Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

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.
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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 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 and insulted in various ways and told that if I loved Saddam so much, why didn't I go live in Iraq? 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 (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 skeptical from the very beginning on the basis of some simple calculations. And I was right. No matter how I was insulted by some diehard followers of the Eolo, more than 10 years later, Mr. Negré is no more with us, but his Eolo car never appeared on roads.

2005. 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  - I never received so many insults in my life as I did from this bunch of madmen. 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, 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 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 was an objective, scientific, rational way to evaluate the best technologies for the future. I wrote my first paper on the subject in 2005. That text became rather popular in Italy. But 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 if one wanted to demonize a certain technology. 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. In 2009, I published on the Oil Drum a positive assessment of high altitude wind energy, in particular of the prototype being developed in Italy, 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.

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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!



Who

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)