Monday, September 30, 2019

The Empty Sea: What Future for the Blue Economy? A New Book by Ugo Bardi and Ilaria Perissi

Cover of the Italian version by Viola, Ilaria's daughter, 7 years old. 

Note of January 2019 -- the Italian version of this book is a little delayed, but still in progress. But the English version is progressing very well, it will be published by Springer.  Both versions should appear more or less together this Spring.

For this Monday post, I can only put together a very short text. We (myself and Ilaria) have been very busy with the last retouched of the manuscript for our new book that we hope to be able to ship to the publisher ("Editori Riuniti") maybe tomorrow. It should be available for purchase before Christmas.

We spent a lot of time on this book, and I can tell you that we like it a lot. We hope that the readers will like it, too. I am sorry that this first version is only in Italian, but we are planning a version in English to appear as soon as possible. In the meantime, let me pass to you a text that should appear on the back cover, translated into English.

What you will learn from this book

  • How humans have been gradually discovering the sea and its resources from the time of our remote ancestors
  • What is the “fisherman’s curse,” why fishermen have always been poor, and they still are!
  • Why humans tend to destroy the resources that make them live: how overexploitation has destroyed many fish stocks and is still destroying them
  • How pollution is affecting the sea: from the great plastic gyre to the rising sea levels
  • Why aquaculture may not be the magic solution to feed the world and what we can expect from the future of fisheries.
  • Can we really extract minerals and energy from the sea? It may be much more difficult than the way it is sometimes described.
  • What are the limits to resources of the sea and what can we realistic expect for the future?

In addition, you will learn how the Neanderthals crossed the sea on their canoes, how it was possible that five men on a small boat could kill a giant whale, what kind of oil did the virgins of the Gospel put into their lamps, how a professor of mathematics, Vito Volterra, discovered the “equations of fishing,” of the return of sailing ships for transportation, and why it has become so easy to be stung by a jellyfish while swimming in the sea. And much, much more. You will also learn how to play the “Moby Dick game,” a simple boardgame that simulates the overexploitation of natural resources.


Tuesday, September 24, 2019

The Return of the Condottieri? How Military Drones are Changing the World

A US  carrier strike group. It costs about 30 billion dollars to build and it may cost around 2-3 billion dollars per year to operate. These values may be optimistic and there are 10 US strike groups in operation today. And, by now, all this hardware may be worth little more than its weight as scrap metal.

Sometimes, the sect I belong to, that of the catastrophists, tends to dismiss technological progress as a minor factor in the trajectory of the world system, mainly determined by climate change and resource depletion. It is a reasonable position: no matter how much money is thrown at welfare queens in white coat in the hope that they'll save the world, they don't seem to be able to do much more than producing overhyped press releases about some wonderful new technology that, one day, maybe, possibly, will solve some kind of problem. But only if they can get more money for further research.

So, technological progress is often little more than a trick to pay the salary of scientists. But it is also true that, sometimes, it does change the world. It is just that it doesn't work the way people expect it to. Technological progress is not a supermarket where you can find everything you want: you pay for it and you bring it home. It is more like fishing in the sea: most of the time you find little, but sometimes you stumble into the big marlin and suddenly you are not an unlucky old man anymore.

Technology changes the world in ways that are usually rapid and destructive, but never completely unexpected. Think of what happened to Blockbuster when they were facing the competition of Netflix. At Blockbuster, they couldn't have missed that their technology was obsolete but they refused to believe that the change could be so rapid. And they were wiped out of the market.

In military matters, this kind of rapid revolutions are even more common and, in this case, being "wiped out" may take a quite literal meaning. Recently, we saw a hint of the things to come with the attacks carried out against the Saudi oil facilities by a swarm of drones launched from Yemen. There are different interpretations of an event that may hide much more than what has been made public. But one thing is clear: drones turned out to be impressively effective in terms of the ratio of damage to cost. They suddenly made conventional planes and carriers obsolete.

It was expected. The rise of military robots was in plain sight for everybody, even though the traditional military organization tried to look the other way -- as it is typical for large organizations entrenched in their previous investments on old technologies. In this sense, the US Navy is not different from Blockbuster, just much bigger. So, a few years ago, in 2012, I wrote a short text for Jorgen Randers' book "2052" under the title of "The Future of War and the Rise of Robots." Of course, I was not the first to examine these matters but I think my text was original in trying to examine how lowering the cost of warfare could affect society. My prediction was that

"Future wars may be more frequent but probably also smaller in scale and less destructive. It is possible that robotic weapons will make the concept of a nation-state obsolete, to be replaced by structures akin to present-day corporations."

I am no prophet, but the first part of this paragraph describes very well what's happening. What's remarkable in the recent attacks against Saudi Arabia is that no human casualties are reported. It was hardware against hardware: machines destroying other machines. For the second part, outsourcing wars to private companies is not yet a clear trend, but it may be starting.

Rethinking to these matters today, I think we can, as usual, learn something from ancient history and modern drones may be starting a trajectory similar to that of firearms in Europe. Firearms have been around for several centuries, they appeared as early as in the 12th century. Initially, they were rather expensive tools that required specialists to operate. Nevertheless, firearms were more effective than the previous dominant technology, that of armored knights, who were wiped out of the battlefield.

During this initial phase, we saw the development of private military organizations, led by the "condottiere" (contractors) which integrated several different fighting methods but tended to be the most advanced in technological terms, especially in the use of firearms. In time, firearms became less and less expensive and could be used by an average conscript. At that point, winning a war became mainly a question of the number of soldiers fielded and nation-states were the only entities able to field and control large armies. So governments took over the war business and private contractors disappeared.

Are drones going through the same trajectory? It could be: for the time being, they are clearly making obsolete the modern equivalent of the old armored knights: the gigantic, expensive, and vulnerable carrier strike groups. But drones require specialized, technical knowledge and that may imply the rise of private companies controlling the drones, maybe selling their services to governments, warlords, religious group, or whoever can pay. That may result in a harsh blow on nation-states that might become as obsolete as medieval noblemen.

And then, what if killer drones become so cheap that everyone can afford them? It is a concept that goes under the name of "slaughterbots," minimalistic drones that have only one purpose: identifying a victim and killing him or her. Which is, after all, the same job that guns do (drones don't kill people, people kill people, using drones). So, will we see killer drones becoming as diffuse as guns among suburbanites in the US? Maybe an amendment to the US constitution involving the right to bear drones? Who knows? The only sure thing is that sometimes technology changes the world in ways that are unexpected to everyone.

(about wars, see also our statistical study on their trends and frequency)

"The Future of War and the Rise of Robots" by Ugo Bardi (2016 revised version)

It is an easy prediction that, forty years from now, human beings will have no place on the battlefield. They will be replaced largely by robotic weapons—a trend already in motion with the rising use of remote-controlled military drones or “UCAVs” (unmanned combat aerial vehicles). We can expect the term “unmanned weapon” to become as odd as the term “horseless carriage” is today. However, it is more difficult to predict how robotic weapons will affect warfare and the structure of society. Future wars may be more frequent but probably also smaller in scale and less destructive. It is possible that robotic weapons will make the concept of a nation-state obsolete, to be replaced by structures akin to present-day corporations. These developments will occur first in rich countries with low levels of corruption and high manpower costs. To examine the future of warfare, we can use the simulation methods used in The Limits to Growth study in 1972—methods that predict behavior within a given system and, specifically, that describe how the world’s economic system transforms natural resources into waste or pollution.

The military sector is part of the industrial system. Typically, during the past few centuries, the military sector has been drawing around 5%–10% of the GDP of most strong states, while in wartime this fraction may rise up to 30%–40% and even more. In wartime, military activities generate an enormous amount of pollution in the form of infrastructure destruction. With the development of more and more destructive weapons, and especially of nuclear ones, the cost of war in terms of pollution may reach values several times larger than the pollution arising from the GDP of any state. So, while the military sector is expected to follow the size of the global economy, wars may accelerate global decline because of the large amount of pollution they generate. A nuclear war might make the most pessimistic Limits to Growth scenarios unfold almost instantly. Unfortunately, starting a war costs much less than cleaning up afterward.
Robotization may negate these trends by reducing the pollution cost of war. Robotic weapons are inherently precision weapons. They can be controlled to reduce collateral damage and, hence, pollution. In this respect, twenty-first-century robots are enormously better than the iconic weapon of the twentieth century: the nuclear warhead. There are other potential advantages as well. Present-day command-and-control systems are based on models developed during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to convince human beings to perform activities that are not natural for them: obey orders, march under enemy fire, and stand still while shelled, to name a few. The methods that accomplish these results are called “drilling.” But drilling is not only a slow and expensive process; it is also very difficult to undo. So, once fighting has started, it is very hard to convince people to stop. Because of this inertia, wars often tend to continue all the way to the near-complete destruction of the weaker side. On the contrary, robots don’t need propaganda. They can be easily reprogrammed, and therefore the decision to engage or disengage in a conflict can be very quick. If wars can be easily stopped as soon as it is clear who is winning, the result can be a great reduction in damage and, hence, pollution.
Overall, wars will become less costly with the use of robots, but that doesn’t mean a reduction in their frequency. New major wars— even nuclear ones—cannot be excluded for the future. Future wars may become more frequent even in the face of a progressive decline of the world’s industrial system caused by resource depletion. We may see war becoming endemic, and dispersed in a large number of small conflicts. Also, the low cost of war may make the distinction between “peacetime” and “wartime” disappear. Future wars may often be classified as police actions against groups defined as “rogue.” These are, clearly, already ongoing trends.
We can expect, therefore, drastic changes in the way wars will be managed and conducted. National armies may be replaced by private contractors deemed more suitable for managing high-tech robotic weapons in the kind of small-scale conflict that may become common in the future. These contractors need not be limited to serve a specific national government and may well sell their services to the highest bidder, as is already happening. Nation-states, then, may also decline and perhaps disappear, as there will be no need for propaganda to convince people to sacrifice themselves in battle. In addition, nation-states have evolved specifically with the purpose of “defending the borders” when the main source of wealth was agriculture, and hence territory. In recent times, however, the focus of war has been more on the control of mineral resources, with several recent wars described, correctly, as oil wars. It may be possible that the structure considered best adapted to managing war and resources, in these conditions will be not the nation-state but something akin to modern corporations— more effective, perhaps, than states in employing high-tech military contractors for small-scale conflicts.
The reduction of the destructive power of war is an improvement on the present situation. When human fighters become hopelessly outmatched by robots, most humans will simply cease to be interesting targets, while robots will be used mainly to fight other robots. Certainly, that doesn’t mean that war will not involve human victims any longer; military and political leaders will remain at risk, and the decision of targeting civilian infrastructure might still be considered an option. Terrorism, that is, military actions purposefully aimed against civilians, may turn out to be an especially suitable task for drones, which might easily be programmed for the extermination of specific ethnic, religious, or political groups. On the other hand, the fact that the actions of robots are recorded and traceable could create a barrier over their indiscriminate use against civilians—a plus when considering the violence, torture, rape, and other typical excesses of human troops. So even if war may become more frequent, it need not become more violent. Indeed, the trend of avoiding as much as possible collateral damage to civilians is already ongoing. It is a positive development after the emphasis on carpet bombing in the twentieth century.
War is so deeply embedded in the global economic system that we can expect it to exist as long as there are natural resources to compete for. Robots won’t change that, as long as they are controlled and programmed by humans. In a more distant future, however, the battlefield experience is likely to give robots increased capabilities to act autonomously and a chance to become something much different from what the term “drone” implies. That doesn’t mean that robots would take over their human masters. But it does mean that humans would not be needed as fighters. How such a society could develop is impossible to say at present. The only certainty is that wars are among the most unpredictable of human activities and that the future is, as always, full of surprises.

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 that, nor about how the Chrysalis machine deals with the pollution it must necessarily produce. But, just looking at the number of steps involved, the whole thing must be awfully complicated and expensive. 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 an existing 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, 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)