Thursday, December 12, 2019

On Greta Thunberg: A Letter to my Non-Western Friends

Dear non-Western friends,

first of all, let me tell you that I understand your perplexity about Greta Thunberg. I understand how you see this latest stunt of the Western Media of naming her "Person of the Year." From your viewpoint, it looks just like another trick of the West, one among many. And I understand that it makes you even more suspicious that the whole story of climate change is nothing but a hoax created by the Western Empire to maintain its grip on the whole planet.

Yes, I understand. But I would like to ask you to make an effort to understand us, the Westerners. You see, sometimes I have a feeling that one of the characteristics of Hell could be that the people who are in it don't realize that they are in Hell. It would be truly wicked, but it was a Western poet, Baudelaire, who said that the best trick of the devil is to convince you that he doesn't exist. So, if Hell is a place where you are told lies about everything, including that you are not in it, then we Westerners are truly living in Hell, at least a certain kind of hell.

It is not just lies, it is the kind of lies. The Western media have evolved into a machine for manufacturing fear and hatred. Anyone, any group, any belief, can be destroyed by this machine. And you cannot do much to fight back. If you doubt the official narration, you are a conspiracy theorist. If you plead for peace, you are Putin's stooge. If you protest against your government, you are a terrorist. If you deny the role of the West in leading the world, you are a traitor. And, on top of that, most Westerners are convinced that propaganda is a thing of the non-Western world and that their media are free and independent. Indeed, Baudelaire was right.

Of course, don't make me say that the non-Western world is a Paradise of truth. All nations, all states, all cultures, have their biases, their filters, their entrenched beliefs, and, in many cases, their propaganda machines. Every one of us, Westerners and non-Westerners, sees the world through the filters that our culture, our traditions, and our media place in front of us.  But you, non-Westerners, have a possibility that's denied to us, Westerners. You can use English to peer into the Western media without being embedded in it. And, as I said, I understand that often you don't like what you see.

And so, we are back to Greta Thunberg. Of course, I understand that this girl is not a "grassroots" phenomenon as some might want to believe. She is supported by a top-class team of media experts, she couldn't possibly fight the Western Media Behemot alone. And I understand that her message may be misunderstood, mongrelized, and exploited for yet another round of greenwashing. I know that.

But that's not the point. It is how the appearance of Ms. Thunberg has been both amazing and unexpected. If she is a product of propaganda, then it an unusual kind of propaganda. It would be the first time in many decades that our media are presenting to us a message that's not based on the idea of something or someone evil to be destroyed. This girl crashed through all the media barriers with just a simple message: the truth about climate change. She wasn't telling us to kill or hate anyone, she was just telling us to work together to ensure that her generation could have a future. And she carried the message with an inner force, a way of posing herself, a capability of saying things straight that was nearly unbelievable. It is amazing how she attracted upon herself all kinds of insults, abuse, and curses, but nothing really stuck on her. You remember Ronald Reagan's "Teflon presidency"? Well, this girl is not just Teflon coated: she wears a Mythril armor like the heroes of the trilogy of the ring.

I understand that it is possible that this girl will disappear from the mediasphere in a short time, as it happens for most ideas over the Web, nowadays. But she may turn out to be something more, maybe not the specific person of Greta Thunberg, but in the message she represents. A strong message telling humankind to respect the things that make humankind live: our planet and all the living beings in it.

Let me tell you of something I learned not long ago when I was in Iran. It was the time of the Arbaeen, the commemoration of the martyrdom of Imam Husayn ibn Ali, forty days after the Day of the Ashura. Someone told me (or maybe I read somewhere) that "Imam Husayn is a figure that we Shi'ites offer as a gift to the whole humankind as an example of virtue and of justice." And that struck me as something worth remembering. In all cultures, we have something or someone we revere as a treasure: a person, a poem, a work of art, a way of seeing the world. And these treasures, I think, we should share with the rest of humankind as gifts.

Now, of course, I don't have the authority to say what the entity we call "The West" should or should not do. For sure, we shared with the world plenty of poisoned gifts in the past. But this girl, Greta Thunberg, might be a true treasure, a gift we could offer to the rest of the world. For once, there would come from the West a message of peace and harmony. Could that really happen? Maybe.

h/t Chandran Nair

Sunday, December 8, 2019

The Effect of the Sanctions: Is Iran Cracking Down Under the Strain?

I have to confess that the title of this post is a little of a clickbait. In reality, I will tell you more about Italy than about Iran. But, perhaps, from the story of how Italy reacted to the international economic sanctions imposed on the country in 1935, we can learn something about what could be the result of the current sanctions on Iran. Above, a photo from 1935, it shows a stone slab with the engraved words. "On 18 November 1935, the world besieged Italy. Perennial infamy on those who favored and consumed this absurd crime." Most of these slabs were destroyed after the defeat of Italy in WW2, but some can still be found.

In 1935, Italy invaded Ethiopia, at that time the only remaining free African country. Why exactly that happened is a long story. Let me just say that, in part, it was a revenge for a defeat suffered long before, when an early attempt at invading Ethiopia had failed. In part, it also had to do with reacting to the financial crash of 1929: governments often tend to seek for external enemies to distract people from internal troubles. Then, in part, it was seen as a way to displease the hated British, seen as guilty of not providing for Italy the coal that the Italian economy needed. And, finally, it had to do with some nebulous dreams about rebuilding the Roman Empire. It may sound silly, today, but if you read what people wrote at that time in Italy, that idea of creating a new Roman Empire was taken seriously.

Whatever the reasons, in 1935 the Ethiopian army was overwhelmed by the modern weaponry deployed by Italy, planes and tanks, with the added help of poison gas bombing, a military innovation for that time. The final result was that the King of Italy gained the dubious honor of taking for himself the title of "Emperor of Ethiopia" and that Italy gained "a place in the sun" in Africa, as the propaganda described the results of the campaign.

A victory, yes, but a hollow one. From the beginning, Ethiopia was only a burden for the Italian economy and the costs of the military occupation were just too much for the already strained Italian finances. The final result was perhaps the shortest-lived empire in history: it lasted just five years, collapsing in 1941 when the Italian forces in Ethiopia were quickly defeated by a coalition of Ethiopian and allied forces.

An interesting side effect of the invasion of Ethiopia was the story of the imposition of economic sanctions on Italy by the League of the Nations. It was a half-hearted effect to stop the invasion, but the war lasted just 8 months and the sanctions were dropped just two months afterward. Their effect was nearly zero in economic and military terms but, in political terms, it was a completely different story and the consequences reverberated for years. Here are some of these consequences:

1. The Italians were not only appalled at the sanctions, they were positively enraged. According to the international laws of the time, for a state to attack another was not in itself a crime (unlike the use of chemical weapons, but that came to be known only later). So, most Italians felt that they were punished for having done something -- annexing an African country -- that the other Western Powers had done before without anyone complaining. The result was a burst of national pride and a strong wave of popular support for the war. That generated also a wave of personal popularity for the Italian leader, Benito Mussolini, seen as the one who was making Italy great again (some things never change in politics).

2. The sanctions transformed a war waged on a poor and backward country into something epic and grandiose. Italians perceived the struggle against a coalition of the great powers of the world, Britain in particular. And, by defeating this coalition, Italy showed that it was a great power, too, on a par with the others. This idea had terrible consequences when it led the Duce, Benito Mussolini, to think that Italy could match the military capabilities of the major world powers in WW2.

3. The government propaganda in Italy used the sanctions to magnify the importance of the Ethiopian campaign, seen as a turning point in the quest for a new Italian Empire. As a result, Ethiopia became a national priority, to be kept at all costs. At the start of WW2, Italy had more than 100,000 fully equipped troops there. Without the possibility of being resupplied from Italy, these troops had no chances against the British and they were rapidly wiped out. What might have happened if they had been available in other war theaters? It is unlikely that the final outcome of WW2 would have changed, but, who knows? The battle for Egypt in 1942 could have had a different outcome if Italy had been able to field 100,000 more troops there and, maybe, taken the Suez canal.

This catalog of disasters is so impressive that we might wonder if the sanctions were not just the result of incompetence and idiocy, but of an evil machination. Could it be that the British had wanted Italy to engage in an adventure that was sure to lead the country to ruin, later? Of course, it is unlikely that the British had been planning for exactly what happened, but it is not impossible that they understood that the Italian military apparatus would be weakened by the task of keeping Ethiopia and that would make Italy a less dangerous adversary in case of an all-out military conflict. If the British had planned that, they truly deserved the reputation they had at the time (and that they still have) described with the name of the "Perfidious Albion."

That's the story of the sanctions against Italy, now let's go to the sanctions against Iran. First of all, a disclaimer: I don't claim to be an expert in Iranian matters and politics. I don't speak Persian and I visited Iran only once in my life. So, I can only claim to have read and studied about Iran for years and to have many Iranian friends and acquaintances. Yet, if I think of the idiocies that you can read on the Western Media about Iran, I feel I can do something better, maybe useful for the readers of this blog. So, let me take a look at the current sanctions on Iran on the basis of the assumption that Iranian and Italians are very similar people in terms of ideas, temperament, and beliefs -- which I think is true on the basis of my experience.

Then, we know that story rhimes, but never exactly repeats. So, there are many similarities in the story of the sanctions against Iran and those against Italy, but also considerable differences. The main similarity is, of course, that Iranians feel unjustly punished for doing something, starting a nuclear energy program, that other countries could do in the past without anyone punishing them. But note also that the current sanctions on Iran are harsher than anything that was imposed on Italy. When vice-president Pompeo said that the purpose of the sanctions is to starve the Iranians, you get a certain feeling that the matter is deadly serious in a literal sense.

So, what's happening in Iran and what might happen in the future? As I already discussed in a previous post, so far the effect of the sanctions has been limited. But inflation is biting hard the finances of the Iranian Middle Class and the government risks to be soon in trouble in maintaining the services that so far have been provided for free: instruction, health care, and more. In the long run, the cohesion of the Iranian society could be threatened and the recent street disorders could be a symptom of something like that.

The Iranian government is currently led by a moderate, President Rouhani, who stated more than once that he doesn't want to engage in any kind of retaliation. Some Iranians would want a more forceful reaction but, in general, they seem to recognize their weakness in front of the mighty US empire. Fortunately, nobody in Iran seems to be thinking of resurrecting the defunct Parthian Empire, unlike what Italians were trying to do with the Roman Empire in the 1930s. If Iran can hold on long enough, the storm may indeed end.

But what if the sanctions had a true evil purpose in the sense of having the task of pushing Iran to do something stupid, as it was the case with Italy, long ago? Under heavy strain, Iranians could decide that their best bet is for a strong leader who would "Make Iran Great Again." And what could happen if things really go from bad to worse? Iranians could go through the same chain of misperceptions that Italy followed, bolstered by some local success, becoming convinced to be a great power. Then, if an American president wants to obliterate Iran with a nuclear strike, who or what could stop her? Then, if evil has to be, could that be the real purpose of the sanctions?

Hopefully, these extreme scenarios will never take place but one thing is clear to me: sanctions are a bad idea. They are sold to the Western public as something "humane," actually designed to help the people they target to get rid of an evil and oppressive government. It is not like that. Maybe sanctions are not as bad as carpet bombing, but they are a tool to start wars.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

RAMSES: The Electric Tractor is Alive and Well in Tehran

The RAMSES vehicle under development in Italy in 2011. In the photo, from the left, the developers: Toufic El Asmar, Paolo Pasquini, and Ugo Bardi.

Maybe you read my descriptions of the "RAMSES" electric tractor that I helped to develop some years ago with funding from the European Commission. It was an interesting project and the result was a practical multi-purpose vehicle for agricultural applications. It was not meant to be a heavy-duty tractor, it was something that could perform many different tasks, from transporting goods to spraying and irrigating. Above, you can see the vehicle in a photo of some years above. And you can read a complete description in a paper that we published in the "Journal of Cleaner Production" (authors U. Bardi. T. El Asmar and A. Lavacchi, vol. 19, pp. 2034-2048 - 203). See also a post on the Cassandra blog

So, I was very pleased last month when I saw a version of the same idea being developed in Teheran by Professor Hossein Mousazadeh at the faculty of Agricultural Engineering. Hossein had been working at the RAMSES project in Italy at the University of Florence and here is his brainchild, "RAMSES 2.0"

Below, another picture of the same tractor, driven by Hossein himself

In comparison with the Italian RAMSES, the Iranian version is similar. It uses lead batteries, too, for the lowest possible cost. But it has a few additional quirks: first of all, it is a hybrid vehicle that can recharge its batteries using a gas-powered, on-board engine. It can also recharge in an emergency using PV panels on top: Iran, just like Italy, is a sunny country. Note also the camera in front, the vehicle can be remote-controlled and it has a certain capability of autonomous motion. Apart from this, it follows the basic philosophy of what an electric agricultural vehicle should be: rugged, simple, as inexpensive as possible.

As you may have imagined, both the RAMSES and the Tehran tractor have remained at the stage of prototypes, so far. The market for electric vehicles seems to be moving from the top toward the bottom, with the great success of the Tesla cars so far not reaching the low-cost side of the transportation market. And, obviously, agriculture is a market where low-cost is a desperate necessity for cash-strapped farmers everywhere. It will take time before electrification reaches the agricultural world. But, eventually, even farmers will have to be weaned from their addiction to oil.

So we are moving slowly toward the energy transition. But, eventually, we'll get there!

Below, yours truly, Ugo Bardi, playing the farmer with the Iranian tractor. 

Sunday, December 1, 2019

What's wrong with the oil industry? Too many claims of abundance start sounding suspicious

Above: the Financial Times of Nov 29th, 2019. Has the US really become energy independent?

Peak oil theorists have always been the favorite punching ball of mainstream oil pundits but, recently, the attacks against the peak oil idea have started becoming so loud and widespread that I am starting to think that there has to be something wrong with the oil world nowadays. As an especially bad example, I may cite a recent article on Forbes by Michael Lynch. I understand that some people have a bone to pick and they want to pick it clean, but this is a little too much -- there are limits to how nasty one can be, even in a heated discussion. 

Yet, some claims of great oil abundance seem to be based not just on the pleasure of denigrating peak oil theorists but on data said to be real. Just as an example, see a recent article on the Financial Times where we can read that,
The US has cemented its status as a net exporter in world oil markets, a sharp reversal from past years that could affect its ties to foreign allies. 
You may wonder the logic of using the term "cemented," that carries the meaning of consolidating something already existing. Indeed, claims of the US having reached "energy independence" in terms of crude oil had become common after that the US production had exceeded imports -- that meant nothing, of course, it was pure dry-holing. At that time, the US had, and still has, a deficit of nearly 3 million barrels of oil in terms of import/export balance, as you can see in the figure below. (image from SeekingAlpha)

The EIA data for crude oil confirm that in November of this year the US had a DEFICIT of 2.7 million barrels per day in the import/export balance. So, how can the FT claim that the US is a net exporter, then? Simple: under the category of "oil" they sum crude oil and oil products. The latter include refinery products such as kerosene, diesel fuel, lubricants, etc. And, indeed, recently the sum of the exports of these two categories has touched and slightly exceeded the curve of the crude oil imports. 

Does that mean that the US is now "energy independent" in the sense that it exports more oil than it imports? Not at all. That would be true ONLY if the exported products were wholly made with US oil -- which obviously cannot be the case. The US production, nowadays, comes in large part from shale oil, which is light oil. But refineries prefer to use heavy oil, which is imported from Canada and other regions outside the US. The refined products made from this oil can be counted as "oil exports" but it is not oil that was produced in the US. If what counts is the US energy independence, then it is obvious that it is just a trick to make the US look like it is producing more than it does. 

It is true that the US oil production keeps increasing, so far, but for how long can it continue growing? Indeed, there seems to be a suspicious excess of glee in these claims of oil abundance. Could it be an attempt to cover some big problems? Hard to say, but one thing is impressive: 2019 should the first year in a decade -- since the great recession of 2009 -- when the world oil production declined (data by Ron Patterson).

The story of peak oil has been a war of opinions and we know that wars are won by those who win the last battle. Mr. Lynch is surely convinced that his opinions on peak oil have been vindicated, but it may be too early for him to take a victory lap. 

Are we looking at the other side of the growth curve


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)