Monday, July 29, 2019

The Brief Spring of Global Science: How Climate Science is Affected by Nationalism and Propaganda

The start screen of the "Climadrom" site, kept by Aleksander Zhabskiy. The site is strongly oriented toward rejecting the current scientific interpretation of climate change, labeled as "climate alarmism," "hysteria," and the like. This view seems to be fashionable in Russia in all sectors of society and, nowadays, Russian science seems to have rejected the current understanding of climate change as seen in the West. Yet, we must keep trying to bridge the gap: if people don't speak to each other, the only way they have to communicate is to fight. In this sense, the site by Mr. Zhabskiy has some merit in seeking for a discussion at the international level. I did present my views that he correctly published.

There was a time, during the 19th century, when Darwin's ideas on natural selection were rejected by the whole French science. One reason was the influence of Baron George Cuvier who had interpreted the geological record in terms of mass extinctions periodically caused by planetary catastrophes (see this link to know more about this fascinating story). French scientists saw Cuvier's role in nationalistic terms and thought that it was outrageous that their great master was contradicted by those silly Britons.

The concept of "National Science" was rather common throughout the 19th century and the first half of the 20th. Earlier on, scientists were still communicating with each other in Latin, but that was abandoned with the 19th century and that led to science being more and more constrained by national borders and national cultures. There are many examples of how this evolution affected the scientific debate: one is how the work by Alfred Wegener on continental drift was widely rejected in the 1950s in part because of anti-German sentiments in the West (a link). I could cite examples of how the Fascist government in Italy tried to purify Italian Science from foreign influences in the 1930s. Then, of course, there was "Soviet Science," supposedly different from the decadent capitalist science practiced in the plutocracies collectively known as "The West." An example is how the Ukrainian biologist Trofim Denisovich Lysenko fought Western Genetics.

But all that seemed to be past and gone with the internationalization of science after that the American legions had imposed English on the rest of the world, just as the Roman legions had imposed Latin long before. As a young researcher, in the 1980s, I perfectly understood that science was international: everyone, anywhere in the world, could be a scientist by accepting two fundamental tenets: publish in English and speak in English. International science was egalitarian, global, and suspicious of national borders. The researchers of my age even tended to mock the older generation of scientists because of their limited command of English. The fall of the Soviet Union, in 1991, seemed to give the final push to the full internationalization of science: there would be no more "Soviet Science." Just as the world's economy was being globalized, the same was taking place for science.

That was just a brief spring: today, nationalism is returning everywhere with a vengeance and science is not immune to the trend. I can tell you how the capability of my younger colleagues to speak English seems to be going down every year a little more and one of the shocks of my life was when, a few years ago, one of the students engaged in a laboratory exercise complained to me that the instruction manual of the instrument he was using was in English.

The downfall of English is just a personal impression but it seems clear to me. Some people in Italy seem to find it totally incomprehensible that I keep a blog in English. Actually, I don't know another example of an Italian scientist who keeps a blog in English, except for my coworker Ilaria Perissi. (If you know of other examples, please let me know!)

How about Climate Science? As it is normal, it is an international field that encompasses contributions from all countries with a significant budget in scientific research. But it seems to me that in Italy climate science is especially neglected. Don't get me wrong: there are several excellent climate scientists in Italy, but the average effort in the field is not impressive. Some evidence of the problem is a recent petition denying the anthropogenic origin of global warming, said to have been signed by 90 leading Italian scientists. Actually, the  "leading scientists" are a ragtag band of elderly scientists, scientists with no competence on climate, and people who are not even scientists -- some of them belonging to all three categories at the same time. Nevertheless, that such petition exists is a symptom of deep problems. Much worse was when, in 2015, the president of the Italian Society of Physics (!!) refused to sign a statement on climate science in support of the ongoing Paris negotiations.

So, what's the problem in Italy? Perhaps the same the French had with their Baron Cuvier. In Italy, we have Antonino Zichichi, an elderly particle physicist who has left a strong imprint in Italian physics and who, today well in his 90s, is still active in criticizing climate science in ways that we can define at least questionable. But it is also a question of science being intertwined with politics: the Italian movement called "sovranism" is clearly suspicious of climate science as a foreign scam.

And let's go to Russia. Judging from what can be read in the scientific literature in English, Russia may be in the same conditions as Italy in terms of neglect of climate science, perhaps even worse. With the best of good will, I couldn't locate much in terms of major contributions to climate science by Russian scientists working in Russia, with the work by Gorshkov and Makarieva being the main exception with their concept of the "biotic pump". I asked my colleagues if they could name a serious Russian climate scientist working in Russia and they couldn't. Maybe they are publishing in Russian?

I may be wrong if I say that Russia is neglecting climate science, but there is clearly a problem, there: a much larger one which has to do with politics. I must admit that, If I were a Russian citizen, I would find it hard to dismiss the idea that the whole story of anthropogenic global warming is just one more psyop coming from the West. The Western media are producing so much propaganda and so many lies that the temptation is to disbelieve anything that comes from a Western source. It is the destiny that befell the Moon landings, now widely disbelieved in the very country that was so proud of having sent men to the Moon not long ago. The same destiny may be affecting climate science: despite decades of efforts of thousands of excellent scientists, it tends to fall into the same category of government-sponsored propaganda. All this goes together with the locking up of science and scientists within national boundaries, something that may turn foreign scientists from colleagues into enemy agents and foreign science into political propaganda.

And now? Could we ever recover a unity in science allowing us to act together against climate change? Could we do that before it will be too late? For sure, at present, we are moving in the opposite direction. As usual, when people refuse to talk to each other, the only possible way to communicate is to fight. And, unfortunately, it may be where we are heading to.

I am grateful to Mr. Aleksander Zhabskiy for the useful conversations we had on the matters covered in this post.

Friday, July 26, 2019

The real reason why we didn't go back to the Moon: The decline of spaceflight

With the massive onslaught of fake news we are subjected to, a particularly obnoxious one is that the Moon landings never took place. It is not just a fashionable idiocy, it is a symptom that the whole Western society is rotting at the core.

In a way, the spreading of the "Moon landing was a hoax" legend was to be expected -- it was even unavoidable. The society we call "The West" inflicted itself mortal wounds during the past few decades with the those technologies that go under the name of "perception management," once known as "propadanda" but now much more refined and effective. If you start using this form of black magic, it is a slippery slope that leads you to the illusions of greatness that were voiced during the invasion of Iraq, in 2003. At that moment, someone was so intoxicated by the new power of propaganda that he uttered the well know words "now we create our own reality."

That was the ultimate hubrys and it didn't go unpunished. Reality cannot be created by mere human beings. What they can do is to create illusions that look like reality and that can hide reality so well that noone can discern the true reality anymore. Losing track with reality would be sufficient punishment in itself, but it carries even worse consequence. Once you start creating your own reality, you can't be trusted any more. And if trust is lost, everything is lost. Society becomes an Empire of Lies and it is destined to fade away and disappear.

So, who would believe the story that people landed on the Moon when it was told by the same people who, later on, invented non-existing weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? For everything that happens there is a reason and there is a reason also for the disbelief in the Moon landing.

Will we ever be able to restore trust? Maybe it is too late, maybe it is not even worth trying. Yet, I was thinking that the astronauts who performed the incredible feat of the several travels to the Moon deserve better than being ridiculed, as it seems to be becoming fashionable nowadays. They deserve respect and admiration for their courage and their dedication. For this reason let me address one of the few reasonable questions that may be asked about the story: why didn't we go back to the Moon? Some people are genuinely perplexed on this point: could it be because it really was a fake?

No. There were deep structural reasons that made it impossible for the Western economic system to provide again the same surplus that was used to finance the Moon program. Here, let me reproduce a post that I published in 2015 examining the trends of human spaceflight. (you can read similar considerations in a post by Antonio Turiel). Clearly, we have peaked and we are going down. It is the way civilizations end.

Monday, February 9, 2015

The last astronaut: the cycle of human spaceflight is coming to an end

Smart, dedicated, competent, polyglot, and more; Samantha Cristoforetti seems to have been invented for a "Star Trek" episode. She is shown here at the International Space Station, where she is staying at the moment of publication of this post. Cristoforetti may not be the last astronaut to orbit the earth, but it is possible that the end of what was once called "the space age" will not be far away in the future. (Image credit: ESA/NASA)

I experienced the enthusiasm of the "space-age," starting in the 1960s, and I am not happy to see the end of that old dream. Yet, the data are clear and cannot be ignored: human spaceflight is winding down. Look at the graph, below. It shows the total number of people launched into space each year. (The data are from Wikipedia - more details.)

As you see, the number of people sent to space peaked in the 1990s, following a cycle that can be fitted reasonably well using a bell-shaped curve (a Gaussian, in this case). We have not yet arrived at the end of space travel, but the number of people traveling to space is going down. With the international space station set to be retired in 2020, it may be that the "space-age" is destined to come to an end in the future.

The shape of the cycle can be seen as a "Hubbert curve." This curve typically describes the exploitation of a non-renewable resource; fossil fuels in particular, but it also describes how economic activities are affected by a diminishing availability of resources. In this case, the shape of the curve suggests that we are gradually running out of the surplus resources needed to send humans into space. In a sense, the economics of human spaceflight are like those of the great pyramids of Egypt. These pyramids were expensive and required considerable surplus resources to be built. When the surplus disappeared, no more were built. The shape of the pyramid building curve was, again, Hubbert-like.

This result is not surprising, considering that we are reaching the planetary limits to growth. In part, we are reacting to the diminishing availability of resources by replacing humans with less expensive robots, but sending robots to space is not the same as the "conquest of space" was once conceived. Besides, the decline of space exploration is evident also from other data, see for instance this plot showing the budget available to NASA (from "Starts with a Bang"). Note how the peak in human spaceflights coincides with the peak in the resources destined to space exploration.

If space exploration is directly related to the availability of resources, it is also true that, from the beginning, it was not meant to be just a resource drain. The idea of the conquest of space involved overcoming the limits of the earth's ecosphere and accessing the resources of the whole solar system. Some of the concepts developed in this area were thought explicitly as ways to avoid the dire scenarios laid out in the 1972 study, "The Limits to Growth." Proposals involved placing giant habitats at the Lagrange libration points, where no energy was necessary to keep them there. The idea gained some traction in the 1970s and, in the figure, you see an impression of one of those habitats - the "Bernal Sphere."(image credit: NASA)

Today, we can't look at these old drawings without shaking our heads and wondering how anyone could take them seriously. Yet, these ideas were not impossible in themselves and, in the 1970s, we still had sufficient resources to make it possible some kind of human expansion into space, even though not on the grand scale that some people were proposing. But we missed that occasion and we much preferred to invest our surplus in military toys. Today, we can't even dream of colonizing space anymore.

The space age is not completely over, yet, but it is becoming more and more difficult to sustain the costs of it. Right now, the Russians are still willing to launch to orbit West European astronauts. But how long will they continue to do so while Western Europe is enacting sanctions devised to cripple the Russian economy? Samantha Cristoforetti, brave and competent Italian astronaut, may well be a member of the last patrol of humans orbiting around the earth for a long time to come.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Can you imagine being a whale? A tale of empathy and communication

From left to right in the photo, Ishmael, Captain Ahab, and Captain Peleg. Actually, the top-hatted, harpoon-bearing person in the center is me (Ugo Bardi) giving a talk on sustainability in Bagnaia, Italy, on July 17, 2019. Near me, Albert Bates (right in the photo) and Simone (left in the photo -- sorry that I don't know his last name).

Some people see whales as nothing more than an economic resource. But, for many of us, whales are an endless source of fascination. Herman Melville, in particular, may have been the first person in history who tried to see the world from the viewpoint of a whale, as he does in his "Moby Dick" novel. It is not an easy task, surely, what can whales see with their small eyes, located the sides of their gigantic heads? But, once you start to follow this line of thought, you discover a whole new world where whales see the world not with their eyes but with their sophisticated sonar system. 

Whales and men are truly alien to each other, even though they had a common ancestor, a furry creature living at the time of the dinosaurs, more than 60 million years ago. From then on, the ancestors of the two species lived in completely different environments, unaware of each other, until the hominin known as "homo sapiens" took to the waters and started a true war on whales. It started perhaps as early as in Neolithic times, but its pace and violence enormously increased in recent times. And the whales are losing it. 

Why this war? Why did we need to erase entire populations of whales, such as the "Right Whale" of which just a few are left alive in the Earth's oceans? The question is deeper than it seems and it can't be solved simply in terms of optimizing the exploitation of an economic resource that just happens to be in the form of a giant sea mammal. Who gave us the right to think of these creatures as resources?

The story is long and it is one of the subjects of the book I am writing with my colleague, Ilaria Perissi, that should be titled "The Empty Sea" (sorry that it will be in Italian). Let me just say that I am working on it on the basis of the concept of "biotic regulation" developed by Victor Gorshkov and Anastassia Makarieva. It can be seen as a "strong" version of the concept of Gaia proposed by James Lovelock. The idea is that all the elements of an ecosystem are tightly coupled with each other and it is that the reason for the ability of the ecosystem to maintain itself in relatively stable conditions. 

Something that Makarieva and Gorshkov don't emphasize is that, in order for the system to work as a control system, the elements composing it must communicate with each other. There follows that if we need to maintain the Earth system reasonably stable, we don't just need to optimize whaling for human needs -- we need to communicate with whales. It means, within some limits, becoming a whale, or at least trying to understand what a whale is. It is, in the end, a question of empathy, not of economics.

I don't claim that all this is completely clear to me, as I said, I am still working on it. Anyway, giving talks on things you don't completely understand -- yet -- is a way to improve. This is what I did last week in Bagnaia where, among other things, I had a chance to meet Albert Bates in person. Albert wrote a comment on my talk that I am reproducing below. As he notes, not everything in this story is completely clear. Indeed, learning is always a journey, not a destination

(h/t Cristina)


It was a dried gourd that brought whales to the edge of extinction in the 19th Century. 

by Albert Bates - Resilience 

For some time now I have been writing in this space that our Achilles Heel as a species may have come at a fork along our evolutionary biology pathway many millions of years ago. Relatively few others of our fellow creatures decided to follow our lead, and for good reason. We decided to sweat.

Having sweat glands conferred an immediate advantage, the type of advantage our kind also seems to select for, rather than thinking through the more distant implications. Only primates — such as humans, monkeys, and apes — and horses have skin covered by sweat glands to regulate their body temperature through evaporation of water. Maximum sweat rates of an adult human can be 2-4 liters per hour or 10-14 liters per day. Dogs and cats, which have just a few such glands, accomplish temperature regulation by panting, which evaporates water from the moist lining of their oral cavity. Elephants manage it with capillaries in their giant, flapping ears (Woolly Mammoths, unfortunately, lacked those and were hunted to extinction).

As bipedal athletes, our ancestors could not dash as fast as deer, boar, or zebras but had the advantage of sweat. We could keep up a fast pace longer than our prey could. As the prey overheated, they were forced to slow down. As we overheated, we only needed to refill our water reserve— hence the gourd. It became as important as the spear. Fear, anxiety, stress, and pain can also cause us to sweat because our biological instincts kick in and prepare us to run.

Ugo Bardi teaches physical chemistry at the University of Florence, in Italy. I have been following his writing on biophysical economics, system dynamics modeling, and metahistory for more than 20 years. His blog in English is Cassandra’s legacy. His most recent book in English is Extracted: How the Quest for Global Mining Wealth is Plundering the Planet (Chelsea Green 2014). He was also the author of The Limits to Growth Revisited (Springer 2011).

In essays just this month so far, he seems to have debunked the notion that the Roman Empire fell from climate change, but raised the possibility that its fall caused a climate change; described how Earth’s ecosystem controls climate by the biotic pump; how the mountain Ebih “melted into a vat of sheepfat” in the 3rd Millennium BCE; and how in times of crisis the panicked elite do not react with reasoned debate, but with the usual combination of lies, damned lies, and propaganda.

I was delighted to have the chance to experience Ugo in person when he gave a lovely workshop entitled, La Grande Transizione — Da Dove e Per Dove (The Great Transition — From Where and To Where) at the annual convergence of GEN-Europe in Comune di Bagnaia, Italy, this week. What was surprising was not what he said, because he left many of the questions he raised unanswered, but how he lectures.

Describing how Herman Melville developed his empathy for the whale, Bardi donned Ahab’s top hat and fastened his sister-in-law inside a raincoat so that her arms were replaced by empty sleeves for fins, then set out with a spear to chase her around the tent.

How did these small humans in their rowed boats kill these leviathans, he asks. Why didn’t these mammals, who were much faster and stronger, merely swim away? He holds up the gourd.
In whaling, the gourd takes the form of an empty oak cask, attached to a line. If the harpooner can toss a barbed dart into the thick skin of the whale as it passes his boat, the whale is doomed. The barb may cause some superficial bleeding but is not fatal by itself. Attach a cask to its line, however, and now the whale is unable to dive to safety. As it swims, pursued by the rowboat, the drag of the line wears it out. Eventually, the boat overtakes the whale and delivers the coup de grâce, usually by a lance driven through the creature’s heart.

In a 2004 post to the Oil Drum, Bardi wrote:
In his 1878 book, Alexander Starbuck cited several factors for the decline of production of the whale fisheries in times that for him were recent. He seems to have believed that it was not the extermination of the whales that caused the decline but, rather, the increase of the human population which led to “an increase in consumption beyond the power of the fishery to supply.” But it was also clear to him that the cost and the length of voyages had increased beyond reasonable limits. He did cite “the scarcity and shyness of whales” as a problem, but he stops short of saying that the whale stock was depleted beyond recovery. Most likely, the concept of “extinction” was alien to him, as it was to most of his contemporaries.

Our perception problem with crude oil is equivalent to that of Starbuck, and indeed it is perhaps more severe. The concept of the terminal depletion of a mineral resource is alien to us, since there have been no worldwide precedents. In addition, we are apparently just near the midpoint on the production curve, so we still have to experience the peak, the associated price rise, and the decline. What the future has in store is uncertain: perhaps an energy equivalent of the “rock oil” of Starbuck’s times will materialize in the near future. But if it does not materialize we will have to live with depletion and before long begin to see lamps going out.
So what is our lesson here? Bardi never really got to that, but my takeaway was that we humans have immense technological hubris but little empathy. Bardi said we have developed empathy for honeybees, pandas, and whales but are unlikely to do that for mosquitoes and cockroaches. Unless we can imagine ourselves within the web of life, instead of seeing ourselves as its masters, we are doomed.

I think we risk destruction by many separate routes. We can fill our gourds to slake our thirst, but these days the water is likely contaminated with microplastics. The plastic spear Bardi used to illustrate his whale story is killing more whales now when it is discarded than Ahab could have with forged iron at the tip of a wooden pole.

One real problem we will face stems from that evolutionary decision about sweat glands that our ancestors made.

Orcas, thanks to subcutaneous fat stores, can withstand water temperatures ranging from 0° to 30–35°C (32–95°F). Certain species of tardigrade, including Mi. tardigradum, can withstand and survive temperatures ranging from –273 °C (near absolute zero) to 150 °C in their anhydrobiotic state. Humans have no such tolerance.

Certain sharks, tuna, billfishes, birds and mammals, including ourselves, are endothermic, or “warm-blooded” in common parlance. We have a larger number of mitochondria per cell than ectotherms, enabling us to generate heat by increasing the rate at which we metabolize fats and sugars. If we get too hot, we sweat. If we get too cold, we shiver, sit in strong sunlight, bundle in furs, or burn fat faster.

To sustain higher metabolism, we need several times the food intake of ectothermic animals. Endothermism has its advantages, such as a constant core temperature for optimum enzyme activity. We are not only ourselves under the skin but an entire community. Our human microbiome is optimally advantaged at 37°C (98.6°F).

But endothermism also has disadvantages. If we get too hot we try to slow our metabolic burn. That is what happens during sleep when our core temperature drops typically 1°C. It’s also why the greatest threat to life during heat waves may be during the night when bodies cannot stay cool enough to survive.

When relative humidity is 100%, sweating does nothing to cool us. Hotter air can store more water than colder air. When the human body is exposed to constant temperatures of approximately 55°C (131°F) longer than a few hours, death is almost inevitable. In the early stages, we may try to slow heat generation by ceasing activity. If the heat persists, the effects of our diminished metabolism damage our central nervous system first, especially the brain and those parts concerning consciousness; then heart rate and respiration decrease; judgment becomes impaired as drowsiness supervenes, becoming steadily deeper until we lose consciousness. Mammalian muscle becomes rigid with heat rigor at about 50°C (122°F), with that sudden rigidity of the whole body rendering life impossible.

Humans may catch lethal hyperthermia when a wet-bulb temperature (heat index) is sustained above 35°C (95°F) for six hours. In these conditions, if the temperature of the surroundings is greater than that of the skin, the body actually gains heat by radiation and conduction. Peter Sinclair writes: “Stepped outside yet today? Today in the midwest is what a normal summer day will be like in a few decades.” National Geographic: “In less than 20 years, millions of people in the United States could be exposed to dangerous “off-the-charts” heat conditions of 127 degrees Fahrenheit or more….”

Sadly, hyperthermia occurs in birds, insects, fishes, land animals, and plants of course, too. The sacred lotus (Nelumbo nucifera) can sustain 20 degrees C (36 degrees F) above air temperature while flowering by breaking down starch in their roots, consuming oxygen at a rate of a flying hummingbird, but lacks a similar ability to cool itself. Many plants do not flower, do not fruit, and do not reproduce themselves when it is too warm.

We will need better tools than gourds if we are going to survive this time. We need to discover empathy. And then plant a whole lot of trees.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

A rare glimpse of what the members of the elite think: What are they going to do when things get really tough?

"A lot of these laws and regulations were designed back when the US had a finite amount of energy. Before the new technology was put into place."  Gordon Sondland, US ambassador to the European Union, at the meeting titled "The Fight for EU Energy Security" held on April 11, 2019, in Brussels. Mr Sondland is evidently convinced that the US oil resources are "infinite," or nearly so. Full video of the event.

Scott Fitzgerald said once that "The rich are different from you and me” and Ernst Hemingway is reported to have answered, “Yes, they have more money." Maybe this exchange never took place, but I believe that Hemingway was right: the rich are not really different from ordinary people, apart from having more money. That is, they are not smarter than us. Their riches are the result of luck and of a certain capability of being in the right place at the right moment, including being born from a rich father.

I think that the same conclusion is valid for the category we call the elite. They are not different from you and me: they are not smarter, they just have more power. The concept of elite, of course, is a little vague. Let's say that they are people who have a certain capability of putting into practice their beliefs and so have an impact on the world. The commoners (you and me) cannot do that: at best we can vent our frustrations on the Web: it is what I am doing here!

So, if something important happens in the world, it is because the elites want it to happen. The president of the United States can decide to bomb a foreign country and it will be bombed. Senators and MPs can create laws that will be valid for everyone in the country and it will be applied. The military may lobby to siphon ever-increasing sums of money out of the taxes paid by everyone to build more and more expensive weaponry, and they will normally get it. Rich people may move huge amounts of money to support the extraction of fossil fuels, and that's done, no matter whether it is a good or a bad deal.

As we go down in the hierarchy, these capabilities fade gradually and disappear at the fuzzy boundary that separates the elites from the commoners. The elites and the commoners behave in similar ways, although it may be possible that the members of the elite are more aggressive. But the point remains: some people, up in the hierarchy, can do things we can't do.

I am not inventing all this: it is the "Elite Theory" that says that the world moves the way the rich and the powerful want it to move. It has been well-known for more than a century and probably it was well understood also in ancient times. A recent study that shows how commoners have little or no decisional power in a democracy was published by Gilens and Page in 2014 and their conclusion is that "economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence."

Not surprising, I'd say. But note that there is no such thing as a secret "government of the elite" of people dressing in capes convening in a dark hall in the basement of the White House, in Washington. It is just that the pushes generated by powerful people average to a certain direction according to their prevailing beliefs. And the world moves in that direction.

So, what do the elite think? Maybe we can get a glimpse of that from what Mr. Gordon Sondland said when speaking at a meeting about the EU energy security in April 2019. Among his many dubious statements, one stands above the others: "the US had a finite amount of energy before the new technology was put into place." That's the same as saying that the fossil energy available in the US is now infinite.

Now, Mr. Sondland is surely a member of the US elite. He is a rich man, reported to have donated $ 1 million to support Donald Trump's electoral campaign. No wonder that he was given the prestigious post of US ambassador to the EU. But that was not just a reward for previous credits: Mr. Sondland is perfectly suited for the job of peddling US natural gas to the Europeans. If you have time, listen to him speaking at that meeting. Smooth, self-assured, convincing, the kind of person who could sell whiskers to cats.

The interesting point is that I think Mr. Sondland really believes that the US energy is infinite because of technological progress (*). Of course, I can't get inside his head but it was said in such a matter-of-factly tone that I'd bet he does. It is a belief that fits well with the current debate in the media. Of course, just a fringe believe that hydrocarbons are physically infinite, but most people are now in a phase of complete remotion of the concept that such a thing as "depletion" even exists, to say nothing about being a problem for the foreseeable future. The same is true for climate change.

If we can take Mr. Sondland's sentence as representative of the way the elite think, I guess it proves that they are influenced by their own propaganda. As I said, they are not different from you and me: they watch CNN and Fox News, too. And, like most people, they are unable to reason in quantitative terms, they cannot understand complex systems, they have no knowledge of physics, and they use only extremely crude, intuition-based models.

That, I think, explains a lot of things about what's happening in the world today. The elites think that technology can provide "infinite resources" and that's why their financial branch is pouring enormous amounts of money into a money-losing enterprise such as shale oil. And it also explains why their military branch is so fixated with petty little wars while the ecosystem is going to Hell. They are just acting according to their beliefs.

Of course, that's what's happening now. What if something really big changes the elite's cherished beliefs? How about a new oil crisis? What about a truly gigantic climate-related disaster? That may open up some interesting scenarios. Overall, people's behavior is well described by something that James Schlesinger said, "People have only two modes of operation: complacency and panic." There is no doubt that the elites are in full complacency mode, right now but, if things get really tough, will the elite go into panic mode? And, if so, what happens?

Likely, the panicked elite will not react in a rational way: that's not one of the operating modes of human beings. Most likely, they will keep their trust in technology: if Mr. Sondland believes that it could make fossil fuels infinite, then more technology can solve other problems. If fracking ceases to work we can apply more technology and get liquid fuels out of coal, why not? Or maybe restart an all-out effort with nuclear energy, and damn the radioactive torpedoes. And climate change? Well, the scientists can think of some way of dealing with it: spray something in the atmosphere, put mirrors in orbit, whatever.

It could be much worse: the elite may decide that the problem is just that there are too many people consuming and polluting. Then, they could think of ways to solve it - you guess how. Or they may simply decide that, after all, what do they care about the commoners? They'll just work at saving themselves and the commoners will be left to reach the bottom of the Seneca Cliff, underwater. It is just what the Roman Elite did at the time of the fall of the Roman Empire. And we will see the usual combination of lies, damned lies, and propaganda. Interesting times ahead.

(*) What if Mr. Sondland was lying and he knows perfectly well that the US fossil reserves are not infinite? That changes little in the situation, except that it would indicate that a larger fraction of the elite (including Mr. Sondland) is already in panic mode.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

The First Recorded Ecological Collapse in History and How it Was Misunderstood.

The Goddess Inanna in her full regalia as depicted on a Sumerian cylinder seal. On the left, Ninshubur (the Queen of the East) Inanna's second in command. Inanna is sometimes called the "Goddess of Love," but she was no gentle lady. She was known to tame lions, use weapons, fight her enemies, and, sometimes, devour their corpses. Among her several feats, one is to have smashed an entire mountain with her mighty mace. It may be the first historical record of an ecological collapse

Pushing the world's temperatures over 2°C could well lead to the greatest ecological collapse ever seen in human history, but it wouldn't be the first. There is a long series of human-caused ecological collapses at various scales, often the result of deforestation and erosion of the fertile soil. Perhaps the oldest recorded collapse is one that took place at some moment during the 3rd millennium BCE and that is recorded in a mythologized form by the Sumerian priestess Enheduanna, the first author of texts in history whose name is known to us.

The story of how the mountain Ebih "melted into a vat of sheepfat" is interesting in itself but it is most interesting for what it teaches to us. The Sumerians, apparently, never understood the problem of erosion of the fertile soil and their land -- that we call "Iraq" today -- was gradually turned into the desert that it is today.

It seems that the Sumerians couldn't think of any better idea than faulting supernatural powers for the disaster that was befalling them. On the other hand, it may also be that the punishment that the Goddess meted to the mountain was seen as a curse that humans deserved for having mismanaged the fertile soil. In the second case, the Sumerians had at least a partial understanding of what they were doing but, in the end, they were unable to stop the overexploitation of their land.

In our case, with climate change, we don't seem to be able to do any better than the Sumerians did with erosion and we may be subjected to a much harsher punishment. But we are unable to stop what we are doing and we continue to destroy the things that make us live.


 From "Chimeras", Aug 23, 2015

Inanna and Ebih: a report of an ancient ecological catastrophe?

Ugo Bardi
Dipartimento di Scienze della Terra – Università di Firenze
Polo Scientifico di Sesto Fiorentino,
Sesto Fiorentino (Fi) via della Lastruccia 3, 50019, Italy


“Inanna and Ebih” is the modern title of a text written by the Sumerian poet Enheduanna around the second half of the third millennium BCE. It describes the conflict between the Goddess Inanna and the mountain called Ebih which ends with the destruction of the latter. I suggest that the poem may be interpreted as the result of the way the ancient perceived what we call today an “ecological catastrophe,” that is the result of overgrazing and deforestation of a fragile mountain environment.

1. Introduction

The “Inanna and Ebih” poem was composed around 2300 BCE by the Sumerian poetess Enheduanna and it was rediscovered in the 20th Century (1)⁠. The story told in the poem can be summarized in a few lines. We read first that the Goddess Inanna is preparing to do battle against the mountain "Ebih," because the mountain “showed her no respect”. Before attacking, Inanna goes to see the God An, whom she calls “father,” apparently to ask for his help. An, however, is perplexed and Inanna decides to fight alone; eventually managing to triumph over the mountain. This story must have been well known in Sumerian times; so much that several copies of it have arrived to us, written in cuneiform on clay tablets. So, its meaning must have been clear enough for the people of ancient times and they must have found the story interesting enough that they kept copying it many times, apparently also as a standard exercise for young scribes (2)⁠. 

However, for us, "Inanna and Ebih" is hard to classify as a poem, even baffling. The characters, their conflict, and the very fact of a God battling a mountain appear totally alien to our modern feelings. As a story, it is far away from all the modern canons of what we define as “literature” or “poetry.”

The present paper adds some considerations to the understanding of the story of Inanna and Ebih. It is based on the concept that the ancient faced the same physical problems as we do, for instance, soil erosion, deforestation, and the like. However, their way to see and describe these problems was much different. So, it may be that the story we are considering describes an ancient ecological catastrophe, the destruction of a forest ecosystem, told in a form that is not easy for us to recognize but that appears clear, once understood. The story also may be an echo of a conflict still existing in modern times: the need to preserve natural environments against the attempt of overexploiting them.

The author does not claim to be able to read Sumerian and the present discussion is based on the versions of the story available in modern languages; that is on the one by Betty De Shong Meador (3)⁠, the one available in the electronic corpus of Sumerian Literature (4)⁠, the version in French by Attinger (5)⁠, and the Italian one by Pettinato (6)⁠. These translations were found to differ in some details, but the overall content was the same.

2. Inanna and Ebih: interpreting the myth

There are several ways to interpret ancient myths. Perhaps the best-known one is the “comparative” method, pioneered, among others, by Claude Levi-Strauss (7)⁠. It consists in finding common elements among different myths; as they can be found in different cultures and different ages. These common elements evidence the basic structure of the myth and help understand its general meaning, framing it in its specific context.

In the case of "Inanna and Ebih", we could first look for stories involving Gods engaged in fighting mountains, but such a plot appears to be very rare. A similar plot can be found in the Sumerian text referred to as “Lugal-e,” from the first term it begins with (8)⁠. It goes back to times close to those of Enheduanna, but it is probably later. In Lugal-e, we are told of the divine hero, Ninurta, fighting a demon called “Asag” that turns out to be a “pile of stones”, perhaps to be identified as a mountain with that name. Karahashi has discussed this myth explicitly in comparison with that of Inanna and Ebih, finding several points in common, especially in the terminology used. (8)⁠

Another myth showing some structural similarities is the Greek myth of the Chimera. In this case, the hero is Bellerophon, semi-divine as the son of the God Poseidon and, as a monster, the Chimera has some Chthonic elements, especially in its fiery breath that may lead to identifying it with a mountain. Both Pliny the Elder in his “Natural History” and Maurus Servius Honoratus in his commentary to Virgil's Aeneid state that the Chimera has to be intended as a representation of a volcano. We also find a similar interpretation in Plutarch's “Moralia” (3.16.9) where we are told of how Bellerophon cut away a section of a mountain called “Chimera” which was producing a nasty reflection on the plain; which, in turn, dried up the crops. In an earlier work (9)⁠, the author of the present paper proposed that the source of the myth of the Chimera is to be found in ancient East Asian mythology. It is not impossible that one source could be the story of Inanna and Ebih.

Apart from these stories, mountainous monsters are rare in the world's lore. Some mountains were certainly important in religious terms, such as Mount Olympus for the ancient Greek and Mount Fuji in Japan, up to relatively recent times. Neither, however, were deified in the role given to Ebih in the story we are discussing here. We can find occasional stone monsters in modern fiction; for instance in The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien (1937), we can read the description of stone monsters hurling gigantic boulders against each other. Other fantasy chthonic monsters appear in environments such as role-playing games. On the whole, however, we can say that a plot describable as “God fights mountain” is very rare both in ancient and in modern lore. Hence, it is nearly impossible to use it as a basis for the comparative method of interpretation of the myth of Inanna and Ebih.

At this point, we could attempt to classify the myth of Inanna and Ebih as an example of the generic theme of a shining hero fighting an ugly monster. There are plenty of ancient and modern myths based on this idea; however, such an interpretation misses some of the elements that make the slaying of Ebih so puzzling. Why is the monster a mountain? Why does it enrage Inanna so much? What are the reasons for Inanna's quarrel with the other Gods? Clearly, there is something more in this story than the traditional hero/monster conflict.

A different line of interpretations of the myth is reported by Delnero (2)⁠. It is based on the idea that the story is, actually, a representation of the conflict existing at the time of the author, Enheduanna, between the Akkadic and the Sumerian elements of the Mesopotamian civilization. It is known that such a conflict existed and other poems by Enheduanna may refer to it. For instance, in “nin-me-sarra” (Lady of bright virtues) Enheduanna appears to describe an insurrection that leads to her being chased away from her temple. The interpretation reported by Meador (p. 181) is that the insurgents were led by a man named Lugalanne, or Lugalanna, possibly of Sumerian ethnical origin, against the Akkadian ruler of the time, Naram-Sin, Enheduanna's nephew (3)⁠. 

There is clearly something in these interpretations and the violence that pervades Enheduanna's texts may well be a reflection of the violence that characterized her times. However, there remains the problem that “Inanna and Ebih” is so abstract in the characterization of its protagonists that, if it really describes a local conflict of Enheduanna's times, it is not clear which side should be identified with which element of the myth. Maybe this interpretation was clear to the ancient Sumerians, but that may be reasonably doubted.

Meador (3) provides a deeper interpretation of the story, seeing the poem as an early version of the Biblical myth of the Garden of Eden; with Inanna as the Sumerian equivalent of Eve/Lilith. Whereas, in the Bible, Eve is punished for her action, in the Sumerian myth Inanna takes the initiative and refuses to submit to the father-God; destroying Eden in the process. Meador also sees the story as a reflection of an ancient conflict between a female-dominated pantheon, with Inanna in the role of the Mother Goddess, and an emerging male-dominated pantheon, with An as a fatherly figure, ruling the other gods. This conflict is evident in several other Sumerian and Akkadian mythological stories where, for instance, Inanna is pitted against her brother Gilgamesh. This is a very interesting interpretation as it implies that “Inanna and Ebih” is related to even more ancient myths, perhaps going back to pre-literate times. This seems to be hinted in the text when Inanna is said (in Meador's translation) to “wear the robes of the old, old Gods” (3)⁠. Attinger (5)⁠ and Pettinato (6)⁠ explicitly name these "old Gods" as “Enul and Enŝar” who may be, indeed, Gods of a more ancient age (10)⁠ (p. 53). 

However, even this way of seeing the myth does not explain the meaning of some elements; for instance, if this is the story of a conflict between a mother Goddess and a father God, what is exactly the role of the mountain Ebih?

A different way to look at this myth is the “Euhemeristic” or “rationalistic” way, consisting of explaining the myth in terms of natural phenomenaThis way of interpreting ancient myths was more popular in the past than it is today, but it never went out of fashion. However, modern scholars tend to be much more cautious in explaining (some could say, “explaining away”) the elements of complex stories into banal physical phenomena. When Servius said that the Chimera was a volcano, he may have meant that the ancient were so naïve to mistake a volcano for a lion, but that, of course, is unlikely, to say the least. Rather, the ancient were facing the same physical phenomena as we do and, for them, describing a thunderstorm in terms of actions performed by a God named Zeus was a way to make it consistent with their cultural and mental tools. We do the same in modern times when we ascribe certain events to abstract and perhaps supernatural entities whose existence can be reasonably doubted (e.g. “the free market”).

Regarding Sumerian/Akkadian myths, naturalistic explanations have been proposed by Jacobsen (11)⁠, but not specifically for the story of Inanna and Ebih. However, if we examine the story in light of a possible rationalistic interpretation, we immediately see how the destruction of the mountain hints to an ecological catastrophe caused by deforestation and overgrazing.

In the myth, the Ebih mountain is described as a luxuriant place: fruits hang in its flourishing gardens. It has magnificent trees, lions, wild bulls and deer are abundant, just as wild bulls and grass. Then, we see Inanna attacking the mountain with fire and with a rain of rocks. In another of Enheduanna's poems, translated by Meador as “Lady of Largest Heart” (3)⁠ we read some lines that may refer to Inanna's fight against Ebih:

She crushes the mountain to garbage,
scattering the trash from dawn to dark,
with mighty stones she pelts,
and the mountain,
like a clay pot
with her might
she melts the mountain
into a vat of sheepfat.

It takes little imagination to see that the poem could well be referring here to the degradation of the soil on the slopes of a mountain, turned into mud slipping downhill. Mountain terrains are especially sensitive to soil erosion and the problem is especially severe in hot climates subjected to episodes of heavy rain interspersed with dry periods, as it is the case of the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern climate.

Mesopotamia is a flat land, but its inhabitants briskly traded wood and other forest commodities. Today, most of the mountain ranges of Northern Africa and the Middle East are degraded and eroded in various degrees. But that was not the case in ancient times and it will suffice to note how the mountains of Lebanon were a source of timber for ancient Sumerians (as recorded in the myth of Gilgamesh and Enkidu), whereas in modern times these regions are nearly completely deforested and eroded (12)⁠. From the available data (13)⁠, it appears clear that the mountains of the Zagros region, which are probably where the “Inanna and Ebih” refers to, were still largely forested in Sumerian times, but it is also clear that they were already being deforested; a slow process that has led to the present condition of serious environmental degradation (14)⁠.

The ancient knew about the problem of soil degradation. McNeill and Viniwarter (15) summarized several elements of the question, reporting that already in 2000 BCE, that is at a time not far from that of Enheduanna, farmers in the Middle East had already developed ways to fight soil erosion. They also report how Roman writers, such as Varro, had a keen interest in soil quality and on the need of avoiding erosion. It is also well known how Plato, in his "Critias" (4th century BCE) describes the erosion and the degradation of the mountains of Greece. An interesting pre-industrial document on this issue was written by Matteo Biffi Tolomei around the end of the 18th Century (16)⁠. It tells of the attempt to maintain the forest cover of the Appennini mountains in Tuscany, Italy, and of how the attempt failed after much debate among those who defined themselves the “modern” party (favoring the cutting of the trees) and the “old” party (favoring, instead, to keep the forest cover). This conflict of a few centuries ago is not framed in religious terms, but, in it, we may perhaps see a reflection of the much older conflict of Sumerian time that may be reflected in the story of Inanna and Ebih.
3. Conclusion: religion as a way to interpret the world

Religion in Sumerian times was certainly something very different than the way we intend it nowadays. However, certain elements of the concept of religion are common to all its forms (see e.g. Thorkild Jacobsen (11)⁠ for an exhaustive account of the characteristics and of the historical development of the Sumerian religious view of the world). A religious view of the world may see beyond the simple, short term advantage of an action (cutting trees), to note the long terms disadvantages (soil erosion). Today, we may see this kind of approach in the recent papal encyclical on climate change (17)⁠ and the Islamic declaration on global climate change (18)⁠. That may have been the point also of the history of Inanna “punishing” the mountain named Ebih, something that may be interpreted as destroying the humans who weren't been careful enough to maintain and sustain its ecosystem.


1. Kramer SN. Sumerian Mythology: A Study of the Spiritual and Literary Achievement in the 3rd Millennium B.C. Memoirs of. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society; 1944.
2. Delnero P. Inana and Ebih and the Scribal Tradition. A Common Cultural Heritage: Studies on Mesopotamia and the Biblical World in Honor of Barry L Eichler [Internet]. CDL Press; 2011 [cited 2015 Aug 8]. Available from:
3. Meador B. Inanna, Lady of Largest Heart: Poems of the Sumerian High Priestess Enheduanna [Internet]. Austin (Tx): University of Austin Press; 2000 [cited 2015 Aug 3]. Available from:
4. Black JA, Cunningham G, Fluckiger-Hawker E, Robson E, Zólyomi G. Inana and Ebih: translation [Internet]. The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature. [cited 2015 Aug 3]. Available from:
5. Attinger P. Inana and Ebih. Zeitschrift für Assyriologie und Vor Archäologie [Internet]. 1998;88:164–95. Available from:$002fzava.1998.88.issue-2$002fzava.1998.88.2.164$002fzava.1998.88.2.164.xml
6. Pettinato G. Mitologia sumerica [Internet]. Torino: UTET; 2001 [cited 2015 Aug 9]. Available from:
7. Levi-Strauss C. Myth and Meaning. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, U.K; 1978.
8. Karahashi F. Fighting the Mountain: Some Observations on the Sumerian Myths of Inanna and Ninurta*. J Near East Stud [Internet]. 2004 [cited 2015 Aug 3];63(2):111–8. Available from:
9. Bardi U. Il Libro della Chimera. Firenze, Italy: Polistampa; 2008.
10. Espak P. Some Early Developments in Sumerian God-Lists and Pantheon. In: Kanmerer T, editor. Identities and Societiesin the Ancient East-Mediterranean Regions [Internet]. Munster: Ugarit-Verlag; 2011 [cited 2015 Aug 23]. Available from:
11. Jacobsen T. The Treasures of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion [Internet]. 1978 [cited 2015 Aug 9]. Available from:
12. Mikesell MW. The Deforestation of Mount Lebanon. Geogr Rev [Internet]. 1969;59(1):1–28. Available from:
13. Rowton MB. The Woodlands of Ancient Western Asia. J Near East Stud [Internet]. 1967;26(4):261–177. Available from:
14. Pswarayi-Riddihough I. Forestry in the Middle East and North Africa: An Implementation Review, Volumes 23-521 [Internet]. World Bank Publications; 2002 [cited 2015 Aug 9]. 56 p. Available from:
15. McNeill JR, Winiwarter V. Breaking the sod: humankind, history, and soil. Science [Internet]. 2004 Jun 11 [cited 2015 Aug 18];304(5677):1627–9. Available from:
16. Biffi Tolomei M, Clauser F. Una tragedia ecologica del ’700. Firenze, Italy: Libreria Editrice Fiorentina; 2004. 64 p.
17. Laudato si’ [Internet]. [cited 2015 Aug 11]. Available from:
18. Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change [Internet]. [cited 2015 Aug 23]. Available from:

Thursday, July 4, 2019

How We Keep Destroying the Things that Make us Live: The Biotic Pump and the Raw Power of Science

Dr. Anastassia Makarieva describes the concept of the "Biotic Pump" at the Smart Biotic Pump Summit Prague 2018

This is not an easy video to follow, but I thought to propose it to you nevertheless. Perhaps its most impressive feature is how it is not refined, it is not slick, it uses no tricks. It is just a plain talk of the kind you normally hear at scientific conferences. And yet it gave me an impression of something I would call the "raw power of science." 

It is the power science has to create new ideas, new concepts, new views of seeing the natural world. The biotic pump is not just a refinement of what we know about the Earth's climate. It is a revolutionary way to look at the way the ecosystem works. Dr. Makarieva, here, shows that science produces not only new ideas but relevant ideas. Relevant for our life and for the life of the whole biosphere.  

I know that the concept of biotic pump is controversial and it is in itself a complex concept, not easy to grasp. Not being an expert in atmospheric physics, it is not easy for me to evaluate it in depth. But, if it is true, that is, it is so massive and on such a large scale as Makarieva and Gorshkov propose, then it is mind-boggling. It means that the ecosystem controls the Earth's climate in a much deeper and stronger way than commonly believed. 

According to this view, forests are immense machines that pump water away from the oceans to the land. Forests, not just trees, not grass, not pastures, not cultivated fields. You need a fully grown forest to keep the machine running and to provide the biosphere with the water it needs. And, just for a change, humans are destroying the world's forests. As usual, we keep destroying the things that make us live.

So, if you have 26 minutes, you could do much worse than using them to listen to Dr. Makarieva speaking. But if you limit yourself to the first few minutes, just listen to what she says about professor Gorshkov, who couldn't come to the meeting. She says, "I am just a pale shadow of him." It is a very kind way to honor a man who spent his life honoring the biosphere with his scientific work. 

Victor Gorshkov died last May. Anastassia Makarieva wrote to me that "the biosphere is now orphaned." 

Above, Victor Gorshkov and Anastassia Makarieva

For more data on the biotic pump,  see

A recent paper by a different research group

Monday, July 1, 2019

Did climate change cause the fall of the Roman Empire? No, but what may have actually happened is amazing.

"Vanity Fair" may not be the best source for reliable scientific information, but this cover is typical of an idea that's becoming popular in the memesphere: that the Roman Empire fell because of climate change. Alas, this means stretching the data more than a bit and surprisingly, the opposite may be true: the climate changed because the Empire fell. Read on! (image source)

We have a problem with history: we often try to frame the past as if it were the same as the present. And that means projecting on the ancient our own troubles and fears. Add to this the difficulties we have in dealing with complex systems, the kind of systems that normally behave the way they damn please, and the results are often a complete mess.

The fall of the Roman Empire is a case in point. Maybe you know that in 1984 the German historian Demandt listed 210 (!!) causes proposed for the fall. It is fun to read how people just transferred to the Roman society whatever they were afraid of, from Communism to Culinary Excess.

In more recent times, we started being worried about things that weren't well known in the 1980s. One is the decline of the energy return on energy invested (EROI), which is a true problem for our fossil-based society. It is much less obvious that it was a problem the ancient Romans and I wasn't impressed by the attempts of Thomas Homer-Dixon to paint the Roman collapse as the result of an EROI decline. No data, no proof, just vague analogies.

Nowadays, our worries have shifted to Climate Change and, as you might have expected, the idea that Climate Change can destroy civilization has been projected to the fall of the Roman Empire. You can read a popularized version of the idea on "Vanity Fair" (see above), but also serious researchers seem to have bought into it. For instance, Kyle Harper, professor at the University of Oklahoma, titles his 2017 article "Climate Change Helped Destroy the Roman Empire."

The kind of climate change that's supposed to have destroyed the Roman Empire is different than the current version: we are affected by global warming, in ancient times the problem seems to have been global cooling. Lower temperatures negatively affected agriculture, that caused famines and pestilences, and that reduced the population. Then, bang! The Empire collapsed. The problem with this idea is that the dates, simply, don't match.

I already discussed this matter in a brief post in 2016, but let me go back to the story with more details. The Western Roman Empire officially disappeared during the 5th century, but the real collapse was much earlier. Here are data on lead and silver pollution in Roman times from a 2017 paper by McConnell et al. Likely, these data are a good proxy for the whole Roman economy.

You see how the decline of the Empire started around 100 CE and the collapse was complete around 250 CE, a true Seneca Collapse, faster than the growth that preceded it. That corresponds to what we know from the historians of the time.

Now, how about climate? Do we see something happening during the economic collapse? Here, the data are much less certain, but a "proxy" of temperature can be obtained from measurements on tree rings. Here is a data set published in 2011. More recent data substantially confirm these results.

First of all, note the uncertainty in the data: variations under ca. 0.5 °C are probably not significant. Also note how two different sets of data, marked with the black line and the red line, do not match exactly. But some "dips" seem to indicate significant temperature drops -- here, too, we may have a kind of "Seneca Collapse" of the temperature. The most intense drop occurred in mid 6th century CE with, it seems, a full 2 °C temperature decline.

Now, compare with the data of the previous figure on the Roman economy. Clearly, there was no significant cooling during the economic crash of the 3rd century AD. Temperatures started falling, badly, after the crash. And when temperatures reached their minimum - around the year 600 CE, the Western Roman Empire was only a memory. Of course, if you want to say that "A" caused "B," at least it should be that A precedes B!

Besides, you can see that other correlations just don't work the way they should if you want to blame climate change for something bad that happened to the Roman Empire. Consider the decrease of temperature in mid 1st century BCE. It is marked in the figure as "Roman Conquest," correctly so because Caesar's military campaign in Gallia was in full swing at that time: the Roman Empire was probably at its peak power. If cold is supposed to be able to cause the fall of an empire, it surely didn't do that at that time!

So, we can conclude that, no, the Roman Empire didn't fall because of climate change. It is one more of those "explanations" that don't explain anything and that will become part of Demandt's list, together with "Tiredness of life" and "Escapism."

But let's consider the data a little more in depth. It looks like they are telling something to us. Could it be that the opposite conclusion holds? That is, it could it be that the climate changed because the Empire fell?

Let's follow this line of thought. We know that the Roman collapse was accompanied by a considerable decline in population. It is extremely difficult to have reliable data on this point, but it may be that the maximum European population in Roman times was of some 35 million people at the peak, then it shrunk to only 18 million inhabitants in 650 CE.

Depopulation is both cause and effect of the decline of agriculture and, with less agricultural land, forests can regrow. And, of course, forests tend to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere, that affects climate by lowering temperatures. According to a hypothesis put forward by Victor Gorshkov and Anastassia Makarieva, the effects of forests on climate may be even larger because of the biotic pump mechanism. It is a complicated story: it mainly affects rainfall, but it also cools the land.

If we look at the figure above with forest extents in mind, we see that some things start clicking together. Consider the temperature drop when Caesar conquered Gallia. We have no data on how many people his troops killed, but you can read a chronicle of the war written by Caesar himself, the De Bello Gallico, and you can see that it was no gentleman's war. Caesar's troop not only devastated Gallia but surely also brought back to Rome large numbers of Gauls as slaves. A depopulated Gallia may well have seen its forests regrow. Something similar may have taken place earlier on, during the 3rd century BCE, when the Celts expanded all over Europe.

So, things seem to make sense: depopulation and reforestation may really cool the Earth. But, also, a lot of caution is necessary: the matter is complicated and the data are scant and uncertain. Things become even more complicated with the "Little Ice Age" which also appears in the graph above, starting approximately with the 15th century CE. In this case, in contrast with the previous cases, the cooling occurs in correspondence with strong growth of the European population, although punctuated by various disasters in the form of plagues and famines. Maybe it was the depopulation of the North American continent that caused extensive reforestation and hence cooling. But the data are uncertain at best, with some interpretations explicitly denying this effect and proposing that the cooling may have been related largely to volcanic activity.

As you see, this story both uncertain and fascinating. It will take a lot more work before we'll be able to disentangle the various factors that affected climate in historical times. I don't claim here to have said anything new on these matters, but I was impressed to find so much work pointing at the strong interaction between human beings and climate -- even before fossil hydrocarbons started to be called "fuels".

The Earth's ecosystem is a typical complex system. It reacts to perturbations, even minor ones, sometimes very strongly. Don't expect it to remain stable just because it has been stable up to a certain moment. Remember that a pebble can cause an avalanche and don't forget the straw that broke the camel's back. Then, think of how large is the forcing generated in our times by the combustion of fossil fuels, maybe orders of magnitude larger than anything our ancestors could do. We are moving toward interesting times (as in the ancient Chinese malediction).

(h/t Steve Kurtz, Franco Miglietta, Stefano Caserini, Paolo Gabrielli)


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)