Friday, September 20, 2019

The Word for World is Forest

Reposted from "Chimeras".

Every book by Ursula Le Guin is by definition the best book by Ursula Le Guin. And there is no book by Ursula Le Guin that's not the best book by Ursula Le Guin. But this one, "The Word for World is Forest" may be even better than that!

I read "The Word for World is Forest" maybe 30 years ago, but when I took it up again, every word in it was familiar to me, as I had dropped it in a drawer just one week before. Each word of it carried the rumble of thunder and the force of a hurricane, the same effect on me of a presentation by Anastassia Makarieva on the same subject, the forest.

Anastassia Makarieva is a scientist, Ursula Le Guin was a novelist. It doesn't matter. There is a thread, there is a narration, there is a story that pervades humankind's consciousness. I can't remember who said that trees are the pillars that hold the sky, but I am discovering it is true. Not single trees, the forest, it is the biotic pump, an incredible machine that works pumping water from the air above the oceans and distributes it for free to every living creature. The ultimate gift of life.

I can't understand how Ursula Le Guin could grasp these concepts by pure intuition nearly 50 years ago, but she did. Reread many years later, this book is a pure hit to the stomach. It leaves you breathless, but in a state of mind as if you wanted to be punched again and again, for the pure pleasure of the action, the movement, the sensation.

In 1972, something about this subject was already known and the destruction of the Vietnamese forests using the infamous "agent orange" reverberates all over the book. The basis of the story is the Vietnam war, retold in a science fiction setting, with the Aliens in the role of the Vietnamese and the Terrans of the Americans. The Terrans want to destroy the forest to turn it into plantations, the Aliens want to save it. In fact, it is the same story as that  of the "Avatar" movie, it is just that Cameron's debt to Ursula Le Guin is not acknowledged.

But the book is not just a political statement, it is much more than that. Read this passage ("Selver" is the alien leader of the story):

"Sometimes a god comes," Selver said. "He brings a new way to do a thing, or a new thing to be done. A new kind of singing, or a new kind of death. He brings this across the bridge between the dream-time and the world-time. When he has done this, it is done. You cannot take things that exist in the world and try to drive them back into the dream, to hold them inside the dream with walls and pretenses. That is insanity. What is, is.

The meaning of this passage may be evident to you, or you may need to mull it over for a while in your mind. But it is one of the deepest statements I've ever read on the predicament we find ourselves in. The beauty of it is that so much hope is embedded in these words: the world changes, ideas evolve, sometimes taking the form of Gods or god-like entities. It is in this way that the world is changed: when dreams become reality. And some dreams are truly beautiful and full of hope, like this one by Anastassia Makarieva

You see, there is a succession process for forest recovery. We first have shrub grasses after some disturbance like fire, then it takes time for that to be replaced by trees. So if we are lucky our grand grandchildren will be walking in such forest, so this dimension should also be stressed. We are working for the future we are not just securing for ourselves some two dozens years of better comfort. Rather, we send a message through centuries such that people will remember us and walking into this forest along the brookes and rivers they will remember us with gratitude for our consciousness and dedication. (Anastassia Makarieva  ( - min 30:05))

Saturday, September 14, 2019

A New Paradigm for the Earth's Ecosystem: Anastassia Makarieva Speaks about the Biotic Pump in Florence


Everything began with the idea of Charles Darwin of "evolution by natural selection." It was a dangerous idea according to Daniel Dennett, but there was nothing dangerous in it unless you misunderstood it. And we know how it was misunderstood by the various suprematists, racists, white-supremacists, white-man-burdenists, and the like. But Darwin's idea was simple: the biosphere is not static but adapts to changes in the ecosystem. That's all. There is no species in the biosphere that is superior to other species, there is no collective movement towards some kind of "progress" - nothing of the kind. Everything changes to keep the biosphere alive.

Among other things, Darwin's idea (dangerous or not) was the first attempt to understand the functioning of complex systems - among which one of the most complex is the planetary ecosystem. Curiously, the human brain, itself a complex system, often finds it difficult to understand complex systems, there must be some profound reason for this, but let's skip the subject. Rather, the concepts proposed by Darwin have also evolved - or adapted - in time. We are beginning to understand that it is not enough to say that the biosphere adapts to changes, is too simple. This is not how complex systems work. They work through the mechanisms we call feedback where each element of the system influences others.

The step forward came from James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis with their concept of Gaia, a name that describes the fact that the biosphere adapts to changes in the ecosystem and at the same time generates changes in the ecosystem. The adaptation is mutual and two-way. Feedback, in essence.

The concept of Gaia is even more dangerous than that of Darwinian evolution: you can use it as an easy excuse to say that it doesn't matter what we do to the ecosystem, Mother Gaia will take care of everything. Yeah, sure...  But the main problem seems to be that in the current debate opinion leaders are unable to understand the concept of self-regulation of the ecosystem. The debate is broken up into inconsistent and partially (or totally) incompatible ideas. A good example is what is being done in Tuscany, in Italy, where the regional government is declaring the climate emergency while at the same time promoting the construction of a new international airport in Florence. We just can't make it.

But these ideas of ecosystemic regulation are very powerful. If we ever succeed in making them part of the current culture, they offer us the possibility of maneuvering human action within the biosphere and the ecosphere at least limiting the damage, if possible in mutual harmony. At the moment it seems totally impossible, but everything changes and those who don't adapt disappear - as Darwin taught us.

We come now to the work of Gorshkov, Makarieva, and others, who over a couple of decades have developed the concept they call "biotic regulation."  It is a concept similar to that proposed earlier on by Lovelock and Margulis, although Makarieva and Gorshkov are keen to point out that it is not the same thing. Sometimes (but erroneously) Gaia is understood as a "superorganism," a form of biological life. Gaia is not that, but let's skip this topic.

The concept of biotic regulation is a profound synthesis of how the ecosphere works: it emphasizes its regulating power that keeps the ecosystem from straying away from the conditions that make it possible for biological life to exist. From this work comes the idea that the ecosystemic imbalance we call "climate change" is caused only in part by CO2 emissions. Another important factor is the ongoing deforestation.

This is, of course, a controversial position - not to say heretical. Just last week, I read a comment from an Italian climatologist who explicitly said: "The climate crisis is NOT caused by the lack of trees." This would seem to be the prevailing opinion among climatologists in the West, although studies exist (see for example this article in Science of 2016) that show exactly the opposite. The forests cool the Earth not only by sequestering carbon in the form of biomass but because of a biophysical effect related to evapotranspiration. That is, the water evaporates at low altitude from the leaves, causing cooling. It returns the heat when it condenses in the form of clouds, but the heat emissions at high altitudes are more easily dispersed towards space because the main greenhouse gas, the water, exists in very small concentrations. 

Included in the concept of biotic regulation we find the concept of "biotic pump," developed by Gorshkov and Makarieva in 2012, stating that the forests act as "planetary pumping systems" carrying water from the atmosphere above the oceans up to thousands of kilometers inland. The biotic pump mechanism is controversial but, evidently, there must be something that brings water so far into the continents.

Now, everything depends on quantitative factors that are still little known. But, if it is true that the climate is linked in an important way to the forests, and consequently to the biotic pump, then by doing what we are doing to the forests (think of the Amazons), we are destroying one of the fundamental mechanisms of self-regulation of the terrestrial ecosystem. In other words, to fight climate change it is not enough to cut CO2 emissions from fossil fuels, but it is also necessary to reconstitute the forests in an intact form.

The situation is seen as worrisome by a group of Russian researchers who recently produced a document in which they recommend
the care of natural ecosystems and stopping deforestation as the main way to combat climate change. In the document, they refer to fossil fuels with a statement that seems to echo the recent piece by Franzen in the New Yorker, "what if we stopped pretending?" That is, they say, "there are objective technological reasons prohibiting the scenario when our civilization would give up using fossil fuels." Then, they go on, saying,
In such a situation, a complex approach to climate problems is necessary - the one not confined to attempts of curbing the anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions like a transition to renewable energy sources, removal of the already accumulated carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by technological means etc. The complex approach must include restoration and protection of natural systems as a major measure, since their degradation can lead to a climatic collapse irrespective of whether fossil fuel burning continues or not. Any considerable strategic solutions will demand huge resources from the humanity. So such solutions should be mutually consistent otherwise the climate situation will just aggravate (for example, increasing the biofuel production can lead to an intensification of deforestation).
Of course, right now, anything coming from Russia is considered propaganda, if not directly contaminated with Novichok. So, the first knee-jerk reaction to this document is likely to be ideological: of course, we have been told that Russia is little more than a service station disguised as a state, so this document can't be anything but a trick to maintain the profits of the Russian oil oligarchs and their great leader, the arch-villain Vladimir Putin.

But are we sure? That is, can we deny that climate change is not just a problem of CO2 but also of other factors related to the mistreatments we are inflicting on the ecosystem? Can we keep the fiction that all we need to do to stop global warming is a carbon tax or some similar trick? Don't we need to rethink our strategies and admit that, if our approach hasn't worked so far, it will never work? Can we learn something important from Russia? And, if this is the case, does restoring the forests give us a way to at least contain the major damage we are creating by using fossil fuels?

Whatever the case, there is a clear perception gap in the way the situation is seen in the West and in Russia. And we have to understand each other if we are to do something to try to stop the upcoming disaster. We talk about this subject with Anastassia Makarieva in Florence on September 17th. 

Monday, September 9, 2019

Breaking News: Lone Genius Saves the World with his Invention

 Another lone scientist ready to save the world

When I stumbled into this article, I thought it was a joke. You know, the kind that goes, "Scientists find a solution to stop forest fires in the Amazon: all that's needed is to cut the trees and turn it into a giant parking lot!"

But no, it was supposed to be serious. The author of the post informs us in all seriousness that "A self-taught French scientist bankrolled by a French actor has come up with a brilliant solution to the problem of plastic waste. His machine — dubbed "Chrysalis" — converts hard-to-recycle plastic trash into 65% diesel, 18% gasoline, 10% gas and 7% carbon." 

In case you are perplexed, let me explain to you what this guy is proposing to do: 1) you extract oil and gas from the ground. 2) send it to a refinery and turn into plastics 3) manufacture plastic items and sell them, 4) throw away the plastic objects. 5) collect and separate the plastic waste 6) send the stuff to the machine developed by the self-taught French scientist, above. 7) Turn the stuff into liquid/solid/gaseous fuels. 8) separate the fuels. 9) Sell the fuels. 10) Burn them in inefficient thermal engines. And that's called a "brilliant solution to the problem of plastic waste.

Now, what is the efficiency of this 10-step process? We have no data about the efficiency of the Chrysalis process, nor about how the inventor deals with the pollution it must necessarily produce. But, just looking at the number of steps involved, would you think that the whole chain could have an EROEI larger than one, the minimum needed for an energy-producing process to be viable? More likely, it would be way lower.

It doesn't seem that the self-taught genius (or the journalist who wrote the piece) could think it would have been way simpler to burn the plastics in a waste-to-energy plant or, much better: just don't produce so much of the stuff! At which point do people start understanding that there are ways to simplify your life rather than making it more and more complicated?

But, no. The archetype of the lone, smart, intelligent scientist is too powerful in people's minds. Here is another example, rather similar. This time it is two young ladies described as "Students Invent Bacteria That Eat Plastic From The Oceans And Turn It Into Water." Apart from forgetting that plastic is made mainly out of carbon and that turning into "water" only would need some kind of nuclear transmutation, it is the same problem. We have no data on the efficiency and the cost of a process that would imply collecting plastics waste from the oceans, collecting it, treating it, and turning it mainly into additional CO2 that goes into the atmosphere to create global warming. Wouldn't it be simpler just avoiding to produce the stuff that creates so much damage?

These are just two recent examples of hyped press releases all based on the same concept: a lone genius invents something that will save the world. It is an idea that probably comes from the "heroic" period of technology, about one century ago, when inventions were associated with the names of single inventors. So, the light bulb was invented by Thomas Edison, the telegraph by Samuel Morse, the telephone by Alexander Bell, the plane by the Wright brothers, and so on. But that was a different age, when it was possible to build the most advanced plane in the world on the budget of a bicycle repair shop. Today, you could do the same, but a propeller biplane built by amateurs would hardly make a splash in the international aviation market.

Today, the lone genius is as antiquated as biplanes: it is simply because the cheap things have been already invented and now we are left with expensive ones. As a result, most of these modern lone geniuses are inventing things already invented long ago. About the French Chrysalis, I have been hearing about turning plastics into fuel from the time when I was a student in chemistry, in the 1970s and turning carbon-based solids into fuels is a technology known from the time of Franz Fischer and Hans Tropsch, in the 1920s. Maybe the French genius of the article has developed some special trick but allow me to doubt that -- and even if that were the case, the whole idea remains flawed at its roots. 

Similar considerations hold for plastic-eating bacteria. They are a more modern technology, but well known, too. If you search on "Google Scholar," you'll find more than 44,000 papers and patents that mention the concept of "plastics degrading bacteria." The first attempts to develop such bacteria go back to the 1990s. Again, maybe the two young ladies cited in the article discovered some new trick that nobody had imagined before, but I would doubt that and -- all the same -- it is the concept itself that's flawed.

So, we are so desperate about the quandary in which we found ourselves that we can't find anything better than searching for comfort in these stories of scientists described as super-heroes from comic books. But these modern heroes can only reinvent things already invented. It is becoming one more form of pathological science. But how naive can people be?


By the way, about pathological science. Do you remember another flamboyant lone genius, Andrea Rossi, and his cold fusion machine, the E-Cat, that should have saved the world? After nearly ten years from the first announcements, even Rossi seems to have run into doubts about what he is doing because in a recent comment  he stated, 

I arrived to think that cold fusion does not exist. At this point of our theoretical and technological development, after 20 years of hard work, we think that cold fusion does not exist.

But don't expect that he will stop with his claims of being able to produce nearly free energy. If it is not cold fusion, it is something else, but nobody knows what, and he'll go on welding wires at random and boiling water in his strange contraptions while comparing himself to Christopher Columbus.

To conclude, one thing about Rossi that you may have missed: do you know how he started his career of world-saving inventor? Guess what, by doing the same thing that we have been discussing here: turning waste into fuel! Some things just never change.

(h/t Riccardo Zamolo)

Monday, September 2, 2019

Notes on Gaian Theology: Is the Goddess a Superorganism?

One of the avatars of the Goddess. 

The beauty of the Gaian theology is that, unlike for ordinary theology, you don't have to rely only on second-hand reports about the subject of your studies. Gaia exists, and you can perceive Her all around us. Then, the question is: what or who is She? 

As you know, the modern idea of Gaia as a denizen of the Earth's ecosphere was developed in the 1970s by James Lovelock together with Lynn Margulis. Then, it evolved in various versions and it was misunderstood in various ways. For instance, Toby Tyrrell wrote a whole book trying to demonstrate that there is no such a thing as "Gaia." He succeeded only at showing that one can write an entire book on something he doesn't understand at all.

But it is true that some ways of understanding Gaia are untenable in light of what we know about biology. Sometimes we hear of Gaia described as a "superorganism" and sometimes as engaged in optimizing the ecosystem for living beings. That's no good, as explained, for instance in a 2003 text by Victor Gorshkov and Anastassia Makarieva where they correctly note that, if Gaia is supposed to be a superorganism, then She cannot exist.

But, one moment. Who said that Gaia is a superorganism? Besides, what is a superorganism? The term is sufficiently vague that it can be badly misused and misunderstood. In general, it is intended as any assemblage of biological sub-units that don't individually reproduce but rely on specialized organs for that. An eukaryotic cell is a superorganism, just as an ant colony. And if you, dear reader, are a human being, then you are a superorganism, too. But that doesn't mean Gaia is one. For instance, I have in my hands right now Lovelock's 1988 book "The Ages of Gaia" and I can't find the term "superorganism" anywhere referred to Gaia.

Instead, Lovelock had a very clear idea of what Gaia is and he described that with his "Daisyworld" model, a highly simplified ecosystem consisting of daisies that can be black or white. Note that daisies are not two species, as it is stated very clearly in the book, they are a single species with a certain polymorphism in their pigmentation. The Gaian mechanism in Daisyworld consists in the daisies slight modifying the frequency of one of their alleles -- that is the white pigment allele becomes more frequent -- to cope with a gradual increase in the solar irradiation. They do that to maintain their optimal temperature but that also affects the environment. With more white daisies, the albedo of the planet increases, more sunlight is reflected back into space, and the planet cools down. This is rare in the real ecosystem, but some algae may use this strategy. (image from

The daisyworld model is one of those genial ideas that can be completely misunderstood. And it has been misunderstood: it has been seen as a toy, or as irrelevant to the real world, or simply meaningless. But be careful: you may say it is oversimplified, rough, wrong, whatever you want, but all models are wrong and at the same time all models are useful if you understand their limits. And that's the case of Daisyworld a "level zero" model that opens up for us a completely new vision of how the Earth's ecosystem - Gaia - works. A true stroke of genius on the part of James Lovelock, one of the most brilliant minds of our times.

In any case, for what we are discussing here, the point is that the daisies of Daisyworld are NOT a superorganism. They have nothing of the complex structure of sub-units that make a superorganism. They are just a population of loosely coupled individuals. In this case, they act on the environment by slightly modifying their genome, Lovelock had in mind a time scale of millions of years, so there was plenty of time for the genome to change. But that's not a necessary condition, on a shorter time scale we don't need to touch the genome to kick-start the Gaian mechanism. Here is how Gorshkov and Makarieva describe the concept they call "biotic regulation"
Let us suppose that the living objects capable of environmental control are trees, while the regulated global environmental characteristic is atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration. Suppose further that in the course of a major atmospheric disturbance (volcanic eruption, anthropogenic activities) the global atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration becomes significantly higher than the biotic optimum. All trees on the tree-covered planet are thus faced with approximately equal unfavourable environmental conditions. Normal trees immediately begin to work on removing the excessive carbon from the atmosphere in order to restore the optimum concentration of carbon dioxide. This can be done, for example, by depositing the excessive atmospheric carbon in organic form in soil and sediments.
A different Gaian mechanism may not involve the biosphere alone but the whole metasystem formed of the linked geosphere, atmosphere, and biosphere. It is the case of the geological carbon cycle that seems to have been fundamental in keeping the Earth's temperature approximately constant over a time scale of hundreds of millions of years, as I described in a previous post.

None of these mechanisms imply centralized control, altruism, intelligence, planning, or things like that - no superorganism whatsoever. And here She is: Gaia appearing to us. It is an emergent property of the ecosystem that results from internal feedbacks that tend to keep the system in a homeostatic condition.

Back to theology, now we can answer the question posed at the beginning, who is Gaia? As a collective phenomeno of the ecosystem she looks very much like the demons that Jesus encounters in the country of the Gerasenes (Marl 5:9) when they tell him “My name is Legion; for we are many.” So, is Gaia a demoness? Maybe. In ancient times, the concept of daimon (δαίμων) didn't have the ring of evil that later Christianity attributed to it. A daimon is a force, an aggregation, an egregore of nature, generally benevolent although not all-powerful.

Names have the meaning we want to give them: We can say that Gaia is "just" an ecosystem, that she is not a Goddess at all, in the sense that she is definitely not benevolent and merciful, that she is not to be worshipped (of course not!). But there exists also the concept of "reverence" defined as "a feeling or attitude of deep respect tinged with awe." Reverence might be an appropriate attitude towards an enormously powerful creature which (who) can squash humankind into pulp in no time.

And if you don't revere -- worse, if you despise -- the Goddess, woe betide you: the ancient recognized the concept of hubris (ὕβρις) leading to Nemesis (Νέμεσις), the Goddess of vengeance, providing the appropriate retribution to those guilty of overconfidence. Maybe Nemesis is just another name for Gaia, but, eventually, we don't need an angry Goddess to destroy humankind, we seem to be perfectly able to do that ourselves. In the end, it is all in the hands of the Moirai (Μοῖραι) who spin the thread of destiny in their hands.

(h/t Anastassia Makarieva)


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)