Monday, January 20, 2020

How to Predict the Future: Confessions of a Modern Cassandra

Telling the truth has always been dangerous and the original Cassandra, the Trojan prophetess, had to suffer the consequences for what she said. But there is a more interesting question: how did she manage to be right while everyone else got it wrong? Here I tell you of my experience as a modest 21st century Cassandra, with my blog. (if you like to hear the story told by the prophetess herself, you can read it here and here.)

It is traditional at the start of a new year to make predictions, but this time I would rather go back to what I have been doing for the past more than 15 years of blogging and social media activity. I have been dealing with several different subjects and, in some cases, I made predictions or I offered my assessments. How right (or wrong) was I?

I think my record was not so bad as a Cassandra. And from this record, I think there are three rules for good (let's say decent) predictions:

1. Always trust thermodynamics
2. Always mistrust claims of marvelous new technologies
3. Always remember that the system has unpredictable tipping points

So, below you'll find a list of what I think were my main successes and failures.

So, let's start with where I was right.  

2002 - The Hydrogen Economy is a Hoax. 2002 is the year when Rifkin published his book titled "The Hydrogen Economy." I had been working on hydrogen and fuel cells for some time while at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, in Berkeley, and I knew very well that things were not so easy as Rifkin painted them in his book. But, in the beginning, I have to confess that I tried to follow the crowd in search of research grants. Then, I thought it over and I decided that I had to say what I thought: this idea won't work. And I was right: 20 years later, no trace of the hydrogen economy, no hydrogen vehicles on the road, no production of hydrogen from renewable energy. Here is a 2007 post of mine on this subject

2003. No Nuclear Weapons in Iraq.  I don't think I even had a blog at that time. But I did write an assessment of mine in Italian on whether it was likely that Iraq could have had WMDs in the form of nuclear weapons. My conclusion was that it was not possible: Iraq lacked the conditions and the infrastructures needed. As a result, I was vilified in various ways and told that if I liked Iraq so much why didn't I go live there? But you know how it ended. I haven't been able to find that article of mine, but it is mentioned in this post.

2005. The compressed air car (The Eolo) is a scam.  The car running on compressed air is an idea that remained alive in Europe for some 10 years, starting in 2005. A French inventor, Guy Negré, claimed that he could mass-produce a vehicle that he called the "Eolo" that could compete with other technologies in terms of price and performance. I was a skeptical from the very beginning on the basis of some simple calculations. And I was right. More than 10 years later, Mr. Negré is no more with us, but his Eolo car never appeared on roads.

2006. Electric Cars are the future. Already in 2005, I bought myself an electric scooter and I started writing articles where I promoted electric vehicles as a good technology that could alleviate several problems we have: traffic, pollution, climate change, etc. I was right in thinking that EVs would become fashionable, even though it took some time for decision-makers to understand the point. Even today, EVs face strong resistance from an unholy alliance of oil companies, carmakers, and environmentalists. But they are going to replace traditional vehicles in the coming years.

2008. Oil prices will go down. You remember how, in 2008, oil prices had started a rally leading the barrel to be priced at $150. There was a moment of panic in which everyone was expecting prices to keep climbing even higher. They forgot that prices are the result of a compromise between offer and demand and that, since demand cannot be infinite, prices can't, either. So, in 2008 I published a post on "The Oil Drum" where I argued in this sense and I proposed that prices would go down. It was what happened.

2011. Andrea Ross's e-cat is a scam. In 1989, I had witnessed the first claims of "cold fusion." The story swept through the scientific world like a tsunami, but it turned out to have been a mistake. It also triggered infinite attempts of imitation, some of which were outright scams. One was the story of the "E-Cat" invented by Andrea Rossi in Italy. After some initial attempts of assessment, it was clear to me that it was a total hoax, and I said that more than once. Actually, it should have been clear to everybody, but Rossi generated a group of faithful followers who engaged, among other things, in insulting and vilifying the unbelievers. Now, almost 10 years after the first claim by Rossi that he would soon start mass-producing his machine, I think it can be said that it was a hoax. Find the story here.

2011. The Limits to Growth was Right!  In 2011, I published my first assessments of the story of "The Limits to Growth," study and later on, in 2014, a book titled "The Limits to Growth Revisited," my first book in English. I re-examined the whole story how of the study was rejected and demonized, widely described as containing "wrong predictions". I concluded that there was nothing wrong in the book and that its rejection was one of the first examples of a negative PR campaign designed to discredit scientific results that were considered harmful to some political or industrial lobby. My assessment was among the first studies that led to a re-evaluation of the study that's still ongoing. It is still early to say if one or another of the 12 scenarios published in the 1972 book was "right" but there is no doubt that the study is now considered a milestone in the understanding of complex systems, as it deserves to be. In this sense, I had made a correct prediction.

2016. The "Sower's Way:" Photovoltaic Energy is the future. Here, I have been always a sustainer of PV energy, since 2005, when I placed PV panels on the roof of my house. I think I was right too, especially when PV reached "grid parity" with other technologies producing electric power. But it is moving onward. I marked the "2016" date because it is when I published a paper dealing with the concept of the "Sower's Way," that is, that we need to invest fossil energy to build up the new renewable energy infrastructure. We are moving in that direction, although facing a dogged resistance by groups of greenies who have decided that we all have to die in the darkness.

Now some cases in which I turned out to be wrong.

2003 -- Peak oil in 2010. Here, I don't think I ever made a peak date prediction myself, but I have been a "peak oiler," among other things the president of the Italian section of ASPO, the association for the study of peak oil. So, I have to share the blame for the two mistakes that peakers made. The first was to focus on the "peak" as if it was an equivalent of the apocalypse and spending inordinate amounts of time to try to predict the exact date when it would arrive. The second was to underestimate the importance that "non-conventional" oil could have had. We didn't realize that shale oil is not so much an economic resource as it is a strategic dominance weapon. There have been several predictions (including mine) that the shale "bubble" was going to burst, but so far it has not.

2005 -- EROI is a metric that can help us choose the best alternatives for the future.  When I discovered the concept of EROI (energy returned on energy investment) or EROEI (energy return on energy invested), developed by Odum and Hall, it was a small epiphany for me: here is an objective, scientific, rational way to evaluate the best technologies for the future. I wrote my first paper on the subject in 2005, and it became rather popular in Italy. Well, I didn't imagine what the reptilian part of human brains could do when it understood what EROI was and what could it be used for. The concept was stretched, massacred, mongrelized, cut to pieces and made into a stew, and more. Whoever had an interest in making a certain technology look good could find ways to juggle the numbers and assign to it a high EROI. The reverse was also possible. So, you can find studies that assign an EROI <1 to photovoltaics and > 100 to nuclear energy, and also the reverse. At this point, EROI has become a useless metric, destroyed by too much politics applied to it.

2009 -- High Altitude Wind Energy: the Kitegen. In 2009, I published on the Oil Drum a very positive assessment of high altitude wind energy, in particular of the prototype being developed in Italy, called the Kitegen. I was way too optimistic. High altitude wind power turned out to be much more difficult to develop than it had seemed to be at the beginning. There is nothing in the idea that goes against the laws of physics but, evidently, there are big problems, probably related to the control of the kites. Today, 10 years later, high altitude wind energy remains an unfulfilled promise, even though there still exist companies engaged in the field. I continue to think that this technology can play a role in the future, but it won't be the game-changer it seemed to be 10 years ago.

2019 - Greta Thunberg: the unexpected storm.  In 2018 I published a post in which I examined the trends of the "climate change" meme, concluding that the public interest for it was declining and that soon nobody would have been interested in it anymore. I was wrong: in 2019 Greta Thunberg appeared, changing everything. As I wrote in a later post, I made the classic mistake that all forecasters make: thinking that past trends will also be future trends. Sometimes it is true, at times it is deadly wrong, as in this case. It is curious to note how the young Swedish lady has been playing in the real world the role that Asimov's character, "The Mule" played in the "Foundation" series: something outside statistics and unpredictable by models.


There may be more things wrong and right that I said, after all, I calculated that I infested the Web with something like 3 million words, up to now! So, if you remember something I wrote that was egregiously wrong or right, tell me in the comments, I'll see to add it as a note to this post.

Overall, maybe I could have done better, but I think that if Lady Cassandra is seeing me from wherever she is now, in Hades, she may be nodding in approval!

Friday, January 17, 2020

Climate Change: A Concise Assessment of What we are Risking.

The text below is a translation of a post that I published in the Italian newspaper "Il Fatto Quotidiano" about two months ago. The idea was to provide a concise statement on the climate situation (no more than 650 words allowed).  I tried to emphasize the risks involved with the "climate tipping points" and criticize the common idea that, since "the Earth's climate has always been changing,"  there follows that "human activities can't affect climate". I can't really say what impact this article may have had -- normally my posts on "Il Fatto" score a few thousand clicks. But, if you have the time to read the comments (78 in total), you may notice that many commenters were not even vaguely touched by my arguments and continued repeating their typical statements, "where is the proof?" "These are just models," "Nobody knows exactly what's the climate sensitivity factor," "The Club of Rome made wrong predictions," etc.  And so it goes....

The failure of the Madrid climate negotiations, the Cop25, was not really unexpected. Even today, very few people, be they politicians or citizens, understand the risks of what's happening, and those who do are accused of "alarmism". But how long can we carry on as if nothing is happening? What do we risk if we do nothing?

The answer is that we risk much more than we can afford. Many studies tell us
this, among others also a recent article published in Nature titled "Climate tipping points — too risky to bet against." Even without going into the details, the title is clear enough to understand that the matter is becoming dramatic. But why so much concern among scientists?

We can summarize the problem in one short sentence: the Earth's climate is unstable. It is something that is emerging with ever greater force from all studies in climate science. Of course, the fact that the climate always changes is a favorite argument of those who deny climate science. Their reasoning is: "the climate has always changed, therefore man has nothing to do with it." Wrong, very wrong: what we learn from past climate changes is instead that the Earth's climate changes easily and, therefore, is not so difficult to change it. And that's where the risk is.

Today the climate seems stable to us because human civilization has developed over a period of about 10,000 years of modest changes in temperature. Some people enjoy speculating about these small variations, for instance discussing how Hannibal's elephants could cross the Alps. Maybe, at the time, it was a bit warmer than today, but they must have had quite some problems with freezing trunks.

But, if we go further back in time, we see that the Earth's climate has seen real, strong, and dramatic changes. In the past, over a span of about a million years, our planet has seen episodes of intense glaciation interspersed with relatively warm periods, such as the one we live in today. In the more distant past, the Earth saw much more radical and catastrophic changes.

To push the Earth from a glacial period to an interglacial one does not take much: small perturbations are enough, the so-called "Milankovitch cycles", related to asymmetries of the movement of the earth around the sun. But what humans are causing with their greenhouse gas emissions and other factors is a much stronger perturbation that drives us to a warmer, much warmer, planet.

What could happen then? There is talk of temperatures
high enough to destabilize the ice caps at the poles and make them disappear. It would not be the first time that the Earth has no ice at the poles, on the contrary, it is a condition that has occurred commonly in the distant past. But, if the biosphere can live even without ice, our civilization has developed with icecaps at the poles, in climatic conditions that have made possible agriculture, trade, maritime transport, and more.

To create enormous damage to us, we don't even need that the icecaps disappear completely. It is enough to lose an important fraction of the ice to change everything: the sea level would rise to submerge existing ports, then we would see acidification and oceanic anoxia, desertification, mass extinctions and a few more effects that would imperil the survival of human civilization difficult, if not actually of our species.

This is the reason for the great concern: it is not so much the fact that the temperature increases, it is that we face the risk of jumping sharply from one climatic state to another without knowing where we will end up. However, we continue to discuss without taking action: few realize that we risk much more than we can afford.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Iran, Oil, and War: The End of the Carter Doctrine?

The "Oil Corridor," where the largest oil resources in the world are located. It was generated by events that took place during the Jurassic period. Those events can't be affected by politics, but they can affect politics.

For a while, the situation with the USA-Iran standoff looked like a scene in an old Western movie:  two drunken gunmen facing each other in the saloon. Fortunately, things calmed down and, for this time, it seems that no war on Iran is in sight, at least in the short term. Perhaps we have been lucky, perhaps some benevolent deity took care of the situation, or, perhaps, there is a logic in these events.

History often moves along the whim of leaders but even mad leaders must take into account reality. And this seems to be what happened in this case. It is possible that we are seeing the end of the "Carter Doctrine" that was stated in 1980. The idea was, and it is still today, that the control of the Middle East is of "vital interest" for the US. That was based on reality as it was in 1980, now reality is different and so there is a reason for the change. But let's see the whole story from the beginning.

It all started long ago, during the Jurassic period, when the slow sedimentation of an ancient sea created a strip of oil fields that goes from the Caucasus and the Caspian Sea, in central Eurasia, all the way South to Yemen, crossing Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and other states of the region. It is there that most of the world's oil is. More than 20% of all the oil produced today goes through the narrow strait of Hormuz, a critical point of the world's geopolitical map.

So, back to the early 1980s, the US had been the dominant world power for nearly four decades after the victory in World War II. As usual, geography is the mother of empires, and it was because of its vast national oil resources that the US could come to play that role. But oil production in the US had peaked in 1970 and was declining. No oil, no Empire. It was necessary to find new resources and the Middle East region was the richest in the world. A natural target.

The struggle for the Oil of the Middle East had already started in the 1950s, when the prime minister of Iran, Mohamed Mossadeq, was overthrown in 1953 by a coup orchestrated by the United States. Then, there was the period in which the US more or less controlled the Iran government using the Shah as a proxy. Then there came the Iranian revolution in 1978-79 and the result was the toppling of the Shah. At that point, in 1980, President Carter stated his "doctrine" -- really nothing more than a description of what had been going on up to then.

You know the troubled story of the Middle East in the years that followed. The disastrous Iraq-Iran war (1980 - 1988). The US going "boots on the ground" first in Kuwait in 1991, then invading Iraq in 2003. At that time (and also later on) it was fashionable to say that "boys can go to Baghdad, but real men want to go to Tehran." Maybe it was a joke, but it could have been deadly serious. It is part of the logic of empires to expand.

Eventually, the invasion of Iran never took place and it looks like it never will. It is, again, the way Empires function. They are like a tide, they ebb and flow. The American Empire flowed into Iraq, now it is ebbing back. Most commenters of the recent events agree that we are seeing the first stages of the US bringing their troops at home. It will take time, but it is written on the walls of the Martyr Monument in Baghdad. 

Apart from the antics of the madmen in power, there is a logic in the US abandoning Iraq. Someone, somewhere in Washington D.C., must have asked the question: "why exactly do we keep troops in Iraq?" Yes, why? The typical answer up to not long ago would have been "to secure the oil." But things have changed. The once very abundant oil resources of the Middle East are unavoidably being depleted. Some producers, Syria and Yemen, are already in terminal decline. Of the others, none has the capability of significantly increasing production and all are expected to go into decline in the coming years (you may have heard of the recent discovery of "53 billion barrels" of oil in Iran. Yes, and they also found a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow).

At the same time, the US really found a pot of black gold in shale oil, to the point that during the past few years they managed to increase their oil production to levels higher than the earlier 1970 peak. That shale oil is a good deal in economic terms is questionable, to say the least. But the US elites have become convinced not only that they are truly self-sufficient in terms of energy, but that this self-sufficiency will continue for the foreseeable future, perhaps forever because shale oil is seen as practically infinite. And they see shale oil as a strategic dominance weapon.

At this point, many things start making sense: the oil from the Middle East is not anymore a "vital interest" for the US as it was at the times of Jimmy Carter. So, why pay good money to keep troops there? Those troops are useful only to those spineless Europeans who still depend on oil imports, but why should America pay? Besides, in the current situation, American troops are just sitting ducks waiting for the next rain of missiles coming from those bearded fanatics. So, let's bring the troops back home. Then, we'll be able to assassinate anyone at will in the region without fearing for retaliation. 

And that seems to be how things stand, for now -- unless someone makes some mistake and the fireworks restart. But it is a confirmation that it is geography that creates empires and, also that the geography of oil keeps changing. We'll see more changes in the future, the only sure thing is that, unlike what some people believe, oil is not infinite.

Monday, January 6, 2020

The Profession of Arms: Of Vile Leaders and Courageous Ones

Above, you can see an amazing clip from the 2001 movie by Ermanno Olmi "The Profession of Arms". It is the story of the march on Rome of the German Landsknechts led by Georg von Frundsberg in 1526. They were faced by an army commanded by Giovanni de' Medici, known as Giovanni Dalle Bande Nere (Italian: Giovanni of the Black Bands). Giovanni was killed in battle near Mantua on Nov 30, 1526, while Von Frundsberg's army went on to sack Rome in 1527.

The movie has defects, like all movies, and the attempt to cast Giovanni de Medici as an early patriot means stretching the historical reality more than a little. But it remains a beautiful and intense movie. It manages to make you feel like you were in battle yourself in an age when firearms had just started to make armor obsolete. It was, possibly, the last period in history when leaders fought on the front line.

The scene of Giovanni's death summarizes the whole movie. It shows the two enemy commanders facing each other for a few moments and saluting each other before starting the battle where Giovanni will be mortally wounded. It may not be a completely realistic scene, but its intensity is unbelievable. It grips your attention from the first instant to the last. And it has a deep meaning that you can't miss.

Maybe Giovanni de Medici was not a hero, maybe he was just a mercenary, and he might have had plenty of human failings. But a hero is someone who does his duty when facing difficult tasks and the historical Giovanni de' Medici did just that, personally facing his enemies in battle. Just for this, we are authorized to remember him as a hero.

Things have changed from those ancient times and weapons are not the same as they were. But there remains a duty for a leader to take upon himself the risks and the consequences of is actions. If he does, he will be remembered and revered. If he doesn't, he will be considered a spineless coward, as he deserves to be.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Leader Assassination in the Age of Drones: A Suggestion for an Invulnerable President

Captain Birds Eye and his fish sticks. He is a reassuring, fatherly, positive presence. Why don't we elect him as president? The advantage is that he can't be assassinated since he doesn't exist. 

Long ago, leaders used to fight on the frontline with their troops. Everything changed with the invention of firearms, when the leaders discovered that they were magnets for enemy fire and they had to distance themselves from the frontline. Napoleon used to stay at a safe distance from the battlefield, although close enough that he could see what was going on. More than a century later, during WW2, Adolf Hitler spent most of his time secluded in his bunker in Berlin. In 2003, Saddam Hussein barely managed to survive the American bombing by moving frequently and hiding in bunkers.

But the life of the leaders is dangerous also in peacetime. 4 US presidents out of a total of 45 have been assassinated while in office. It corresponds to a probability of about 9%. As a comparison, American soldiers in Iraq had just a 0.4% probability to die during the 2003 invasion. Most high-level leaders take extreme precautions nowadays to avoid all risks, rarely appearing in public, if ever.

But, with the arrival of drone technologies, things have changed for the worse for leaders. The recent assassination of Commander Qasem Soleimani in Bagdad is a case in point. Targeting him using a drone was surprisingly easy and it carried almost no risks for the people who had planned the assassination. Drones are inexpensive and accurate weapons: no government in the world has a monopoly on military drone technology. It doesn't even need to be a drone belonging to a specific armed force: it could be bought, hired, or hacked. So, what would happen if a drone were to "take out," say, President Trump while he plays golf in Palm Beach?

The assassination in Bagdad has suddenly made the life of all high-level government officers a nightmare. They are not safe anywhere from rogue drones targeting them. Will they have to spend their life hidden in bunkers? Maybe, but perhaps there is a better way: go into secrecy. Imagine that nobody really knows for sure who is the president of the United States. It is rumored that he might be someone named Donald Trump, but most people think it is highly improbable that such a person could really be the US president. So, what sense would it make to drone him?

Farfetched? Maybe, but think about this: it is the way mafia works. You never know who the real mafia bosses are, although there are rumors about this or that person being one of them. That means they are hard to target. Are governments different from the mafia? I would say not. They are mostly criminal organizations dominated by powerful economic lobbies. So, why not to adopt the strategies that the ancient mafia has honed to near perfection over centuries of struggle?

If governments are shady organizations dedicated to criminal activities, then it makes sense for the high profile bosses to quietly disappear from the public view, just as mafia bosses do. It is already likely that most of our leaders are just front men for powerful forces hiding behind, then why not go one step further and turn them into virtual leaders? Yes, something like Captain Birds Eye, the mascot of fish sticks. Actually, he would make an excellent figure for a president: he looks fatherly, dependable, charismatic, and more. And he would be impossible to assassinate since he doesn't exist. At best, you could assassinate one of the actors playing him, but by using deep-fake technologies you don't even need actors. The president can be completely virtual.

Now, you may think that people will never accept to be ruled by a virtual president. Maybe, but consider that most people, especially in the US, are used to take orders and counsel from a non-existing being. It would take very little to convince them that a virtual president is the best for them. You could even tell them that they can choose their president they like. How about Captain Birds Eye pitted against Ronald McDonald in the next presidential elections?

Eventually, most government officers could become virtual. Maybe it wouldn't be a worse world than the present one, although it might be a little confusing. But it already is, anyway. Don't you have the sensation that you are living in a videogame? Yes, one of these games where a monster appears every time you turn a corner. And now that I think about that, see, I was discussing about virtual leaders created by deep fake technology. So, about Donald Trump. . . .


The name "Captain Birds Eye" is a registered trademark of Birds Eye, an international brand of frozen food. The use of this term in this post is not intended to indicate an association with or sponsorship by Birds Eye, nor is it intended to disparage their fine products. (and I hope you read Kurt Vonnegut's novel "Breakfast of Champions." (1973). If you didn't, do it, it is worth reading)


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)