Sunday, October 27, 2019

Report From Iran: A Country we can't Ignore

Above, Ugo Bardi giving a talk at the University of Tehran, October 2019

Iran is a country that maintains something of the fascination it had in ancient times when it was both fabulous and remote. In our times, it remained somewhat remote but also a country that couldn't be ignored as it went through a series of dramatic events, from the revolution of 1979, the hostage crisis, the Iraq-Iran war from 1980 to 1988, and much more. The latest political convulsion was the "Green Revolution" in 2009 that quickly abated, but the country clearly keeps evolving, especially in its relations with the West. It is impossible for anyone, including perhaps the Iranian themselves, to evaluate everything that's going on in their country. For sure, Iran is complex, changing, varied, and fascinating, perhaps as much as it was at the time of Marco Polo when it was the hub of the merchant caravans carrying silk and spice from China. These are some notes from a trip to Tehran where I stayed for a week in October 2019.

The first impression you have when you arrive in Tehran is of chaos: heavy traffic, throngs of people, movement and noise everywhere. But it takes little time to understand that this is friendly chaos. Especially if you happen to be Italian, you find yourself rapidly at ease in the confusion. Tehran is appropriately exotic in the bazaars, but also quiet in the suburbs, and very modern in places such as the shopping center near the Azadi lake, where you could think you are in Paris.

One thing about Iran is that it is a remarkably friendly place. That's not unexpected: Most people everywhere in the world are naturally friendly if they don't feel threatened, or feel that they are being swindled or chided. They are also normally able to separate real foreign visitors from the image their TV presents to them. If, as a visitor, you approach the local people in a friendly manner, they will almost always reciprocate in the same way. In Iran, Western governments are often perceived (for good reasons) as evil entities, but that doesn't apply to individual foreign visitors.

Just to give you some idea of the Iranian attitude, let me tell you of when I was sitting with my wife at a local restaurant (by the way, if you happen to be in Tehran, try the Reza Loghme on the Mirza Kurchak Khan street: Iranian fast food, absolutely great!). There, we entered in a conversation with another customer who turned out to be a civil engineer. When he learned that we were heading to see the Abgineh (glassware) Museum of Tehran (again, a highly recommended place to visit), he accompanied us there and then he insisted to pay our tickets in order, he said, "to show us the traditional Iranian hospitality." That surely takes Iran several notches upward in the classification of friendly countries, but it was not the only example in our experience in Tehran. That friendliness may also extend to American visitors, the Iranians were friendly with them even at the time when the US was referred to as the "Great Satan," as Terence Ward reports in his book "Searching for Hussein" (2003).

This said, Iran doesn't seem to be just friendly to foreigners, it seems to be friendly also to Iranians -- at least these days. Of course, for a foreigner it may be difficult to detect social tensions brewing below the surface but what I can tell you is that in Tehran there is no heavy security apparatus detectable, unlike what you can see in many Western cities. We were taken to see from outside the residence of president Hassan Rouhani in a building in the Northern Area of Tehran: the security of the President seemed to require only a few policemen standing around the building. Of course, there may have been other, invisible, security measures. But it is impressive how they don't seem to expect serious troubles.

In terms of social tensions, the obvious thing that comes to the mind of a Westerner about Iran, just as for all Islamic countries, is the status of women. Iran and Saudi Arabia are probably the only states in the world enforcing by law the Islamic tradition for women to cover their heads. Yet, the time when women were harassed by the police if they didn't cover their heads well enough seems to be a thing of the past. In Iran, if a woman likes to wear a black chador that makes her look like a European nun, she is free to do so and many do. But most Iranian women, at least in Tehran, tend to interpret the rules creatively. The headscarf, the hijab, is worn halfway over the head and it is often light and brightly colored. The dress is also colored and decorated, women also wear jewelry and makeup. The result is often very elegant and lively. My wife reports that after a few days in Tehran she felt completely at ease wearing the hijab and that she even felt a little strange when she had to abandon it, coming back to Europe.

Of course, the impressions of a week may be misleading, but what I noted in terms of the social structure of the country seems to be consistent with the data. In Iran, women are still a minority in terms of being part of the workforce, but their role is important and larger than in other Middle-Eastern countries. Also, the gap seems to be rapidly closing. Iran also remains a relatively poor country: in terms of GDP per person (PPP), it ranks at about half that of Italy and one third the value of the US. Nevertheless, in terms of social equality, as measured by the Gini coefficient, Iran does better than the United States, although not as well as Italy. Iranians also have a good public health service

A country's educational system is a good indicator of social cohesion: dictatorial governments have no interest in an educated citizenship -- they rather tend to exterminate their citizens or use them as cannon fodder. Iran, instead, shines in this area with the state providing free of charge education for all citizens with impressive results. Some 4.5 million students enrolled in university courses, which is only slightly less than in the US in relative terms and much larger than in Italy. Iran has one of the largest ratios of students to the workforce anywhere in the world.

Of course, an evaluation of the Iranian education system would have to consider the scientific level of the universities and it is true that, right now, they don't score as high as Western ones. But the universities I visited seemed to be staffed by competent people and the research level was good. Here, one has to take into account the language barrier that often puts non-native English speakers at a disadvantage in the competition for space in the best scientific journals. I noted also that the research institutes I visited were massively staffed with women although, as it happens in Europe, the top-level positions are still mostly in the hands of men. That may rapidly change, though.

Islam is also part of the national Iranian culture: visiting Iran at the time of the Arba'een celebration gives you some idea of the importance of some religious traditions: you need not be a Shi'a Muslim to understand how deep the feelings for these traditions run and how fascinating they can be. Nevertheless, I would say that the current Iranian society is remarkably secularized. I can't quantify that, just take it as a personal impression.

And now something about the perspectives. The first question is population: It reached 80 millions and it continues to grow, although at a progressively slower pace. Iran is moving toward its demographic transition, but it is not there, yet. That may be a serious problem in the future: Iran is a large country but mostly dry and only a fraction of its land is arable. The result is that food must be imported from abroad. So far, this has not been a problem: globalization has made it possible to buy food anywhere and the result has been the near disappearing of hunger and famines worldwide. But things keep changing: globalization is on its way out and we may see a return of the old maxim that says "thou shalt starve thy neighbor into submission."

Recently, The US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, seemed to suggest that starving Iranians was the objective of the US sanctions, although he later denied that. In any case, the food supply problem is recognized by the Iranian government, hence the emphasis on research on desalination and water management (incidentally, the reason why I was in Tehran). Desalinated water, so far, has been way too expensive to be used in agriculture, but that may change in the future and, in any case, water management is a vital element in the future of Iran.

Then, there is the question of oil production. Here are the latest available data for Iran. (From "" -- the Y scale is in thousands of barrels per day)

At its peak, around 1978, the Iranian oil production had reached about 6 million barrels per day making Iran one of the main oil producers in the world. After the revolution and the war, it reached a certain stability at near 4 Mb/day. But you see the effect of the economic sanctions: Iran's production was nearly halved and exports nearly zeroed. At the current prices of oil, it is a loss of revenue of tens of billions of dollars, not at all negligible for a GDP around 500 billion dollars.

The Iranian economy can survive the loss of revenues from oil: it is surviving it right now, although with difficulties. But, in a certain sense, the sanctions are not completely bad: they can be seen as a stimulus to move in a direction in which Iran has to move anyway. The national oil resources are not infinite and the gradual loss of demand worldwide is going to bring Iran to a point where it will have to cease to be an oil-based economy. These are the same challenges faced by all countries in the world: abandon oil and move to an economy based on renewable energy. It is a difficult challenge that won't probably be met without trauma and suffering, but it is not a choice. Willing or not, we all have to go in that direction.

One problem, here, is the evident lack of what we call "environmental awareness." Of course, university researchers and teachers in Iran are aware of climate change, but most people seem to think that it is just one more Western hoax concocted to force them into submission. Seeing the world from the Iranian side, I can't fault them for being oversuspicious. In recent times, Western governments have been doing their best to lose even the last shreds of credibility they had managed to maintain. And the results are easily detectable: I asked a group of about 30 students of the faculty of engineering of Tehran University what they thought of Greta Thunberg. It turned out that none of them had any idea of who she was.

Overall, though, I am not pessimistic about the future of Iran. Facing a difficult challenge, Iran has some advantages. One is that of being at the hub of the nascent Eurasian exchange zone. Another is to be a well-insolated country that makes it especially suitable for solar energy. In the end, I would agree with the idea proposed by Hamid Dabashi in "Iran, the Birth of a Nation" (2016) where he notes that Iran was a nation before it was a state. The Iranian nation is kept together by strong cultural traditions and linguistic ties. It has survived tremendous challenges in the recent past, it has a chance to survive the new ones that will come.

Acknowledgments: Ali Asghar Alamolhoda, Ati and Soroor Coliaei, Grazia Maccarone, Fereshteh Moradi, Mohammad Mohammadi Hejr,  Hossein and Samaneh Mousazadeh, Bijan Rahimi, and several others.

Monday, October 21, 2019

The West Fades. The Center Quietly Returns: The New Silk Road

An image from the workshop on desalination and mineral extraction from seawater organized by Sharif University in Teheran this week. In the photo, you can see people from Oman (3), Iran (3), South Africa (1), India (1), and Bangladesh (1). It was not only a multi-ethnical group but also a Eurasia-centered one. It gave me some impression of the shifting balance of power in the world, from the West to the Center, and inspired this post. 

If you think about that, it is funny that we tend to define ourselves as "Westerners." Most civilizations and cultures in history have tended to see themselves as the center of the world, just think of China: it is supposed to be "the Middle Kingdom". This idea that we are on an edge is something that we've probably inherited from the ancient Greeks, when everything west of them was seen as a land of mystery, peopled with savages, monsters, and Gods. 

But the fact that we call ourselves Westerners doesn't mean we think we are a periphery of the world, not at all. Most Westerners seem to cherish the idea that we are the real center, the most advanced, enlightened, and powerful area of the world. The rest of is, well, it is mostly inhabited by turban-wearing barbarians, savage tribes, or, at best, ancient and decadent empires on their way to dissolution. These Non-Westerners need our guidance if they have to attain the nirvana as defined here: democracy and economic liberism.

But the world is vast and things change. Empires are born, reach their pinnacle of greatness and then collapse while still claiming that they will last forever. That may be the destiny of that great world empire, the "Western Empire," that started with the British and continues with the Americans. The center of the world may well be returning to what it used to be up to a few centuries ago, gravitating around that "geographical center" sometimes said to be in Egypt, sometimes in Turkey, sometimes in Syria. It doesn't matter where it is exactly: it is at the heart of the gigantic landmass of Eurasia, somewhere in the region we call the "Middle East."

Chess players know how important it is to dominate the center if they want to dominate the game. Not for nothing, indeed, the game of Chess was developed not far from the center of the world: somewhere in Persia. But to dominate the center, you need to be able to move in and out of it and in the real world that takes roads. In ancient times, the center of Eurasia was crossed by the Silk Road: a long and winding road that went through mountains and deserts, including also coastal sea lanes. It was the realm of commercial caravans with their camels slowly marching from one edge to the other of a Eurasian supercontinent and to Africa as well, carrying gold, silver, ivory, spices, silk, and much more.

The Silk Road lost importance and then disappeared with the arrival of the Westerners who monopolized commerce with their ships and power with their armies. The concept of national borders had never existed before but it was the death toll for the old caravans, now confined within states. Commerce was taken over by Westerners with their container ships, crossing the oceans in a gigantic network that created the empire we call sometimes "Globalization." Not just a commercial empire but a military one as well, dominated by the mighty armies of the West.

Empires are run by a combination of commerce and military power and it is the balance of costs and profits that keeps them together. The old Silk Road never turned into a continental empire because it was just too expensive to move armies along it on long distances. But the agile camel caravans provided the link that was needed for the road to remain open: a low-cost system that didn't need a military governance system and couldn't afford it anyway, Instead, the modern sea lanes of the current World Empire are kept together and controlled by the mighty carrier strike groups of the American Navy: nothing and nobody would even dream of challenging their power, so far. But the carrier group is a behemot that needs to be fed, and for how long will that be possible?

Things keep changing, as they have always been doing. The old Silk Road is being revamped with the name of the "Belt and Road" initiative. It is the revenge of the land over the sea: the lanes of the new silk road are nearly invulnerable to the naval power of the Westerners if nothing else just for the sheer vastity of the territory it connects. Think about that: the population of Eurasia and Africa, together, make almost 6 billion people. The rest of the world is a periphery. 

So, the Western domination may be fading and much of what we are reading in the news nowadays is a reflection of this decline. With the depletion of the resources that created the Western Empire, first coal, then oil, the center is returning where it used to be and the great road that links Eastern and Western Eurasia is going to be again the pulsating artery of the world. Maybe Eurasia will be crisscrossed by fast trains powered by solar energy, or maybe the old camels will return: solid, resilient, unstoppable.

And the Westerners? They will return to their ancient role of seafaring pirates: coming and going like storms, leaving little trace. Curiously, though, they'll be leaving a reverberation of their presence with the English language, initially carried into Eurasia by the American Legions, now the tool of choice by Eurasians to understand each other.

Perhaps English is the true reason for the use of the term "The West" since it did originate on the extreme Western edge of Eurasia. But that's just a quirk of history: once, at least four languages were spoken along the old silk road: Mongolian, Persian, Arabic, and Turkish, while Chinese and Greek were spoken at the two ends. English as the dominant language may make things simpler and continue being used during the 21st century, and even farther in the future. Or we may switch to some other language: perhaps "googlish" or some other pidgin language. Who knows? As always, life is a journey, not a destination.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Report from Tehran: What is the Effect of the Sanctions?

My wife, Grazia, in a supermarket in Tehran, today. No effect of the economic sanctions is visible. The shelves are full of goods from everywhere. You can find even Coca Cola cans

For this Monday post on Cassandra's Legacy, I can offer you just a very brief report from Tehran, Iran, where I am for a meeting. I arrived here thinking that the economic sanctions were bankrupting the country. Maybe, but if they do, it seems to be taking a very long time. The streets are full of traffic, all shops are full of goods, Tehran is alive and well and the Iranians I met seem to be in good spirits, not at all dismayed by the situation, engaged in the celebrations for this year's Ashura. My colleagues tell me that the only effect of the sanctions is the difficulty they have to buy electronic equipment when they need it -- it has to come from China and it is now more expensive than before the embargo.

That's surprising, considering that the Iranian oil production has dropped from nearly 4 million barrels/day to about 1 million barrels/day after the embargo. The oil revenues for Iran must have collapsed this year -- but it may very well be that more oil is produced and exported than it is reported in the official statistics.

I am here for a meeting on the desalination of seawater and I'll report some preliminary results of a study we are performing on the extraction of lithium from the sea -- the perspectives seem to be reasonably good. If our civilization collapses, it will not be because of the lack of lithium.

That's all for this Monday. Greetings from Tehran!

Friday, October 11, 2019

Bimillenary of the death of Germanicus: The Defeat of the Roman Deep State

2,000 years ago, on Oct 10, 19 CE, Germanicus Julius Caesar died in Antioch, Asia Minor, perhaps poisoned by his uncle, Tiberius, then the ruling emperor. If we see Hillary Clinton in the role of Germanicus and Donald Trump in the role of Tiberius, you have an equivalent ongoing conflict. Most likely, the concept of "Deep State" existed in Roman times, just as in ours.

Germanicus had not gained his "agnomen" (victory name) because he was a friend of the Germans, but because he had managed to kill many of them in a series of military campaigns from 14 to 16 CE. Tacitus tells us many details of how the Romans engaged in what we would call today a Strafexpedition ("Punitive expedition") to avenge the defeat they had suffered against the Germans in Teutoburg ten years before. The Romans attacked Germany with eight legions and plenty of auxiliary troops in what was probably the largest military expedition in history, up to that time. In military terms, it was a success: the Germans were defeated and forced to retreat, but the cost of the campaign was simply staggering. Reading Tacitus we can get a feeling of the enormous effort in which the Romans had to engage in order to keep their legions supplied with food, equipment (and money). Eight legions were about a third of the whole military strength of the Empire: imagine fielding them in a region having no roads and no supporting infrastructure!

By 16 CE, it must have been clear to everyone that the effort was bankrupting the Roman state. That led to an undeclared conflict between the ruling emperor of the time, Tiberius, and his nephew, Germanicus. It was good that Germanicus could defeat the Germans (or, at least, claim victory over them). But that made Germanicus too popular and hence a dangerous competitor for the ruling emperor. Then, Germanicus wanted to continue attacking the Germans and this was a bad idea on all counts. First, it was too expensive, then the Empire couldn't afford another defeat like the one suffered in Teutoburg. Continuing the campaign was simply too risky.

We don't have documents from those ancient times telling us much about the Roman "war party" that surely existed. War was then, as now, good business for those waging it, but it was very bad business for those who had to foot the bill. So, it made a lot of sense for Tiberius, a ruthless leader by all accounts, to quietly get rid of Germanicus and, with him, of all the risks involved with more wars on the Germans. Germanicus' death was a considerable defeat for the Roman war party (or deep state). It didn't stop the attempts of the Roman Empire to expand, but it made the Romans much more cautious and, specifically, it made it clear that expanding into Germany was a no-no in military terms. 

Today, the situation is similar: the current empire, the American one, is facing gigantic costs just to maintain its huge and largely obsolete military structure. It cannot afford military adventures, not even victorious ones if they end with no economic gains -- the campaign against Iraq is a case in point. And it goes without saying that the ailing American Empire cannot risk a major military defeat. 

Yet, there exists a strong war party, often called the "deep state," in the US pushing for new campaigns. So far, President Trump has played the role of Tiberius, avoiding to engage the US in new wars. Hillary Clinton, instead, has been playing the role of Germanicus as secretary of state, including taking credit for some recent US victories (we all remember her ghastly bout of laughter when she described the death of Lybian leader Muammar al-Gaddafi, in 2011). 

So far, the conflict between the president and the secretary of state hasn't led to anyone being eliminated by poisoning. But the similarities between the current empire and the old Roman one are deep and we may well see more events in the near future that we may interpret as being mirrors of much older events. As we all know, history doesn't exactly repeat itself, but it does rhyme.


Below, a post that appeared on "Cassandra's Legacy" in 2015

A distant mirror: bimillenary of Germanicus' campaigns in Germania

(Image: a battle scene showing Roman troops fighting Barbarians. This relief is much later than the times discussed in this post, but it gives some idea of how these battles were seen in Roman times: "Grande Ludovisi Altemps Inv8574" by Unknown - Jastrow (2006). Licensed under Public Domain via Commons)

Julius Caesar Germanicus, the grandson of Emperor Augustus, was called "Germanicus" not because he liked the Germanic peoples; rather, he was engaged in a ruthless, scorched earth campaign against them. Nevertheless, he managed to accomplish very little; mainly to show that the Roman Empire, despite all its might, could not possibly conquer Germania. 

Success, sometimes, shows one's limits more than defeat. That's a lesson that the Romans had to learn the hard way when they tried to subdue the Germanic tribes east of the Rhine, between the first century BC and the first century AD. The attempt involved a long series of campaigns and, perhaps, the climax came exactly two thousand years ago, from 14 to 16 AD, when the Romans invaded Germania with no less than eight legions under the command of Tiberius Claudius Nero, known as Germanicus (at right), grandson of Augustus and the adopted son of Emperor Tiberius. The total number of the troops employed could have been at least 80 thousand men, perhaps close to a hundred thousand; about a third of the whole Roman army. Using a modern term, we could say that the Romans were trying to steamroll their enemies.

In this case, the concept of "steamrolling" can perhaps be intended in an almost literal sense. Tacitus makes it clear for us in his "Annals" that the Romans were going into Germania having in mind something much different than "bringing civilization" to those primitive peoples. No, no such silly idea; the Romans were there to teach those Barbarians a lesson. For this, they were burning villages, slaughtering everyone, or taking as slaves, as Tacitus says, even "the helpless from age or sex." Germanicus' name, evidently, didn't imply that he loved Germanic people. Again, using a modern term, we could say that the Romans were practicing a scorched earth campaign, if not an outright war of extermination.

And yet, all these efforts achieved little. Over three years of campaigns, Germanicus' troops won all the battles they fought; but they couldn't break the Germanic tribes. And the cost of keeping so many men in the field was becoming unbearable even for the mighty Roman Empire. In 16 AD, Emperor Tiberius recalled Germanicus to Rome. He also ordered the legions to abandon the territories they had conquered and to retire behind the fortifications along the Rhine, from where they had started their campaigns. Germanicus was given a big triumph in Rome, but, a few years later, in 19 AD, he died, possibly poisoned by Tiberius himself who feared the competition of a popular general. So, Germanicus' campaigns had shown the might of the Empire, but also its limits: there were some things that the legions just couldn't do. That was a lesson that Emperors understood well and, indeed, the Romans never tried again to attack the Germanic territory.

Two thousand years afterward, we see in these remote events a distant mirror of our age. The parallels with our current situation are many, and I am sure that the word "Iraq" is already coming to your mind. Yes, the Iraq campaign was a series of victories, just like Germanicus' campaigns. But, from a strategic viewpoint, modern Iraq, just like Germania two thousand years ago, turned out to be a conquest too expensive to keep.

But there is more to be seen in this distant mirror and so let's go a little more in-depth into history. First of all, Germanicus' campaigns were the consequence of an earlier, failed campaign: the defeat of Teutoburg in 9 AD, when three Roman legions were annihilated by a coalition of Germanic tribes. Not even their commander, Consul Publius Quinctilius Varus, escaped alive. Teutoburg was not only a disaster but a mystery as well. How could it be that the Roman legions, not exactly amateurs in practicing the art of war, blithely marched into a dense forest where a large number of German warriors were waiting to hack them to pieces?

I wouldn't be too surprised if Varus himself were to appear to me one of these nights as a bluish ghost in my bedroom. Then, he could tell me the story of why exactly he was sent to Germania as the governor of a province that existed only on paper and supplied with insufficient troops to control a region that had never been really pacified. Lacking this apparition, we can only speculate on this story but it takes little imagination to conclude that someone in Rome wanted Varus' head to roll. Whoever they were, anyway, they probably couldn't imagine that so many more Roman heads would roll together with Varus' one. We will never know for sure, but we know that the man who led Varus into the trap in the forest, Arminius, was a Roman citizen, albeit born in Germania. Varus was betrayed.

I know what you are thinking at this point. And, yes, we can find some kind of a parallel with modern history in the 9/11 attack to the twin towers in New York. Let me state that I am not discussing conspiracy theories, here; what I want to highlight is the similarity of the reaction of the ancient and the modern empires to events that both perceived as an existential threat. Just as the US citizens were deeply scared by the 9/11 attacks, the Romans were deeply scared by the disaster of Teutoburg.

The main consequence of the defeat of Teutoburg was that it strongly reinforced the position of the Emperor as the military leader of the whole Empire. Don't forget that, in the early 1st century AD, the idea that there was to be an emperor was still something new and plenty of people would probably have liked the Republic to be re-established. That was what Brutus and Cassius had tried to do by killing Julius Caesar. But, after Teutoburg, reinstating the Republic became totally out of question. You probably have heard of Suetonius reporting that Emperor Augustus, on hearing of Varus' defeat, would walk aimlessly at night in his palace, murmuring, "Varus, Varus, give me back my legions!" That was a master propaganda stroke on the part of Augustus, a consummate politician. By showing himself so concerned, Augustus was positioning himself as the defender of the Empire against the barbarian menace.

Not only Teutoburg reinforced the role of Emperors; the campaigns by Germanicus reinforced it even more. If Teutoburg had shown that the Germanic tribes were an existential threat for the Empire, then, Germanicus' failure showed that they couldn't be destroyed. The result was that the Empire positioned itself for a long term war. That generated the equivalent of our present military-industrial complex: a standing army and a set of fortifications along the borders. That was good business for the military contractors of Roman times, but the long term consequence was that the Empire bled itself to death in order to maintain the colossal defense works it had built. Before Teutoburg, the Roman army had been producing wealth as a result of the conquest of foreign lands. After Teutoburg, the army became a destroyer of wealth, costing much more than it produced; as Germanicus' campaigns clearly demonstrated. As time went by, the Roman Empire became weaker and weaker, but it stubbornly refused to admit it and to accept the barbarians in roles that were not those of mercenaries or slaves.

Four centuries after the battle of Teutoburg and Germanicus' campaigns, an enlightened empress, Galla Placidia, broke the rules in a bold attempt to revitalize a dying empire. She married a Barbarian king and tried to start a new dynasty that would merge the Germanic and the Latin elements of the Empire. She didn't succeed; it was too late; it was too much for a single person. The Roman Empire had to go through its cycle, and the end of the cycle was its disappearance; a relic of history that had no reason to exist any longer.

This is the destiny of empires and civilizations that, as Toynbee says, die most often because they kill themselves. So it was for the Romans, our distant mirror. A dark mirror, but, most likely, our destiny will not be much different.


See also

Monday, October 7, 2019

The Public Interest in Climate Change Reaches and All-Time High. Greta Thunberg Conquers the Memesphere

Greta Thunberg is having a phenomenal success as
 climate messenger. Good targeting, flawless performance, the right person at the right moment.

A little more than one year ago, I wrote a post titled "Why, in a Few Years, Nobody Will be Talking About Climate Change Anymore." It turned out that I was completely wrong: Greta Thunberg changed everything. My mistake was the typical one we all make when we try to predict the future. As I tend to say, "the surest way to make wrong predictions is to extrapolate past trends." And I fell into the trap myself!

Look at what happened: the interest of the public in climate change had been fading for years and then, suddenly, it started rising. Now it is the highest level ever reached in the Google Trend record.

Isn't that fantastic? The Greta Thunberg meme, alone, changed the worldwide trend. There is no other explanation for the restarting interest in climate.

So, what's happening? Let's see if we can learn something from my wrong prediction. First of all, I based my prediction on the data from Google Trends that showed a constant and robust decline of the public's interest in climate change. It had been ongoing for more than a decade and it seemed logical to me that it would continue to do so. I noted also how the Trump government was practicing the propaganda technique known as "deception by omission." It seemed to be successful in generating a self-reinforcing feedback that led the public to forget about climate change, distracted by other issues.

Then, bang! Complex systems always take you by surprise and Greta Thunberg surely surprised everybody. What made her so successful in a task where the best scientists in the world had failed? The birth and the development of the Thunberg meme will be studied for years to come: it is truly a remarkable innovation in a memesphere where, so far, only negative memes seemed to have a chance to affect the public opinion (Climategate is an example). Surely, Ms. Thunberg was supported by a top-notch public relations agency. They did everything right from the beginning: the target, the delivery, the positioning. But it was the person, Greta Thunberg, who was absolutely perfect in her role: flawless on all occasions.

At the same time, the forces of darkness trying to stop Greta Thunberg managed only to propel her further forward. A large number of angry old men made fools of themselves by insulting her. Many so-called "experts" on climate could only show their ignorance. Most attacks against her backfired, also because the young lady turned out to be both smart and resilient.

But there is more, here, than a flawless P.R. operation. The time had come for a major memetic transition. Most of us were expecting it as the result of some climate disaster, hurricanes, sea-level rise, heat waves, this kind of things. But we were hit by every sort of climate disasters and the result was the opposite: in the wake of each terrible event, the public interest in climate change diminished!

Again, we should have expected that: the memesphere behaves very much like complex physical systems, it undergoes phase transitions. If you ever worked with this kind of systems, you surely noted how phase transitions occur, or do not occur, mostly when they please. If the conditions are not right, the chemical compound that took you months of work to synthesize will refuse to condense and precipitate. Or, it will do so when you don't expect that to happen. The memesphere does the same: when the conditions for the diffusion of a meme are right, it will diffuse. Otherwise, it won't.

So, Greta Thunberg was the right meme at the right moment. And, as all good memes, it diffused explosively. And now what?

Memes have a limited lifetime in the memesphere -- it is because they are akin to living creatures and they consume the resources that make them live. They flare up rapidly and then decline slowly. If nothing changes, this is the destiny of the Greta Thunberg's meme -- it might be hastened by ongoing demonization campaign: if there is something that modern Western propaganda can do is demonizing people. After decades of operation, they have learned to do it well.

So, there is a definite chance that Greta Thunberg will fade away and disappear from the memesphere, as her enemies surely hope. But that's not necessarily her future. It is also possible that the meme will mutate, becoming more structured, more propositive, more engaging. It seems that it is what's happening: Greta Thunberg is updating her message and she is starting to propose actual solutions to climate change with a recent video in which she promotes reforestation. That video has some problems and so far it didn't have a big impact, but it is a step in the right direction.

And here we are: complex systems always surprise us, and surely we are in for more. But with Greta around, the future is not anymore so bleak as it seemed to be just a few months ago.

On Greta Thunberg as a climate meme, see also this previous post of mine

Thursday, October 3, 2019

The Art of War According to the Science of Complex Systems: The Seneca Cliff as a strategic weapon

Music has always been part of the war effort: a way to build up network connections in such a way to make the fighting system more resilient and more effective. Here, an especially effective version: "The Sacred War" sung by Elena Vaenga. I wouldn't say that the Soviets defeated the Germans in ww2 because they had better music, but it surely it must have helped.

On military matters described in terms of system science, see also the post on drone warfare published last week on "Cassandra's Legacy" and also our study on the statistical patterns of conflicts in history

The science of complex systems turns out to be especially interesting and fascinating when applied to one of the most complex activities in which human beings engage: warfare. Below, you'll find a revised and condensed excerpt from my book "The Seneca Effect" (2017). A more detailed and in-depth discussion of how the concept of Seneca Collapse may affect war is part of my new book "Before Collapse: A Guide to the Other Side of Growth" that should appear in print and on the web before the end of the year.

From "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017)
by Ugo Bardi
(revised and condensed)

Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting. (Sun Tzu, the Art of War)

The idea that collapse can be a tool to be used in warfare may go back to the Chinese historian and military theorist Sun Tzu in his “The Art of War” (5th century BCE), where he emphasizes the idea of winning battles by exploiting the enemy’s weakness rather than by brute force.

It is a normal feature of warfare that conflict ends with the collapse of one of the two sides but, in some cases, the collapse takes place without extensive fighting or even none at all. An especially impressive example is that of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 that followed several decades of "cold war" that never erupted into open conflict. As Sun Tzu had already noted, the capability of triggering the collapse of the enemy’s military or socio-economic structure is possibly the most effective conflict-resolving strategy of all. But how to attain this result? The modern science of complex systems can tell us many things about the factors involved in the collapse of complex systems, although it cannot provide recipes good for all situations.

Collapse is a characteristic of systems kept together by a network of relationships involving feedback: societies, economies, groups, companies, armies, and more, systems that we call “complex.” Feedback enhances or dampens the effect of perturbations on the various elements of the system and it may generate the kind of collapse called “Seneca Collapse” or “Seneca Cliff.” This collapse occurs when several elements of the system act together in such a way to enhance a perturbation that, eventually, brings down the whole system.

Warfare is, after all, mostly a question of feedback between fighting entities. Armies maneuver, clash against each other, retreat or advance, but the final result is always the same: the struggle ends when feedbacks accumulate in such a way that one of the sides collapses. Then, the battle is over.

We can see armies as networks of soldiers, each one connected to the nearby soldiers. In a military struggle, the loss of a single node, that is of a single soldier, in itself has little effect on the performance of the system. But it may be devastating if the deadly feedback mechanism kicks in. One soldier runs away, another soldier sees him running he does the same. Others follow. That may cause the whole army to melt away – a typical example of feedback-generated collapse and the nightmare of commanders all over history. Of course, things are not so simple in real armies but it is true that ancient armies often had a poorly defined chain of command. That made them susceptible to abrupt collapse. For instance, at the battle of Manzikert, in 1071 AD the Byzantines were defeated by the Turks because - among other factors – some sections of the army panicked and ran away.

Once we start seeing see warfare in terms of complex systems interacting with each other, we can understand how the natural selection on the battlefield led to the evolution of armies into structures that made them resistant to collapse. In the 1800s, the Prussians had developed an army where each soldier was supposed to keep reloading and shooting, oblivious to what was happening around him. Ideally, he would keep shooting even if he was the last one left standing. Basically, the Prussians had severed the horizontal connections of the army network, leaving only the "vertical" ones connecting soldiers to their officers. It was the concept, attributed to Frederick the Great, that common soldiers should fear their own officers more than the enemy. That made the network resilient toward collapse: losing one node would not lead to an avalanche of node losses generated by feedback

The Prussian idea was successful and it is still the way modern armies are organized. But if it made "bottom-up" collapse more difficult, it increased the chances of a top-down" collapse. A vertically structured army is vulnerable to a “decapitation strike,” a concept already well known to those who, long ago, invented the game of chess. A modern occurrence of this kind of collapse took place in Italy in September 1943. After the earlier removal of the charismatic Italian leader, Benito Mussolini, Italy's armed forces virtually disintegrated when the King of Italy fled the capital, Rome, leaving the army without command and without clear instructions. In this way, he brought to real-life the concept of “checkmate” of chess. Other examples of decapitation collapse exist in history, one was the collapse of the Albanian forces against the Italian invasion in 1939. It was a hopeless fight in any case, but the flight of the king of Albany, Zog, led to the total cessation of all resistance -- another case of a chessmate in real life.

Other cases of decapitation strikes failed. An example is the attempt of some German officers to kill Adolf Hitler in 1944. They failed, so we will never know what would have happened had Hitler died that day. Another example was the strike against Iraq in 2003, which aimed at killing most of the members of the Iraqi government. Alalso that attempt failed.
The problem with the idea of destroying a military structure by decapitation is two-fold: the first is that the enemy knows that its leadership is a good target and therefore it works at hardening it as much as possible. One is reminded here of the kagemusha the “shadow warriors” of Japanese military history, whose task was to impersonate a military leader, having the enemy wasting their efforts on them rather than on the right target. Then, it is also true that in modern times armies have developed a less rigid structure in which small units can continue fighting even if they lose contact with their command center. It is a way of fighting that was pioneered by Edwin Rommel during the First World War and extensively used by Heinz Guderian during the Second. Another recent example of resilience in an armed conflict is the 2006 confrontation between Israel and the Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The Hezbollah’s fighting machine was far from being a traditional army: it was a highly resilient system based on small units weakly connected to each other. In the end, it was successful against a theoretically much more powerful adversary. Giving a certain degree of freedom to small units is risky, since the units may not behave the way the central control wants them to. But it seems to pay handsomely in modern times, also because of the development of modern propaganda techniques. Today, soldiers don’t normally fight for money, they are heavily conditioned by propaganda or by religious beliefs.

In the end, waging a war is mainly a question of command and control and there exist many possible interpretations of how to control an army in such a way to make it resilient against collapse. To this day, propaganda remains the main tool motivating soldiers to fight but, as I argued in a previous post, modern warfare seems to be more and more based on remote-controlled, or even autonomous, robotic weapons.

A concept related to the rise of military robots is that of “Network Centered Warfare” also called, sometimes, “Effect Based Operations.” The idea is to transform an army into a single weapon using sophisticated communication techniques. The question, then, is who controls that weapon? If there is a single central control system, the whole system becomes again vulnerable to a decapitation strike. An attack on its operational center that might leave it as useless as the chess pieces on the chessboard after that their king is checkmated.
But it is also perfectly possible to organize military robots in small, relatively independent units. It doesn't change the main question: who controls the military robots? It is a question that, so far, has found no simple answer. Obviously, the robots themselves are not sensitive to propaganda, but their controllers are still human beings. But propaganda is a tool developed to control infantrymen facing the enemy while stuck in a trench, now we need tools to control the robots' controllers who are specialized professionals operating from the safety of remote locations. Appropriate techniques have not been seveloped yet and we don't know what shape they could take and how they will affect the way warfare is conducted.

So, it is difficult to predict what the future of war will be but, clearly, nothing changes in its basic features: war is a struggle that can be fought in real space, in virtual space, or both. We'll probably see a remarkable shift to virtual war, but it is a tortuous path that we are following. As always, the future will be what it had to be.


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)