Monday, December 30, 2019

The Collapse of the American Empire. What Future for Humankind?

These notes are not supposed to disparage nor to exalt an entity that has a history that goes back to at least a couple of millennia ago. Like all Empires, past and present, the Modern World Empire went through its parable of growth and glory and it is now starting its decline. There is not much that we can do about it, we have to accept that this is the way the universe works. On this subject, see also a previous post of mine "Why Europe Conquered the World "

For everything that exists, there is a reason and that's true also for that gigantic thing that we call sometimes "The West" or perhaps "The American Empire," or maybe "Globalization." To find that reason, we may go back to the very origins of the modern empire. We can find them in an older, but already very advanced, empire: the Roman one.

As someone might have said (and maybe someone did, but it might be an original concept of mine), "geography is the mother of Empires." Empires are built on the availability of natural resources and on the ability to transport them. So, the Romans exploited the geography of the Mediterranean basin to build an empire based on maritime transportation. Rome was the center of a hub of commerce that outcompeted every other state in the Western region of Eurasia and North Africa. This transportation system was so important that it was even deified under the name of the Goddess Annona. It was kept together by a financial system based on coinage, Latin as lingua franca, a large military system, and a legal system very advanced for the time.

Like all empires, though, the Roman one carried inside the seeds of its own destruction. The empire peaked at some moment during the 1st century of our era, then it started declining. It was the result of a combination of related factors: the depletion of the precious metal mines that deprived the Empire of its currency, the growth of the Silk Road that siphoned the Roman wealth to China, the overexploitation of the North-African agriculture that fed the Roman cities. No money, no resources, no food: the Empire could only collapse and it did.

The old Roman Empire left a ghostly shadow over Europe, so persistent that for almost two millennia people tried to recreate it one way or another. But it was not possible, again it was a question of geography. The Roman intensive agriculture had so badly damaged the North-African soil that it could never recover -- still, it hasn't. The loss of the fertile soil on the southern shore divided the Mediterranean sea into two halves: the green and still fertile Northern part, and the dry and barren Southern part. Nevertheless, there were several attempts to rebuild the ancient economic and political unity of the basin. The Arabic caliphate built a Southern Mediterranean Empire based on Arabic as the Lingua Franca and on Islam as the common cultural ground. But the expansion of Islam never reached Western Europe. Its economic base was weak: the North African agriculture just couldn't support the population level that would have been needed to control the whole Mediterranean basin. The same destiny befell, later on, on the Turkish Empire.

On the Northern side of the Mediterranean sea, Europe was a region that the ancient Romans had always considered mostly a periphery. With the Roman Empire gone, Northern Europe was freed to develop by itself. It was the period that we call the "dark ages," a misnomer if ever there was one. The dark ages were a new civilization that exploited some of the cultural and technological structures inherited from Rome but that also developed original ones. The lack of gold and silver made it impossible for Europeans to keep Europe together by military means. They had to rely on subtler and more sophisticated methods that, nevertheless, were patterned over the old Roman structures. Cultural unity was insured by Christianity, with the church even creating a new form of currency not based on precious metals but on the relics of holy men and women. The church also was the keeper of Latin, the old Roman language that became the European the Lingua Franca, the only tool that allowed Europeans to understand each other.

In this way, the Europeans created a gentle and sophisticated civilization. They could maintain the rule of law and they gave back to women some of the rights that they had lost during the Roman Empire. Witch-burning, endemic in the Roman Empire, couldn't be completely abolished, but its frequency was reduced to nearly zero. Slavery was formally abolished, although it never actually disappeared. Material wealth was de-emphasized, in favor of spiritual wealth, art and literature flourished as much as they could in a poor region as Europe was at that time. Wars didn't disappear, but the early Middle Ages were a relatively quiet period with the Church maintaining a certain degree of control over the worst excesses of the local warlords. The Arthurian cycle emphasized how errant knights were fighting to perform good deeds and to defend the weak. It was put in writing only in the late Middle Ages, but it had been part of the European dreamscape from much earlier times.

But things never stand still. During the Middle Ages, the European population and the European economy were growing together exploiting a relatively intact territory. Soon, the gentle civilization of the early Middle Ages gave way to something that was not gentle at all. With the turn of the millennium, Europe was overpopulated and Europeans started looking for areas where to expand. The crusades started with the 11th century and were a new attempt to re-unify the Mediterranean basin. Europe was even equipping itself with international structures that could have governed the new Mediterranean Empire: the chivalric orders. Of these, the Templars were an especially interesting structure: in part a military society, but also a bank and a cultural center, all based on Latin as lingua franca. The idea was that the new Mediterranean Empire would be governed by a supranational organization, not unlike the old Roman Empire.

But the crusades were an expensive failure. The military effort had to be supported by the main economic resources of the time: forests and agricultural land. Both were badly overstrained and the result was an age of famines and pestilences that nearly halved the European population. It was a new collapse that took place during the 14th century. It was bad enough that we may imagine that the descendants of the Sultan Salah ad-Din could have stricken back and conquered Europe, had they not been stabbed in the back by the expanding Mongol empire.

The European Population: graph from William E Langer, "The Black Death" Scientific American, February 1964, p. 117 -- note how growth is faster after the collapse than it was before.

But Europeans were stubborn. Despite the 14th century collapse, they kept using the same trick they had been using before to rebuild after a disaster: patterning new structures on the old ones. The Europeans were good warriors, skilled shipbuilders, excellent merchants, and always willing to take risks in order to make money. They keep doing what they were good at doing and, if they couldn't expand into the East, why not expand West, across the Atlantic Ocean? It was a wildly successful idea. Europeans imported gunpowder technology from China and used it to build fearsome weapons. With their newly mastered gunnery skills, they created a new kind of ship, the cannon-armed galleon. It was a dominance weapon: a galleon could sail everywhere ad blast away all opposition. A century after the great pestilence, the European population was growing again, faster than before. And, this time, the Europeans were embarking on the task of conquering the world.

Over a few centuries, Europeans behaved as worldwide marauders: explorers, merchants, pirates, colonists, empire builders, and more. They sailed everywhere and wherever they sailed, they dominated the sea and, from the sea, they dominated the land. But who were they? Europe never gained a political unity nor it embarked on an effort to create a politically unified empire. While fighting non-European populations, Europeans were also fighting each other for the spoils. The only supranational governing entity they had was the Catholic Church, but it was an obsolete tool for the new times. By the 16th century, the Catholic Church was not anymore a keeper of relics, it was a relic itself. The final blow to it came from the invention of the printing press that enormously lowered the cost of books. That led to a market for books written in vernacular language and that was the end of Latin as a European lingua franca. The result was the reformation by Martin Luther, in 1517: the power of the Catholic Church was broken forever. Now, European states had what they wanted: a free hand to expand where they wanted.

As you may have imagined, the result of this "battle royal" historical phase was a new disaster. The European states jumped at each other's throat engaging in the "30-years war" (1618 – 1648). Half Europe was laid waste, plagues and famines reappeared, food production plummeted down, and with it population. Europeans were not just fighting against each other in the form of warring states. European men were fighting against European women: it was the time of witch-burning, tens of thousands of innocent European women were jailed, tortured, and burned at the stake. With its forests cut and the agricultural land eroded by overexploitation, there was a distinct possibility that the age of the European world empire was over forever. It was not.

Just like a stroke of luck had saved Europe after the first collapse of the 14th century, another nearly miraculous event saved Europe from the 18th century collapse. This miracle had a name: coal. It was a European economist of the 19th century, William Jevons, who had noted that "with coal, everything is easy." And with coal Europeans could solve most of their problems: coal could be used in place of wood to smelt metals and make weapons. This saved the European forests (but not for Spain, which had no cheap coal and whose empire floundered slowly). Then, coal could be turned into food using an indirect but effective technology. Coal was used to smelt iron and produce weapons. With weapons, new lands were conquered and the inhabitants enslaved. The slaves would then cultivate plantations and produce food to be shipped to Europe. It was the time when the British developed their habit of tea in the afternoon: the tea, the sugar, and the flour for the cakes were all produced in the British plantations overseas.

And the cycle continued. The European population restarted growing during the 18th century and, by the end of the 19th century, the feat of conquering the world was nearly complete. The 20th century saw a consolidation of what we can now call the "Western Empire" with the term "West" denoting a cultural entity that by now was not just European: it encompassed the United States, Australia, South Africa, and a few more states -- including even Asiatic countries such as Japan which, in 1905, gained a space among the world powers by force of arms, soundly defeating a traditional European power, Russia, at the naval battle of Tsushima. From a military viewpoint, the Western Empire was a reality. There remained the need of turning it into a political entity. All empires need an emperor, but the West didn't have one, not yet.

The final phase of the building of the Western World Empire took place with the two world wars of the 20th century. Those were true civil wars fought for imperial dominance, similar to the civil wars of ancient Rome at the time of Caesar and Augustus. Out of these wars, a clear winner emerged: the United States. After 1945, the Empire had a common currency (the dollar), a common language (English), a capital (Washington DC) and an emperor, the president of the United States. More than all that, it had acquired a powerful propaganda machine, the one we call today "consensus building." It built a narrative that described WW2 as a triumph of good against evil -- the latter represented by Nazi Germany. This narrative remains today the funding myth of the Western Empire. The only rival empire left, the Soviet Empire, collapsed in 1991, leaving the American Empire as the sole dominant power of the world. Also that was seen as proof of the inherent goodness of the American Empire. It was then that Francis Fukuyama wrote his "The End of History," (1992) correctly describing the events he was witnessing. Just like when Emperor Octavianus ushered the age of the "Pax Romana," it was the beginning of a new golden age: the "Pax Americana"

Alas, history never ends and, as I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, all empires carry inside themselves the seeds of their own destructions. Just a few decades have passed from the time when Fukuyama had claimed the end of history and the Pax Americana seems to be already over. The Western world dominance had been based first on coal, then on oil, now trying to switch to gas, but all these are finite resources becoming more and more expensive to produce. Just like Rome had followed the decline of its gold mines, the West is following follow the decline of the wells it controls. The dollar is losing its role of world currency and the Empire is under threat by a new commercial system. Just as the ancient silk road was a factor in the collapse of the Roman Empire, the nascent "road and belt initiative" that will connect Eurasia as a single commercial region may give the final blow to the Globalized dominance of the West.

To be sure, the Western Empire, although in its death throes, is not dead yet. It still has its wondrous propaganda machine working. The great machine has even been able to convince most people that the empire doesn't actually exist, that everything they see being done to them is done for their good and that foreigners are starved and bombed with the best of good intentions. It is a remarkable feat that reminds something that a European poet, Baudelaire, said long ago: "the Devil's best trick consists in letting you believe he doesn't exist." It is typical of all structures to turn nasty during their decline, it happens even to human beings. So, we may be living in an "Empire of Lies" that's destroying itself by trying to build its own reality. Except that the real reality always wins.

And there we are, today. Just like the old Roman Empire, the Western Empire is going through its cycle and the decline has already started. So, at this point, we could hazard some kind of moral judgment: was the Western Empire good or bad? In a sense, all empires are bad: they tend to be ruthless military organizations that engage in all kinds of massacres, genocides, and destruction. Of the Roman empire, we remember the extermination of the Chartaginese as an example, but it was not the only one. Of the Western Empire, we have many examples: possibly the most evil one being the genocide of the North-American Indians, but such things as the extermination of civilian by aerial bombing of cities during WW2 was also impressively evil. And the (evil) Empire doesn't seem to have lost its taste for genocide, at least as it can be judged from some recent declarations by members of the American government about starving Iranians.

On the other hand, it would be difficult to maintain that Westerners are more evil than people belonging to other cultures. If history tells us something, it is that people tend to become evil when they have a chance to do so. The West created many good things, from polyphonic music to modern science and, during this last phase of its history, it is leading the struggle to keep the Earth alive -- a girl such as Greta Thunberg is a typical example of the "good West" as opposed to the "evil West."

Overall, all empires in history are more or less the same. They are like waves crashing on a beach: some are large, some small, some do damage, some just leave traces on the sand. The Western Empire did more damage than others because it was larger, but it was not different. We have to accept that the universe works in a certain way: never smoothly, always going up and down and, often, going through abrupt collapses, as the ancient Roman philosopher Lucius Seneca had noted long ago. Being the current empire so large, the transition to whatever will come after us needs to be more abrupt and more dramatic than anything seen in history before. But, just like it was the case for ancient Rome, the future may well be a gentler and saner age than the current one. And the universe will go on as it has always done.

Friday, December 27, 2019

The Christmas Torches of Abbadia: Sustainable Resource Management According to an Ancient Traditions

This clip is my first attempt at a video on the subject of this blog, resource management. The results are, well, not so great: it is dark and the audio is not very good. I'll see to do better next time, but it seems to me that the clip is at least understandable and it gives some idea of the atmosphere of the torch burning festival of the town of Abbadia San Salvadore in Italy. In the video, I make some comments on the reasons for this tradition, but you can also read the text, below. Many thanks to Viola Calignano for filming.

An ancient tradition of the town of Abbadia San Salvadore, in Tuscany, involves a spectacular festival of wood burning that takes place the night before Christmas. This year, 28 wood torches ("fiaccole") went up in flames, most of them several meters tall and burning well into the next morning. I was there, guest of a family of Badenghi, the way the inhabitants of the place call themselves.

The event was truly fascinating, not a spectacle for tourists but something deeply felt by the locals. It is said that this tradition goes back to more than a millennium ago, to the times of Charlemagne. But why celebrate Christmas by burning so much wood to heat nothing in particular? I have to say that I found the question perplexing, considering that I often try to explain to people that biomass burning is not a solution to the energy problem. But then, after some head-scratching, I think I understood the reasons for this tradition. 

First of all, there is a certain fascination in seeing things burning. I think this is something that goes back to our paleolithic ancestors and that we still carry in our genes. But it is more than that. The Abbadia tradition is, actually, something akin to the "potlatch" of the North-Western native Americans. You probably know what a potlatch is, but let me report a description from Wikipedia, here.
 A potlatch involves giving away or destroying wealth or valuable items in order to demonstrate a leader's wealth and power. Potlatches are also focused on the reaffirmation of family, clan, and international connections, and the human connection with the supernatural world.
Clearly, this is a perfect description of the Fiaccole festival in Abbadia San Salvatore. It is a form of potlatch, where people demonstrate their wealth by wasting some of the resources that make them live, wood.

Think about that from the perspective of what Abbadia must have been during the Middle Ages. It is a town that sits on the side of the wooded Amiata mountain, surely inhabited mainly by woodsmen -- many people there are still woodsmen. Of course, cutting wood never made anyone rich, but for centuries it could provide a living to the families of Abbadia. 

Now, imagine yourself as a medieval woodsman: your life can only be very basic according to modern standards. You probably won't ever have, nor even see, a lot of money and your chances to buy things are very limited. Still, you are human and therefore a social animal. You want to show that your family is on a par with the others in terms of wealth. And you do that using this form of potlatch.

Note that a potlatch is possible only when the social structure of the place is not excessively unbalanced. High social differences would make the game strongly competitive with the doubly bad result that it would humiliate those at the bottom of the ladder and -- worse -- force everybody to destroy more than what they can afford to destroy. It is possible to have a wood-burning potlatch in Abbadia because the woods are managed mainly as a commons, in a rather egalitarian manner. Note also that there are strict rules limiting the size of the torches, that prevents people from overplaying their cards in the game. The idea is that every family should bring a log to the pile, but no more than that. It is, again, a way to avoid that the rich could humiliate the poor.

So, with Abbadia we have a good example of how natural resources can be reasonably well managed in the form of "commons." You remember that Garrett Hardin had spoken of the "tragedy of the commons" supposing that greed would always lead people to overexploit whatever is available to them. It doesn't happen in the real world, at least among peasants and woodsmen. Elinor Ostrom got a Nobel prize in economics for having studied exactly this subject and shown how local communities usually manage the commons well, as they do in Abbadia. 

Yes, but things are completely different if we move to larger scales, worldwide. There, we see Hardin's tragedy in full swing. We are burning fossil hydrocarbons at the fastest possible rate, we don't seem to be able to find another way to keep up with the joneses except in terms of consuming more than they do. It is as if we were thinking we can show we are richer by burning our home faster. And that happens not just at the level of families, it is at the level of entire nations. When President Trump speaks of "energy dominance" he means exactly that: the US is trying to show that it is more powerful than its neighbors by burning its oil resources faster than anyone else -- and destroying them in the process. It is potlatch in its purest form, gone out of control. We are burning everything.

Will we ever learn to manage our resources in a more rational way? Maybe it just takes time -- I am sure that it took time to arrive to manage the burning piles of Abbadia in a sustainable way. In the worldwide case, though, maybe we'll have to learn by going through one of those collapses that teach you things the hard way. Not pleasant, but maybe unavoidable.

And here are some more photos of the Abbadia Festival.

First, a photo that shows the process of the lighting of one of the torches, it is not easy and the photo gives an idea of the size of the pile.

Here us yours truly, Ugo Bardi, together with one of the "Capi-fiaccola" (torch-masters) charged with watching the tower while it burns and to make sure that nothing goes wrong and that nobody gets burned.

And, finally, me again together with a local denizen of the town, Manuela, a member of an ancient family of Abbadia. She told me that her father is a "capostipite," an honorific title in the cooperative that manages the woods around the town.

h/t the Calignano family

Monday, December 23, 2019

Polyphonic Music and the Angst of the West: A Christmas Post

Sicut Cervus, by Pierluigi da Palestrina, published in 1604. It sings Psalm 42 of the Vulgata Bible. Maybe this old motet can be seen as a Christmas gift from the Western culture to the rest of humankind

With the waning of the Middle Ages, Europe was coming out of a terrible period. The crusades had ended with a series of crushing defeats and the tremendous war effort had backfired, generating famines and the black death pandemics that killed more than 100 million Europeans. It is estimated that around 45–50% of the population perished, in some areas probably closer to 75–80%.

Yet, Europe rebounded from the disaster -- perhaps because of it. As I described in a previous post, with the 15th century the European population restarted growing, faster than before. It was probably because it could find intact natural resources that the previous collapse had left free to regrow: forests and arable land.

The 15th century was the time of the Renaissance, an age that was the start of the incredible expansion that led Western Europe to dominate most of the world after a few centuries of conquests. But the tumultuous expansion was not without internal struggle: every European state wanted a slice of the overseas bounty. Eventually, the competition would generate the great struggles of the 17th century, with Europe turning against itself with the 30-years war, the witch-burning age, and other disasters. Much before that happened, the older European cultural unity had been lost: Latin, the old universal language that had bound Medieval Europe together, was rapidly losing ground. It wasn't needed anymore.

But, before disappearing, Latin had a last moment of glory. It was the age of polyphonic music in Western Europe, a kind of delicate, sophisticated, intricate, incredibly beautiful kind of music never seen before in the world. Not that polyphony didn't exist before, it was possibly the most ancient kind of music in human history. But the Western European version that lasted from ca. 1400 to 1600 CE, was something different. Earlier on, Gregorian music -- monophonic -- had been mostly an embellishment of the sacred Latin words of the Bible. With polyphony, music asserted itself in an age when Latin was not understood anymore.

To be sure, polyphonic music was still sung in Latin and it often had religious subjects, but it was a completely different story. It was an expression of the European willingness to expand into new realms. Just in the same way as the European galleons were exploring new lands, European polyphonic music was exploring new harmonies and new ways of communications: lacking a shared language, music had to come to the rescue. Polyphonic music could be religious, but it was not necessarily so. It could take the form of a madrigal, a secular kind of music.

For some two centuries, a new harmony, never heard before, resonated in Europe. Then, as the political struggle became harsher and wider, polyphony gave way to symphonic music, better suited to the tragic and violent age that started with the great carnage of the 30-years war and expanded all the way to the disasters of the two world wars of the 20th century. It lasted until English became the new universal language. With English, music could become again linked to the human voice and to words that could be understood. A modern genre such as the rap is, after all, a return to the Gregorian approach to music as an embellishment of human language. 

Today, polyphonic music is still alive and well as a religious form of music in Eastern Europe, but it is a relic of a bygone time in Western Europe and in all the regions that recognize themselves under the wide label of "The West." Yet, we can still appreciate the technical mastery of the composers of that time, one of them was Pierluigi da Palestrina, who composed Sicut Cervus, from Psalm 45 of the Bible.

Actually, the Sicut Cervus is not just a beautiful harmony, it is something more. Its theme is a thirsty deer looking for water. It says, Sicut cervus desiderat ad fontes aquarum, ita desiderat anima mea ad te Deus.” Which you can translate as: “As a deer longs for a spring of water, so my soul longs for you, oh God.” And that, I think, can express the burning desire of the West, the angst for something that Westerners themselves don't understand but have been seeking for centuries with such a reckless enthusiasm that they set half of the world on fire. And, whatever it was that they were seeking, it seems clear that they didn't find it. Today, the parable of the Western world domination seems to be mostly concluded, even though it still flares here and there. But there remains to us something distilled from so much ardor, the music of a remote age when our ancestors had managed to create something eerie and beautiful that we can still admire, today: polyphonic music.

I noted in a previous post how all human cultures have treasures that they cherish and revere. These treasures are not the property of anyone but gifts for everyone. In that post, I cited Greta Thunberg, the young bearer of the rights of the planet, as a gift that the West may be able to offer to the world nowadays. But also a treasure from the past, Western polyphonic music, can be seen as a gift to all humankind. Will we ever see a time when human cultures will exchange only gifts and not bombs? We are not there yet but, who knows? For the time being, the West seems to be still desperately searching for something, but nobody knows exactly what.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Why we are Running Toward the Cliff at Full Speed: One of the Reasons is that People Never Change their Mind.

Below, you'll find a report on a televised debate on climate change of a few days ago, in Italy, in which I participated. Probably, you won't be familiar with some of the names and the events mentioned, yet, I thought you might found this story interesting enough to be reported in English. After all, there have to be reasons why the famous letter of the 500 (so-called) scientists who claimed to refute climate science had its origins in Italy. What the reasons for the strength of the anti-science movement in Italy is difficult to say, but it is true that Italians tend to be a little extreme when they debate. The story below is surely a good example of that. But it was interesting and, in a certain sense, even fun. The same kind of fun you have when you watch a horror movie. The difference is that, here, the characters were real people. Here is the story, translated and slightly adapted from my Italian blog. (UB). 

Years ago, one of my acquaintances told me the story of when he had ended up in jail accused of various financial crimes (but it was a political trap - I'm sure). He told me that he had a very interesting experience: among other things, in Sollicciano (the penitentiary of Florence) the inmates make excellent cheese.

Now, I don't know if I'd like to go to jail just for the sake of an experience - or maybe for some cheese. But maybe I had in mind something like that when, a few days ago, I agreed to participate in a televised debate in a TV program called "Byoblu" conducted by Claudio Messora.
You can find the registration here (in Italian). I think it can be seen as an illustration of something that Benito Mussolini said long ago, "Many enemies, much honor" (molti nemici, molto onore). In English, you might say: "it is good to be surrounded, now we can counterattack in all directions!"

In the debate, I certainly was surrounded by many enemies: a nice selection of representatives of the Italian anti-science: Franco Battaglia, Uberto Crescenti, and Enzo Pennetta. And that makes three against one. In addition, the conductor showed an old clip of the Nobel prize Carlo Rubbia where he engages in a rant against climate science (and that makes four against one). The moderator, Messora, was clearly biased, too, often using terms such as "catastrophists" and "alarmists", but his associate who collaborated in the moderation, was anti-science in a truly shameful way. There was also my colleague Marco Rosa-Clot, who is a serious and competent person, but who is not convinced of the human effect on climate. So he was not really an ally. In short, 6 against 1.

How did I get into that? I don't know - maybe I imagined myself being a samurai in a movie who takes out five or six enemies, one after the other, with a series of sword strokes. That turned out to be not so easy for me. Anyway, let me tell you how it went.

So, first of all, it wasn't difficult to manage Crescenti - a geologist with good academic credentials but with zero understanding of climate science. I was sorry to make him look like a grumpy old man who complains about everything, but that is his level.

As for Pennetta, he is someone interested in esotericism, UFOs and stuff like that, occasionally trying to criticize climate science. Let's say that it is not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Here, he literally put his head on the block in front of me, making the mistake of attacking me on a field in which he is not familiar, that of the pretended "wrong predictions of the Club of Rome." He ended up mangled by his own crap.

Then, there was the clip of the Nobel prize Rubbia - the famous one of 2014 in which he strings together a series of climate howlers that could make a wild dog run away in disgust. Here, too, it was fairly easy to manage him by pointing out how he himself had said at the end of the clip that CO2 emissions had to be reduced. My colleague Rosa Clot also gave me a hand on this.

As for Messora's minion, he had the courage to ask me if I was part of an esoteric Gnostic sect that hates humankind (it's true! You can find it in the clip). It didn't help him to win the debate.

And we come to Franco Battaglia. Here, things did not go so well for me. Battaglia was very clever: he knew that if he had used some of his typical climate arguments, such as the "tropospheric hot spot" or the "small candle in the room", I would have torn him to pieces. Instead, he used an intelligent technique, attacking from an unexpected direction. He pulled out a statement by a European politician and asked me if I agreed that 300 billion euros were enough to reduce CO2 emissions by 50% by 2050. And he asked the question with the request "answer yes or no. "

Now, this kind of tactic ("answer yes or no") is often very effective in debates. The user gets to position himself as a leader in the debate and he puts the opponent in difficulty if he falls into the trap. In this case, if I had answered yes, Battaglia would have replied with his usual rigmarole "now let's do some arithmetic" to show me that I was wrong. If I said no, he would have said, "then you agree with me." and onward with the rigmarole.

When confronted with "answer yes or no," the best thing is to react creatively. I could have answered Battaglia with something like, "I will only answer if you promise to answer yes or no to my question" and then ask him if he is paid by the Heartland Institute (this is a big weakness for him). Instead, I must confess that Battaglia took me by surprise. I reacted by counterattacking, and that allowed him to say, gloating, "Bardi refuses to answer." On this exchange, I have to say that he won. It was Rosa Clot who answered the question: he is a solid specialist in photovoltaic energy expert and he quietly demolished Battaglia's arguments. The rest of the debate was not especially interesting. 

Overall, I think I was quite effective, you can see it from the hundreds of angry comments that arrived: all against me and against climate science. It means that I hit hard enough. And now, let's see if we can learn something from this experience.

1. First, the scientific level of climate science critics is abysmally low. If you like to win easy, I suggest you discuss with people like Crescenti or Pennetta. Besides understanding nothing about climate science, they are also scarce as debaters. Think of something like Conan the Barbarian who faces an overweight accountant from Duluth (MN) in a duel.

2. The above is valid only if you can have room to argue and assert your point of view. If the moderator leaves no space for you, it is a different story. Typically, in a televised debate, the moderator can simply cut you off if you don't say the things you are supposed to say. And then you are silenced: it happened to me at least two times in debates on the Italian state TV. So beware: in these things, there are dirty tricks. Not even Conan can win if you give him a cardboard sword and tie his shoestrings together.

3. As I said in other posts, the scientific climate debate has now disappeared. It has completely morphed into a political debate. This means that it doesn't matter whether you can demolish your opponent with scientific arguments, the public will still split into factions depending on their ideological position. This is normal: when one watches a football game, he cheers for his team, not for the team that plays better. And so, have no illusions that you can convince anyone using scientific arguments. 

4. The political debate follows very different rules from the scientific debate. In politics, blows below the belt, insults, personal attacks, lies, half-truths, and the like are allowed. It is total war: you don't use the rapier but the mace. You have to be very careful and be prepared to answer even nasty questions. It is not obvious that someone who is not a politician or a journalist can stand up to the professionals. One tactic successfully used by the Italian climate scientist Stefano Caserini consists of defining strict rules before the debate. But it doesn't always work.

5. A debate of an hour and a half like the one I told you about sucks so much psychic energy that it leaves you dazzled for a couple of hours and it takes a whole day to recover. And don't read the comments you receive, you risk depression. Let's say it's a bit like going to see a horror movie - you're happy when it ends and you feel relieved because it was just fantasy. Except that the people you meet in these debates are real!

And now some final considerations. Is it worth engaging in such debates? Honestly, I'm not sure of the answer. Wouldn't it be better to simply ignore these people? Perhaps yes, certainly for people like Crescenti the principle of sitting by the river applies. But it is also true that people like Franco Battaglia are proving to be very dangerous. Battaglia knows nothing about climate science, but he understands a great deal about how communication works. He is a very intelligent man who uses all the tactics and tricks of the trade and he is very effective, especially with a less experienced and more easily influenced audience. That's his specific target, on this he learned from a true master: Silvio Berlusconi.

The problem is that Battaglia is gaining visibility in Italy as a regular contributor to Nicola Porro's blog on "Il Giornale," a major Italian right-wing newspaper. And that's no good. I believe we should strive to counteract these people in the media, not just on high-quality scientific sites. The debate is becoming tighter and harder: it is all about our survival. We should try to engage more and more directly the forces of the anti-science. 

As a last note, I wanted to thank Claudio Messora for inviting me to this debate. In a sense, he had set up a trap for me, but it is also true that he was honest by telling me first who the other participants were (apart from the gnostic esoterism guy but that, well, it was OK). Then, he promised me that he would give me space in the debate and he did exactly that. And that was good. We remain in good terms with each other and we are discussing about a new debate, one of these days.  

Monday, December 16, 2019

Why Collapse is not always a bad thing: the new book by Ugo Bardi

If you wish to receive a review copy or want to interview the author, please contact:
Elizabeth Hawkins | Springer Nature | Communications
tel +49 6221 487 8130 |  
Press Release
Why collapse is not always a bad thing
New book provides an analysis of the process of failure and collapse, and outlines principles that help us manage these challenges in our lives
Heidelberg | New York, 12 December 2019
Image: © Springer Nature

Everyone experiences collapse in their lives: you may lose your job, get sick, or a close friend or family member may die. Collapse also happens to structures such as buildings, and on a larger scale affects whole systems like companies, communities or even civilisations. In his latest book, Before the Collapse: A Guide to the Other Side of Growth, Ugo Bardi sets out an approach for facing failure and collapse on all scales. He calls his method the “Seneca Strategy” based on the teachings of the ancient Roman philosopher, Lucius Annaeus Seneca.

Bardi draws on Seneca’s philosophy to explain why collapse is a necessary part of our lives and the world, and why trying to avoid it may lead to bigger problems later on. Seneca recognised that growth is slow but ruin is rapid, yet sudden collapse does not have to take us by surprise. In six concise chapters, Bardi outlines the science behind the collapse of complex systems, how the future can be modelled, and gives numerous examples of past and possible future collapses. Some of the cases Bardi lists include natural disasters, like Florence’s Great Flood, the collapse of a business such as the bankruptcy of the video rental service Blockbuster, as well as famines, epidemics and depopulation. As Seneca famously said: “Nothing that exists today is not the result of past collapse.”

Despite the subject matter, Before the Collapse is not a pessimistic book. Although Bardi emphasizes that technological progress might not prevent collapse, he stresses that the best strategy of coping with collapse is not to resist at all costs. It is possible to rebound after collapse, argues Bardi, and the new condition that arises may even be better than the old. The book finishes with a self-help style reference list summarising the six key things we should know before a collapse is imminent.

The practical tips in this book will appeal to any readers seeking a philosophical self-help guide for coping with collapse in their lives. Before the Collapse also provides general readers with a scientific analysis of local and global disasters and offers a pragmatic approach for preparing and weathering difficult times.

About the author

Ugo Bardi teaches physical chemistry at the University of Florence in Italy. He is interested in resource depletion, system dynamics modeling, climate science and renewable energy. He has an English language blog called "Cassandra's legacy" and is also the author of two other books: Extracted: How the Quest for Global Mining Wealth is Plundering the Planet (Chelsea Green 2014) and The Limits to Growth Revisited (Springer 2011).
Further Information
About the book: Before the Collapse
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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? Difficult to believe, sure, but it is a great hope.

Your friend from the West


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, 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)