are already seeing signs of the 3rd stage, social collapse but, if the Roman case is a guide, these three stages will arrive together.

Then, how about the last stage, cultural collapse? That's a question for a relatively far future. For a while, English will surely remain the universal language, just as Latin used to be after the fall of Rome, while people may keep thinking they still live in a globalized world (maybe it is already an illusion). With English fading, anything may happen and when (and if) a new Empire will rise on the ashes of the American Empire it will be something completely different. We can only say that the universe goes in cycles and that's, evidently, the way things have to be.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Climate Change Mitigation: Is it a Good Idea to Sweep the Carbon Under the Carpet?

Above: our paper recently published in Nature Energy. Our conclusion is that, in terms of energy returns, renewable energy in the form of solar or wind is much better than carbon capture and storage for mitigating of climate change. Sweeping the carbon underground is not a good idea.

We have a little problem: for more than thirty years, the climate scientists of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have been telling us that if we don't stop emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere -- mainly CO2 -- we are in dire trouble. And we have done very little, nearly nothing. As predicted, we ARE in dire trouble.

There is some element showing that things may change: the polls indicate that more and more people are starting to understand the mess we are in and the action of the young Swedish activist Greta Thunberg is making waves in the memesphere. We may be awakening from a 30 years slumber to discover that we have to hurry up and do something. But what?

Not that we lack plans: every IPCC report released includes plans on what we could or should do to avoid the worse. We have to follow a steep trajectory of de-carbonization while, at the same time, maintaining a vital minimum supply of energy to society. But how to do that?

The most common idea floated in these discussions is to use Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS). It is straightforward: instead of releasing into the atmosphere the CO2 emitted by a power plant, you pump it underground, sequestering it in a porous reservoir, maybe one that, earlier on, had contained gas or petroleum.

Is that a good idea? Maybe, but it is also a way of sweeping the problem under the carpet. If our problem is the use of fossil fuels, and it is, then by using CCS we are striving to keep alive the technology we should strive to get rid of.

But what if CCS were the only possible solution to the problem? Then, yes, if we really had no choice we would have to settle for the least bad idea. But is it true that CCS is the only way forward, or is it a failure of the imagination? Wouldn't renewable energy be a better idea?

The way to decide this point is to make a quantitative calculation based on real-world data. CCS doesn't come for free: it is a complex technology with an energy cost. This cost must be factored in comparison with alternatives: it is the concept of energy return for energy invested (EROI). The better the value of the EROI, the better the technology. In the long run, EROI factors trump monetary cost factors: you cannot get energy by printing money.

This is exactly what we did, myself and my colleagues Sgouridis, Csala, Dale, and Chiesa, in a paper we published this week on Nature Energy. We compared the EROI of CCS and renewable energy using the latest available data and a broad range of assumptions, including the need for energy storage of renewables.

The result? Renewables are by now a sufficiently mature technology that for most reasonable assumptions they have a better energy return than fossil-based CCS. You can read our paper at this link. Below you can read some of our conclusions. Here sRE stands for "scalable Renewable Energy", while the "sower's strategy" is the concept that we need to invest some fossil energy in order to build up the renewable infrastructure that will replace the fossil one.
The energy return of using fossil resources with CCS in power generation is lower than the EROEI of most current deployment of sRE. Therefore it would be preferable to direct these fossil resources towards building a self-sustaining renewable energy infrastructure, an approach previously termed “the sower’s strategy. Even when sRE adoption reaches or exceeds 80% our calculations indicate that the system EROEI may be equal to the better EROEI CCS without the additional issues related to the reliance on depleting resources and non-energetic biophysical complications
You may discuss the details of this result and argue that, in some special conditions, CCS may still have a better EROEI than renewables. But the point is that CCS has additional negative points that renewables don't have. CCS is still a largely untested technology on a large scale but the main problem, as I was mentioning at the beginning, is that by adopting CCS we give new life to the presently agonizing fossil fuel technologies. But fossil fuels are doomed by depletion in any case, so what sense does it make investing the few resouces we still have in a technology that doesn't have a future? In the end, CCS is mainly a failure of the imagination: we can and we should do much better than sweeping the carbon underground.

As a final note, our study deals only with CCS as a way to remove carbon from the emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels in power plants. That doesn't mean that we may not need CCS as a way for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This is called "direct atmospheric capture" (DAC) or "Negative Emission Technologies" (NET). Given the situation, it may be the only way to go back to a CO2 concentration low enough to avoid the worst and it might work! But DAC can work only if it is powered by renewables and it is nice to know that we have the technologies we need. If only we'll ever decide to use them.

Link to the paper on Nature Energy.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Russiagate, Climategate, and the Generalized Godwin's law

Above: results obtained using "Google Trends" of the meme diffusion of the "Climategate" story of 2009 compared with the recent buzz about Trump's alleged collusion with the Russian government ("Russiagate"). Both memes show similar search volumes and they may both be subjected to a version of "Godwin's law" that says that in any political discussion the probability that Adolf Hitler will be mentioned tends toward 1. The same seems to be true for the term "Climategate" in any discussion about climate, while "Russiagate" may affect future discussions about Donald Trump. This memetic behavior could be called the "Generalized Godwin's Law."

The "Climategate" story of 2009 was a remarkable example of a successful PR campaign. It was the more remarkable because there was nothing damning, and not even interesting, in the mails exchanged by a group of climate scientists that were diffused over the Web with great fanfare. All we can remember of that "scandal" today are a few sentences -- such as "hide the decline" -- taken out of context and twisted in such a way to create the impression of a hoax that wasn't there. Nevertheless, the concept that the scientists had been doing something bad deeply impacted on the public's opinions. According to Leiserowits et al.
In 2008, 71% of Americans said “yes,” global warming is happening. By 2010, however, this number had dropped to 57%. Meanwhile the proportion that said “no,” global warming is not happening doubled from 10% to 20%.
Over the years, never again the Climategate meme could regain its initial popularity and the attempts to revamp it as "climategate#2" and "Climategate#3" failed miserably. But the meme never disappeared and its influence was long-lived. From a recent Yale survey, we can see that only now -- ten years later - we are returning to a distribution of opinions on climate change similar to that prevalent before Climategate.

Today, Google Trends still report searches being performed for the "Climategate" term. It is a small volume in comparison to the initial peak, but it is there.

That the meme is still alive, although quiescent, is confirmed noting that the latest mention of Climategate on the popular anti-climate science blog by Anthony Watts' is as recent as March 27, 2019. Clearly, the Climategate meme remains stuck in the public's perception. We could imagine that it is subjected to a version of "Godwin's Law" that says that any political discussion is likely to see "Adolf Hitler" mentioned at some moment. In this case, we could speak of a "generalized Godwin's law:" in any discussion, some old and discredited meme is increasingly likely to be mentioned as the discussion continues.

Something similar seems to be taking place with the accusations of treason against Donald Trump, the case called "Russiagate." It is a term still not so popular as "Climategate," but it may become commonplace in the future.In this case, the noise is mainly related to the Special counsel Robert Mueller report on the Russia story. At present, the debate is raging: some claim that Trump did nothing wrong on the basis of the statements of attorney general William Barr, others maintain that Trump is a traitor and think that the full Mueller report will confirm their views.

Just as for the case of Climategate, the discussion is not based on any fact, only on the twisted interpretation of something presented as facts. And it is unlikely that anyone will change their opinions once the full report is released! So, the "Russiagate" meme may well go quiescent and then become one of those entrenched memes that will continue being mentioned according to the generalized Godwin's law.

And memetics remains a fascinating field of science.


A partial list of Generalized Godwin's memes. These are especially stubborn legends which never seem to disappear.

  1.  "But those emails...." (Discussions on climate)
  2.  "How could the towers fall at that speed?" (Discussions on the 9/11 attacks)
  3.  "Renewables can only be extensions of fossil fuels" (Discussions on renewable energy)
  4.  "Are you working for the Russians?" (Discussion about Russia)
  5.  "The Limits to Growth said oil should have run out by 1982" (Discussions on resource depletion)
  6. "Those shadows left by the astronauts on the Moon surface...." (Discussions on the moon landing)
  7. "There should be now 9 feet of horse manure accumulated in New York"  (Discussions on pollution)
  8. And more......

Monday, April 1, 2019

New Research Determines the Ultimate Limits of Renewable Energy: The Bardi Sphere

The future of the Earth as described in the new paper by Ugo Bardi. Image source

A new paper by Ugo Bardi of the University of Florence is in press on the journal "Nature Energy Revolutions." The study was performed with the support of a European financed project under the Horizon 25-25-25. Using sophisticated simulation tools based on system dynamics, the paper builds on previous studies of Ugo Bardi and his coworkers on the market penetration of photovoltaics and other renewable energy systems.

"Our approach in this project," says Bardi, "was to remove some constraints previously considered as unavoidable in the input of the model." The calculations by Bardi indicate that PV plants could replace the current fossil energy production in a very short time: less than 10 years.

Bardi reported that "We started from a concept developed in the 1980s, the "self-replicating lunar factory," an autonomous solar powered machine with the capability of reproducing itself using minerals found in the Earth's crust. From the available data on the energy return of photovoltaic energy, we can assume that the doubling time of the machine can be taken as ca. 2 years. Then, with the assumption of dedicating a "seed" of 1 TW of the current installed global power to bootstrap the first photovoltaic factories, we may calculate that we need just 4 doublings, or 8 years, to reach 16 TW, which is close to the currently installed power of 18 TW."

"The consequences of this innovative approach," continues Bardi, "are more impressive if we examine the longer term. In principle, PV plants could eventually capture the total solar radiation beamed on the Earth surface, about  90,000 TW. With an efficiency of conversion of 15%, the plants could produce a total power of some 15,000 TW, one thousand times larger than the current global power generation. Such a production level could be obtained in less than 30 years from now by the growth of autonomous, self-replicating solar machines." The final result has been described in several comments as the "Bardi Sphere" (even though Bardi doesn't use this term in the paper), in analogy with the older concept of the "Dyson Sphere."

The paper by Bardi goes on to examine the consequences on the Earth's ecosphere of the envisaged rapid growth of PV installations that would result in the whole planetary surface being covered with a uniform layer of PV panels. That would transform the Earth in a different kind of "blue marble." One consequence would be to block the evaporation of water and therefore the formation of clouds.

Bardi's comment on this point is that "Of course, we would see the nearly complete elimination of water in the atmosphere vapor and a considerable cooling as a result. That would be in part compensated by the lower albedo of PV plants which, in any case, work better at lower temperatures, so that the overall effect would be beneficial with respect to energy production. Even better would be a further increase of the solar light reaching the surface as a result of the elimination of the cloud cover. In a longer-term future, the complete elimination of the Earth's atmosphere can be envisaged to increase even more the solar irradiation reaching the surface for further improvement of the energy production rate."

Another source of concern that has been voiced about Bardi's plan is the modifications of the human habitat that would derive from such a large expansion of PV plants. Bardi replies as "Of course, a consequence of the projected expansion of the PV sphere is that planet Earth will not suitable any longer for vertebrate life. But that's not a problem: with so much power available, humankind and its environment can be easily simulated in the form of a program running in a computer. Virtual humankind wouldn't face the same physical constraints to growth existing in the real world, those limits that humans seem to hate so much. They would surely be happier to live in a virtual world where such constraints can be relaxed to the point that it can be said they don't exist."

h/t Paolo Battinelli


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)