Monday, July 27, 2020

Fighting Overpopulation: Ten methods to exterminate most of humankind

First of all, a disclaimer: I am not advocating the extermination of anyone! This post is just an attempt of mine to place myself in the boots of the bad guys who could think of doing such a thing and examine how they could do it. Could these scenarios occur for real? I don't know but, as I say at the beginning of this blog, "always plan for the worst case hypothesis"

You know that there are people whom we call the "powers that be" (PTB) who can do things that we commoners can't even dream of doing. Obviously, they can't miss the fact that for decades the world's best scientists have been speaking about a coming collapse of the global ecosystem, mainly because of climate change. So, would they act on this knowledge? And, if so, how?

Like everybody else, the PTBs think in terms of their personal survival and some of them reacted to the threat by buying desert bunkers and stockpiling food and weapons in there. But what if some of them decided to take a more proactive stance? When the PTB decide that something is to be done, they usually succeed by a combination of propaganda, money, and sheer force. And you don't have to think that they are especially smart. They may well reason in simplified terms: what is the cause of the coming collapse? Those pesky humans, of course. Then, an obvious solution is to get rid of most of them.

The bad guys who plan the extermination of humankind are a classic element of science fiction, but large scale exterminations are a constant of real history. So, what shape could a large scale extermination plan take, nowadays? In the following, I tried to provide an answer. I don't know if I am evil enough for the task and, fortunately, I am not in the position to implement any of these plans. Also, I am sure I am teaching nothing to people who are much more evil than me. But here is what I came up with. The list doesn't include ways to reduce natality, only straight extermination. No "Armageddon Machines" either, I am considering methods that would leave at least someone alive. The methods are classed from the least efficient to the most efficient.

1. Biological warfare. A much-touted weapon that never delivered the promises it made. It is very difficult to attack a healthy population with a pathogen sufficiently lethal to generate a true extermination. The recent Covid-19 epidemic shows the problem: it was highly contagious but not very deadly. Indeed, if it had been much more lethal, it couldn't have diffused so fast. In the end, it caused little damage. At the end of the current cycle, the number of victims will probably be around 2 million, maybe more, but that's hardly a way to exterminate humankind if you consider that every year in the world some 60 million people die and about 140 million are born. Then, there is a worse problem: even if a pathogen with the appropriate lethality and infectivity could be developed, how can the exterminators avoid being exterminated? They may have a secret vaccine, but vaccines are never perfectly efficient and pathogens rapidly mutate, making vaccines useless. Overall evaluation: It just doesn't work.
    2. Warfare. Wars can kill a large number of people but they normally stop short of exterminating whole populations. A state or coalition of states may wipe out the military forces of a less powerful coalition, but then the war is over and there is little incentive to keep killing civilians who are more useful as slaves than as cadavers. That's why in history wars are associated at most with a short term drop in population for the losing side. Besides, war is hugely expensive. You may use bullets, bombs, poison gases, or even just machetes, but you still have to manage armies, people, supplies, weapons, etc. All that just exterminate defenseless civilians? It makes little sense. Overall evaluation: too expensive.

    3. Mass Poisoning. Food or water poisoning is a time-tested killing method that can be applied at various scales. In the simplest case, you can drop some rat poison in your aunt's coffee to cash in on her inheritance. On a larger scale, you could try to poison the food supply or the water supply of an entire country. The problem is how to do that without the targets reacting to the threat. That may not be difficult with an old aunt, but not so easy with a whole country. One trick could be to use a slow poison that doesn't kill before at least a few years. Indeed, much of what people eat nowadays can be considered as poison: excess sugar, heavy metals, plastic microparticles, carcinogenic chemicals, and more. But most of these systemic poisons are too slow to be useful as mass-extermination weapons since they tend to kill people only after they had a chance to reproduce. Psychoactive drugs may do better, but they also tend to be too slow. For instance, in the case of heroin, perhaps the most powerful drug available today, the number of lost years of life expectancy for average users is around 18. So, if the life expectancy in the US is 79, it means that heroin addicts die at 60 on the average -- not fast enough for meaningful mass extermination. We would need something like the fictional "Vibr" psychoactive drug invented by Antonio Turiel that kills users in five years. Such a drug doesn't exist so far, but it may be possible to create it. If it were cheap enough, it would indeed be a weapon of mass extermination. Overall evaluation: promising but not yet practical.

    4. Climate Weapons. Altering the climate can surely kill a lot of people and that's exactly what the current global warming caused by human emission is geared to do in the coming decades. But this change will be long-lasting: we may not return to the pre-warming conditions before several tens of thousands of years have passed, and perhaps it will never happen. That's not what the PTB want: their objective is to get rid of most of the current population while leaving the planet mostly intact. Can we think of some climate weapon that would leave a habitable planet to the survivors? An interesting possibility is of engineering a "volcanic winter" by spreading large amounts of dust in the atmosphere, blocking the sun and starving people because of the damage to agriculture. In principle, the dust would settle after a few years and the planetary climate would return to what it was before. This scenario could be created by lobbing nukes into active volcanoes. The dust generated in this way should remain in the atmosphere long enough to starve to death most of the human population, while the rich would survive in their well-stocked bunkers. The main problem is how to calibrate the dust injection. If you exaggerate, you may damage the ecosystem so badly that it will need millions of years to recover, and you probably can't survive for so long in a bunker. Conversely, if the eruptions kill "just" a few billion people, the survivors won't be kind to you when they see you emerging unscathed out of your bunker. Overall evaluation: tempting, but too risky. 

    5. Weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). It is a very popular concept, but not easy to define. Apart from being used as a propaganda tool to demonize 2nd-rate dictators, what do we mean exactly with "weapons of mass destruction"? The answer seems to be weapons involving a large kills/cost ratio and that can be used on a large scale, the typical example is nuclear weapons. There is little else that could qualify as "WMD," maybe radioactive poisoning substances and powerful electromagnetic pulses could do the job, but both need to be triggered by nuclear explosions so one could as well use the real thing. There is no doubt that a large scale nuclear war would exterminate a lot of people. The problem is that, although these weapons in themselves are not very expensive, the damage they do to infrastructures is gigantic, among other things making large areas uninhabitable for decades or even centuries -- to say nothing about possible disastrous climatic effects. That's not what a rational exterminator would want. Overall evaluation: may work, but it is too destructive.
      6. Ethnic/political/ideological cleansing. It seems to be easy to convince people that their neighbors are evil because they speak a different language, their skin color is slightly different, or they tend to eat disgusting stuff. Sometimes, it happens even without the need of a propaganda operation. The result is often the extermination of a minority singled out as "bad," with the majority happily collaborating with the government in the task, or doing the extermination themselves. There have been many historical cases, the most recent one being the extermination of the Tutsi in Rwanda. Remarkably, that extermination was carried out by willing executioners who did the work for free and used weapons that weren't more sophisticated than machetes. So, it is a very cheap method of getting rid of a large number of people. The problem is that, for obvious reasons, a minority cannot normally exterminate a majority. So, in history, the method didn't normally result in an overall reduction of the population of the area where it was applied. Even the Rwandan disaster caused just a small bump in a population curve that later on restarted growing. Overall evaluation: risky and not very effective.

      7. Eugenics. Eugenic policies are not normally thought of as ways to exterminate large numbers of people, but that may well be their side effect. Typical methods used involve forced sterilization, but may arrive at the physical elimination of people judged to be a burden to society. In modern times, eugenics in the form of "involuntary euthanasia" was used in practice only in Germany, during the Nazi rule. The number of German citizens eliminated in this way can be estimated as of the order of 100,000, not enough to have an effect on the German population. But, given enough time, the idea of getting rid of the useless people who are just a burden for society could be expanded and used for true mass extermination. Imagine laws that sentence everyone to death after reaching a certain age. So far they have been only described in fiction, such as in the 1978 movie "Logan's run," but fiction has a certain way to trickle into reality. Overall evaluation: a promising method, but not proven. 

      8. Slaughterbots. Drones are the most fashionable weapon of our times and the concept of "slaughterbots" has been recently proposed: the idea is to build small and cheap drones that locate human beings and explode near their heads -- or do something equally nasty that kills people. Such small bots could cost no more than a smartphone and we know that more than 10 billion such phones were built since 2007. So, it would be reasonably possible to build billions of slaughterbots in a decade or so and spread them around the world. The poor would be the easiest to target, while the rich would be able to escape by having passwords to stop the bots, or simply hiding in suitable bunkers. Is it farfetched? Not at all: killer drones are being built right now. So far, they are very expensive and the reported number of people killed is in the range of a few thousands, at least officially. But the cost per kill ratio could be greatly reduced, just as it happened for cell phones. And, then, all the options are on the rotors. Overall evaluation: very promising and already in progress. 

      9. Famines. Famines are well-known mass killers. Perhaps the most interesting case is the Irish famine of the mid 19th century. The Irish population depended on a monoculture, the potato crop, and when it failed for a few years in a row, half of the population of Ireland was wiped out. Today, the world's crops are much more resilient and agriculture seems to be still able to produce large amounts of food. But the problem, as I described in a previous post, is not food production, it is food supply. The world's food supply is vulnerable to a single factor: the globalized marine transportation system that carries food from producers to consumers and fertilizers and pesticides from the manufacturers to the users. If this system can be disrupted, the likely result will be that several billions of people would die by starvation. Wrecking the transportation system could be obtained by a war or, even more simply, by a downturn in the globalized financial system. In several respects, famine is the perfect extermination weapon. It costs little in comparison to its effects, it kills the poor while sparing the rich, it has long-lasting effects. It may not even need a specific intervention by the PTB, since it may develop by itself. Overall evaluation: Among the most effective methods available. 

      10. Propaganda. "Consensus Building" (also known as "propaganda" or "psyops") is a set of technologies that define the structure and the functioning of the Western society. Propaganda seems to be able to convince people of just about anything, so could it be used for depopulating a country? Of course, it is hard to convince people to kill themselves, but it was attempted at least once in history. During the last phases of WW2, the British diffused postcards in Germany, supposedly issued by the German government, with detailed instructions on how to hang oneself (coded H1321 and H.1380). Nobody can say if the several thousand German civilians who committed suicide before the arrival of the allied troops did that as an effect of the British pro-suicide propaganda, surely it was an interesting attempt. But propaganda can be used in different and more creative ways. Typically, people can be convinced to do something that's contrary to their own interest if they are sufficiently scared that not doing that would lead to worse consequences. So, propaganda could convince most people in the US that a universal health care system is bad for them because it would be "communism". Then, propaganda can be used to convince people to eat unhealthy food, use health-damaging medicaments, refuse life-saving cures, and more. All that is being done right now, but the scare tactics can be stepped up with more rapid results. For instance, some people were so scared of the coronavirus epidemic that they thought it was a good idea to drink bleach to fight it. This effect was probably not expected, but ways to obtain it on a much larger scale could surely be developed. Overall evaluation: Still to be studied, but shows great promise. 

      And here we stand. After this exercise, I thought I would feel shocked just because of having thought of these ideas. But, really, I wasn't. What you discover by thinking the unthinkable is that nothing is too evil that it wasn't thought at some time in history, and sometimes put into practice. Also, I am not really worried that I could inspire someone into being more evil than they already are. So, I leave this text here as an exercise. Hopefully, none of these methods will ever be used, but the future always surprises you.

      A comment from Ugo Bardi's personal troll, Mr. Kunning-Druger

      And I see, Mr. Bardi, that as usual, you are stupid enough to reveal the plans of your friends and acolytes. The people who are engaged in these extermination plans are not those you call the "PTB" but the greenies who have been engaged in that task since the idea was proposed for the first time by the evil group of which you are part, the Club of Rome. Fortunately, their predictions turned out to be all wrong and they were discovered and prevented from carrying out their plans. Now we know that there are no limits to growth and your evil ideas will keep being thwarted and it is good that it will be so. 


      Thursday, July 23, 2020

      Overpopulation: Are You Sure it is an Ignored Problem?

      In the 1960s and 1970s, the problem of world overpopulation was often debated, and birth control was proposed as a solution. It soon became politically incorrect even to mention this subject in public, but it may be that it wasn't forgotten, but it is rather being acted upon in ways that don't involve a public debate. I recognize that this post is a little catastrophistic, but some posts just write themselves and this is what happened with this one

      In July of every year, the WWF usually alerts of the arrival of the "Fish Dependence Day" that marks the date when the European consumption of fish equals the projected yearly production from European seas. There follows that, from that day onward, Europeans eat only imported fish or offshore fish up to the end of the year. It is just one of the many indicators of the overexploitation of the world's natural resources, fish is just an example as I and my coworker Perissi describe in our recent book "The Empty Sea".

      You probably know that the politically correct way to mention overexploitation is to say that we should be more careful, consume a little less, diversify, avoid the most overexploited stocks of resources, and that then everything will be well. This is the way I reported the 2020 Fish Dependence Day in an article I wrote for an Italian newspaper. But the anonymous comments I received were most politically incorrect: the majority of them blamed overpopulation. Most of these comments were not sophisticated: the idea was simply that the fewer people there are, the less the pressure on the ecosystem is. So, reduce the population and -- magically -- all problems are solved, from fish depletion to climate change.

      Of course, that brings a small problem: how do you reduce population? The politically correct way to mention the problem is to immediately add a disclaimer in which you explain that you are not planning to kill or sterilize anyone, but just to use rational arguments to convince people that it is in their best interest to have fewer children. But, as you may imagine, even the disclaimer above won't save you from attacks from both sides of the problem: some people will accuse you to deny the population problem, others to overemphasize it, and both will accuse you of planning the extermination of humankind.

      But in this post, let me try the untriable and face the unfaceable. In other words, to discuss how could states and societies act on overpopulation once they decide it is an important problem? (and, maybe, they already have decided that)

      Let's start by saying that the whole debate on population, as it is today, is pure smoke and mirrors, as most public debates are. It is the way things are: debates are not there to take decisions, they are encouraged by the powers that be (PTB) in order to create confusion, divide the public, and make any decision difficult or impossible -- especially those decisions that the PTB don't like. But that doesn't mean decisions are not taken. It is just that they derive from different mechanisms. 

      In some cases, decisions are taken by the PTB and then forced on people by means of laws, police, jails, and the like. Perhaps more often, they are the result of a form of collective intelligence that exists in all societies. No man is an island, and that applies also to decisions regarding family size: humans do not breed like rabbits. They decide according to a wide range of social conventions, laws, customs, peer pressure, and more. And the result is a certain degree of "population policy" that takes hold even in the absence of specific laws. As I describe in my book "The Seneca Effect", the Japanese society attained a nearly perfect population stabilization during the Edo period without any specific government intervention.

      But often things are not so idyllic. Let's see a few historical examples, approximately ordered in terms of increasingly proactive societal intervention.

      1. Ireland after the great famine. You probably know the story of the great famine that struck Ireland starting in 1846. In about one decade, Ireland had lost about half of its population to a combination of starvation, disease, and emigration. The interesting point of this story is that the Irish did NOT try to compensate for the losses by having more children. They did exactly the opposite, they reduced birthrates. The Irish of those times didn't have good contraceptives, but they coped mainly by retarding the marriage age and by adopting a lifestyle that discouraged sexual activity among young people. And they did the right thing: after the famine, the Irish population grew at a much slower rate than before, and today it has not yet reached the level of before the great famine. This is a very interesting story because it shows how a whole society can take a decision on a collective behavior without the need for this decision being enforced by a government. But note also that the Irish arrived at this decision only after having being struck with the equivalent of a hammer blow to the head. The Irish society as a whole had no predictive capabilities, it could only act after the disaster had already taken place.

      2. The demographic transition. The modern decline of birthrates called the "demographic transition" can take different forms. In China, an official government program was enforced in the 1970s to limit the families to one child each. It involved financial penalties and forced sterilization and it was kept in place until 2016. The results were not so drastic as it might have been expected and the Chinese population continued to increase, although at progressively slower rates. In the West, the transition was more gradual and it may have started with the beginning of the 20th century, but the results were similar: slow decline of birthrates and gradual stabilization of the population size. In both cases, we may say that society reacted to the perception that population couldn't continue to grow exponentially forever. It may not be impossible that in both China and the West society had metabolized some of the results of the "Limits to Growth" study of 1972 and were reacting to it, even though the study soon became another politically incorrect story. For the Chinese, the result was an explicit government program of birth control, something that was possible in a strong state as argued by Chandran Nair in his recent book "The Sustainable State." In the West, instead, the concept of "birth control" soon became unspeakable in political terms, but it was implemented in practice by Western women on their own initiative.This case shows that there is a certain degree of societal intelligence that can react to the assessment of future threats. It is a limited capability though. The decline in birthrates was very slow and didn't lead to a population decline.

      3. Eugenic policies in the West. This is a sensitive subject, not often discussed and for which it is not easy to find extensive data. In any case, eugenics is not, normally, about reducing the population size, but that may well be a side effect. Typical methods used involve forced sterilization and may arrive at "involuntary euthanasia." (a nice euphemism, although not so impressive as others that came in fashion in later times, such as "humanitarian bombs"). Eugenics made a fleeting appearance during the first half of the 20th century (and a little beyond that) in the West, mostly in the US and in Germany. In the US, eugenic policies had a decidedly racial aspect. Sterilizations targeted mostly minority groups seen as inferior (Blacks, Mexicans, Native Americans, etc.), but it doesn't seem that forced euthanasia was used. In Germany, the idea arrived later, with the Nazis in the 1930s, but it was practiced with much more enthusiasm and it involved the elimination of entire minority groups. We all know the case of the Jews, but the German state also engaged in the killing of a significant number of German citizens, although not on a scale that could reduce the population size. This case is interesting because it shows how a society can literally go crazy and enact drastic measures of population control that are not only probably useless but surely evil.

      These are just examples, but I think it is possible to take a few general conclusions from them. The main one is that a society under strain may react by enacting laws or developing customs to influence the population size. Up to relatively recent times, states tried to overcome crises by increasing the birthrate of their citizens -- some still do that. It was a way to obtain more cannon fodder (or, even earlier, more blade fodder). But with the 20th century, military might was not anymore proportional to the number of soldiers that a state could field. So, the societal response to a crisis could be to stabilize the population and optimize the economy by reducing birthrates, in some cases even by using drastic methods such as eugenics. 

      Now, in our times, there is no doubt that we are in a crisis, a very serious crisis, a crisis that no other society ever faced in the past. No matter what Steven Pinker tells us about things getting better, it is clear that they are not getting better when tens of thousands of the best world's scientists keep telling us that climate change is going to destroy our civilization. You may fault capitalism, the rich, inequality, the psychopaths in power, all that. Sure, but it is legitimate to think (even though it may not be said) that 8 billion people are a problem.

      Let me state again that I am not here to propose any population policy: I have no such capability, nor title, and not even interest in doing that. I am just wondering about how society (and the Western society in particular) could react to the perception that, 1) there exists a very serious existential problem, and 2) it may be caused by overpopulation.

      Clearly, reducing birthrates would not be enough: alone, it can't be fast enough to counteract the dire scenarios that we face in terms of ecosystem disruption. An "Ireland-like" scenario may well be in the cards: a major famine could halve the world's population, as it happened in Ireland in the mid-19th century. In that case, the population may not restart growing after the disaster and the worst-case climate scenarios might be averted. Alternatively, there would be the possibility of a new round of eugenic programs. That would be the most drastic and desperate attempt to react to the threat. Could that happen for real? It is true that eugenics is considered a bad word, but that doesn't mean it can't be implemented under different names.

      The recent COVID-19 epidemics gave us a good example of what Western governments can do in an emergency, or what they perceive as an emergency. As an example, let me report a recent statement by Alan Dershowitz
      “Let me put it very clearly: you have no constitutional right to endanger the public and spread the disease, even if you disagree. You have no right not to be vaccinated. … And if you refuse to be vaccinated, the state has the power to literally take you to a doctor’s office and plunge a needle into your arm.”
      Which is a pretty good description of what the new eugenic policies might look like. It would all be for your own good, of course, but you cannot oppose being inoculated with something you would rather avoid to be inoculated with. And if you protest, you'll be branded as an enemy of the people and punished accordingly.

      So, we could see something like what Antonio Turiel's described in his fictional story titled "Good Vibrations." In it, he shows how a government decides to get rid of the people considered a burden for the economy by enforcing the consumption of an anti-depressant drug that has the unfortunate side-effect of killing those who take it in about 5 years. Even without forcing people to take a deadly drug, governments could simply let the commerce of opioid drugs expand, with the result of obtaining the elimination of a good fraction of the "useless" people. It could happen.... wait... It is already happening!

      And so we conclude that the future is indeed an interesting place. After all, we are all going there. But there are no maps of the future and so we don't know what we'll find there. Maybe it won't be so bad as some say it could be, or maybe we'll find it is much worse. Who knows? Just enjoy the ride: it is free!

      Monday, July 20, 2020

      What if your government has decided to kill you? An interpretation by Antonio Turiel

      In the 1976 movie, "Logan's Run," the law is that everyone must die when they turn 30. And everyone accepts that law. 

      "Necroeconomics" is a concept used by some economists to describe the results of the collapse of the Soviet Economy, in the 1990s. Apart from the pure economic disaster, the collapse led to a trend of population decrease that, in some cases, is continuing to this day. The term may have a more general meaning and Warren Montag discusses how a purely market economy might deal with workers in a situation in which there are no sufficient resources to keep all of them alive. The idea that the state might decide that some people need to be eliminated has been called "necropolitics."

      These concepts do not necessarily imply that your government has decided to kill you. The extermination may be the unwanted result of wrong policies or one of the unavoidable consequences of the overexploitation of the resources that make people live. But what if the government secretly decided to eliminate a fraction of the population, judged to be a useless burden for society? We all know that it happened in some states in a non-remote past. What form could it take today?

      This idea has been explored by Antonio Turiel of the "Oil Crash" blog in a story published in Spanish two years ago and titled "Good Vibrations." When I read it the first time, I found it fascinating but hardly prophetic. It seemed to me just farfetched that people, anywhere in the world, would meekly accept to be ordered by their government to take a drug that they knew would kill them. But, today, I think that Antonio may have been more prophetic than he himself could have imagined. So, I translated the story into English, and here it is. Not for the faint hearted!

      Good Vibrations. A story by Antonio Turiel 

      From "The Oil Crash" Sept 2018 

      I was coming down the stairs and I was almost on the street. In a hurry, as usual. I had to find a taxi to go to the airport or the station, I don't remember anymore; I know I was going, once again, on a business trip. I had just left my house and right there, in the doorway, they were waiting for me. No, they were not: they had just arrived, because they were getting out of the car when I showed up.

      I immediately saw my sister Marcela. She wasn't crying, but she had certainly been crying until maybe a few seconds before. When she saw me, she came running towards me and hugged me. I was perplexed: I didn't expect to see her there, because she lived far away; but when I saw other members of my family I understood at once that they had brought her and that it must be an important matter.

      I hugged my sister and gave her a kiss on the head, almost on the crown of her head. The years had passed for her, just as they had for me, but she still had very beautiful hair. My little sister, my poor little sister.

      I had to hold back the crying. I hadn't been a good brother to her. I don't mean when we were little: when we were children and lived together and happy, she was everything to me and I was everything to her. But everything was easier when we were kids. We had grown up, I had an important job, obligations, a family... And so did she. Well, she did.

      I held her tight. When her family died, in that terrible way, I called her right away. I said words of comfort and encouragement that sounded hollow and hackneyed to me - why wasn't I able to say things that didn't sound like gibberish a thousand times over? -and I listened to her crying with a heavy heart. On the day of the funeral I had a very important meeting on the other side of Europe - a contract with many zeros - but I cancelled everything and was there. My hand on his shoulder, my shoulders like his handkerchief. They were all in black, everything was black and dark on that day which had the little decorum of being bright. The contrast made it seem as if we lived in black and white, and so it has always been my mood remembering sad things, in black and white. As the coffins descended I was reminded of her husband - an admirable and loving man - and her precious children - my nephews and nieces. It hurt to remember. I looked at my wife and children and realized, not for the first time but perhaps more intensely than ever, how happy I was.

      Afterward, I can't explain it. Nobody likes to look at the bottom of a dark well. I loved Marcela and I called her often, I forced myself to call her because I felt I owed it to her. Maybe I was too aware that I was forcing it, but I really wanted to help her. I had put a reminder in my mobile phone book and, wherever she was, every Friday at the same time, I called her. Like an on-call service. Almost mechanically.

      She gently slipped out of my arms and out of my guilt. Marcela knew a lot about guilt. How many times would she have blamed herself if she hadn't been there? She couldn't reproach herself for surviving the accident where others perished because she wasn't even there at the time, and that, instead of making her feel less guilty, made her feel more guilty. Because she would have liked to have had the opportunity to die with his loved ones, even if in the end the (bad) luck would have made her survive. But she didn't even have the option to die with them when it happened. It had been a year now, my sister, and she was still dead in life, receiving my empty calls every week, without being clear who was consoling whom from the absence of happiness.

      Marcela looked me in the eyes and said:

      - I can't take it anymore. I'm going to vibrate.

      I looked at her in astonishment, not understanding - or not wanting to understand - what she was saying to me. I raised my eyes and my wife gave me a meaningful look. I looked at my sister again, in her eyes, after having avoided them for a year.

      - They say - and she tilted her face slightly while with a slight movement of her shoulder she designated our relatives behind her - that I should first talk to you. That you understand much more of these things, and that you always give sensible advice, - suddenly, I felt her piercing gaze overwhelming mine - and it had been a long time since she had given me one. So that's why she came.

      There are times in a person's life when they have to know exactly what to do. These are things that happen quickly, where there is not much time to decide, but where what is decided will be crucial. That is why it is so important to know how to recognize those moments when they come. And there are not many of them: perhaps three or four in a lifetime, but they are the ones that define it entirely. At that time I didn't know that my sister needed me - because I had already known that for a year - but that this time I really had to help her. That I had to commit myself. I understood it in one second, I accepted it in another. Something changed inside me and she certainly saw it in my eyes.

      - You'll stay with us, Marcela. All the time you need. I have to take a trip, right now, for two days. But I am going to find information and make a couple of phone calls. Please, don't do anything, for now. My request must have sounded to my sister like a plea, but also like something she needed to hear. She nodded, shaking his head quickly several times. I kissed her on the forehead and turned to my wife and asked her to keep an eye on her. Then, with a quick gesture I called a taxi and left.
      Vibrate. I had heard of "vibrating", but always as something distant, something that others do, and always referring to marginal people. I remembered having read a text in a weekly, entitled something like "Vibrating Times". It was all about a medicine for depression or something like that, which was called Vibr, hence the "vibrating", "taking Vibr". The kind of linguistic simplification that ordinary people like so much.

      Once in the taxi, I looked up information and downloaded relevant documentation from reference databases - because, effectively, if I was any good at something it was at sifting through data, searching for data and correlating information - and I spent half the plane ride going through the contract documents I was going to sign and the other half studying Vibr. Antidepressant, anti-anxiety, in the amphetamine family. Neurotoxic effect, proven neuronal degeneration even at moderate doses if long exposure occurs, high addictiveness, withdrawal syndrome requiring shock treatment to avoid the most adverse effects - including cardiac arrest... Come on, it was clear that this stuff was shit. But the most surprising thing is that it had been approved as a drug for human use (with specialist follow-up, though). Highly recommended for pathological pain - as I'm sure my sister had been labeled by people much more pathological than she was, people incapable of knowing what love and its loss is.

      That Vibr (commercial name of the drug, whose active ingredient had such a long name that ended in "mine" that it could fill in a crossword puzzle by itself) was a drug was even more surprising after reading the few clinical trials that had been done with it, all of them on compassionate therapies. The alarming number of premature deaths with respect to the control had been attributed to the poor baseline condition of the patients (and what the hell was the control group for then, if not to adjust that parameter?) You didn't have to be a big public health expert - I'm not - to know that in light of those studies Vibr should not have been approved as a drug. But it had been approved, about six months ago, for God knows what obscure economic interests.

      After comparing the scientific evidence, I was entertained by reading some reports in the general press. What I was reading really seemed like a science fiction story, with certain common points in all the articles (surely, the manufacturer had set certain script guidelines when they "hired" those "advertisers"). Vibr was the new wonder drug for depression. The patients' testimonies testified how all their worries and anguish had disappeared, and how they were once again productive and perfectly integrated members of society. Pure rubbish, I thought.

      I didn't have much more time to think about Vibr since I landed, but that night when I got to the hotel, I called an old friend, a schoolmate with whom I had shared decades of life and who at that time was a senior official in the Ministry of Health.

      After the cordial greetings and the usual jokes, I let him out point-blank, with the familiarity that came from the years that we had known and appreciated each other:

      - Manuel, what can you tell me about the Vibr?

      He was silent for two seconds, and answered me, with a hurried tone:

      - You're not thinking of taking that shit?

      I couldn't see his face, but I sensed that he was regretting his haste. Someone who aspires to be Secretary of State someday cannot say words like "shit", let alone refer to the star product of a major fund provider for an election campaign.

      - No, relax, Manuel. It's about a close friend. He was considering it and consulted me. I didn't know anything about that... medicine, but from what I've read I have a clear idea. Thanks for your time, you've helped me a lot.

      Manuel didn't say anything else, but because of the trust that existed between us there was no need to say anything else. I already knew what I needed to know, and he knew that I would never expose him. That's how friendship works.

      I called my wife right away. I summed up the situation for her:

      - Maria, Vibr is a very dangerous substance, very addictive and sure to kill you in a few years at most if taken regularly. It doesn't remove depression, it turns you into a zombie. Under no circumstances should you allow Marcela to take it.

      Maria nodded.

      - I think it's best if she stays with us for a while," I continued.

      - For as long as she needs to - said Maria - as if she wants to stay with us. The children love her, and she is a sweet and good person, I want her to stay too.

      - I love you, Mary.

      - I know - she told me, and I imagined the mischievous smile she always put on when she told me that.

      After two days I returned home, and everything went back to that thing we call normality but which is not, but rather the frenzied frenzy of our usual life. Marcela became part of our daily routine and I was grateful that she was there many times, especially on the days when Mary or I were absent.

      Years went by. Vibr went from being a marginal drug to being the big star. It began to be used not only to treat depression, but also for anxiety and conduct disorders, and even for attention deficits in children. I was holding my hands to my head, but like many other issues, as usual, I looked the other way and went about my business. After all, it wasn't something that affected me personally.

      There was a moment when the truth of the Vibr was completely exposed. Those who started taking Vibr could no longer stop, there were very few cases of people trying to detoxify, fewer of them survived the withdrawal symptoms and those who did were left with terrible consequences for life. Many of them ended up relapsing. In addition, statistics showed that from the time one started taking Vibr until death came, about five years usually passed. In fact, no one reached the age of 6, although there were quite a few people who died quite a bit earlier, especially the most depressed people. The newspapers were full of reports denouncing the situation of the "vibrants" (that was the name given to the consumers of Vibr, continuing with the same joke), especially when they were terminal. It was no longer so rare to find a vibrant in the street. You could recognize them by their appearance. Somehow, it seemed as if someone was pulling their strings: they were too complacent, too quiet, too moderate. Nothing ever bothered them, they were kind to the point of nausea. That's how they were all, even though the vibrant "terminals" were slower, less reactive. Their kindness gradually turned into indifference. On one occasion I myself had met a very thin, emaciated and dirty young man sitting motionless on a bench, with a lost look and all the typical pose of a vibrant: he was a terminal. I deduced that he no longer bothered to eat. He didn't even look for a suitable place to relieve himself. It lasted a couple of days, I even saw the moment when they took him away in an ambulance.

      I thought that when the horror of the Vibr was exposed there would be a popular reaction and that its prohibition would be demanded first in the streets and then in Parliament. But this was not the case. Suddenly, all the media began to publish studies (perhaps it would be more appropriate to say "the study", because in reality they were all the same, a thousand times repeated), in which it was "shown" that although it was true that Vibr killed you "generally in 5 years" people who took Vibr would have "half-dead within 5 years if they had not taken Vibr". Thus, the central idea of the study is that these were equally condemned people, to whom the Vibr gave a better quality of life and that in addition during this "period of grace" that the Vibr gave them "they were productive and valuable members of our society.  which they illustrated with graphs about productivity improvements and decreased morbidity (because the vibrant ones went much less to the doctor and much more to work).

      I was convinced that, once the truth was exposed and seeing the low quality of the arguments in favor of Vibr, the fate of the drug was sealed. But, to my surprise, society as a whole swallowed the toad, and Vibr continued to be socially acceptable. No doubt boosted by the success of their marketing campaign, the producers of Vibr managed to curl the curl even more, and spread the idea that when the doctor prescribed Vibr to you, you were undoubtedly already "in the middle" of your life and that therefore taking Vibr was the best option, because the few years that you had left to live would not be a burden to your loved ones and even with your effort and work you would improve the pension that you would leave them. And society swallowed the toad again. I was indignant at what was happening. But I did not exteriorize it in any way: it was an inner indignation. Later, as in many other issues, like most, I looked the other way and continued with my work. After all, it was not something that affected me personally.

      It was around that time that I first met a vibrant on the plane, on one of my many trips. It was a woman, middle-aged. She noticed that I had been startled to realize that she was vibrant, and gave me a reasoned and thoughtful analysis of why I had made the decision to become vibrant. After all, with her age she had only a few years left in the company, and she was in danger of being fired sooner. By becoming vibrant, she had demonstrated her commitment to the company, which in turn guaranteed her a five-year contract and a good pension. Her children would have finished university "by the time she stopped vibrating" (I swear she put it that way; my stomach turned) and with her contribution they could start a prosperous and fruitful life. I thought of refuting one by one all the logical fallacies of what she had said, but when I looked into her eyes I gave up. It was obvious that I was already condemned. What was the point, then, of arguing. I am not of a morbid nature, and I felt that if I argued with her, I would end up getting excited and showing off. So I kept quiet and looked, literally, the other way. To her my position, moral and even physical, seemed natural and she respected my wall of silence all the way. I came out of that plane with my head resonating like a drum and with a stiff neck.

      Maybe my memory is failing me or I'm reinventing the scene, but I'd swear the following happened right after I got back from that trip, maybe right after that uncomfortable flight. I arrived home wanting to spend a few days with the family when Marcela showed up in front of me. Next to her was my oldest daughter, Clara. I didn't understand anything about that performance, until Marcela opened her hand and showed me a blue pill, which had some letters engraved on it: "VIBR". I had never seen one before. I looked at it in horror, thinking that perhaps it had finally succumbed, but the reality was more horrible. "I found this in Clara's backpack," announced Marcela, and her voice broke from her anguish. I looked at my daughter with a face of dread. But, no, Clara was not a vibrant. At least not yet. I didn't know how many pills it took to become a vibrant, although I knew you were hooked from the first one.

      - I'm sorry, Dad," said Clara in tears, "but don't worry, I haven't tried it. Some girls offered it to me at school, and they got so heavy that I had to try it that I finally took it to keep them quiet. But I didn't take any, I swear.

      I believed her. It's true I wanted to believe her, but somehow I knew she was telling me the truth. She was my daughter, after all.

      - Clara - I said, in the calmest voice I could articulate - do you know what THAT does?

      - Everybody talks about it, Dad. The kids say it's for fun, to get rid of all the bad stuff.

      - And you know THAT kills?

      - Yeah, well, everyone knows that the Vibr kills you in five years if you take it often, but the kids say that if you take just one a week nothing bad happens to you and you have a much better time...

      - Clara, one a week is exactly the dosage given to Vibrants. One a week, exactly. - I couldn't help but stress that.

      I kept looking at my daughter. I was furious. It was clear that the Vibr was a temptation for her: a 16-year-old girl, a good student but, like those of her generation, a bit lazy, always complaining about how much is required of her The offer of an artificial paradise was too tempting, it was clear.

      It wasn't her fault. It was my fault. For not having conveyed to her some clear ideas about that poison. For not having been at home more, helping her to lift her burden, supporting her, encouraging her. My daughter had almost fallen into the trap, right under my nose. I looked at Marcela with tears in my eyes and as I could I mumbled:

      - Thank you. You're the best thing that's ever happened to this family.

      - This is my family too.

      The three of us hugged each other in tears.

      I cancelled all my appointments that week and asked to have all the days free. In less than a week, I changed my kids from school and high school. It was not difficult to find a place to take them: on their websites the new (and expensive) institutions announced "Vibr-free space" and detailed their strict controls to prevent their students from falling into such a destructive addiction. I did not even imagine that there were schools that made such publicity. Society had changed, adapting to the Vibr.

      Of course, my youngest son Juan's new school and Clara's oldest school were far more expensive than the public school and high school they attended before. Fortunately, both my wife and I were "successful professionals", so we could afford it, although the classist stench that distilled out of that bothered me. But it was clear that the Vibr was running at full speed in public schools, even in primary school. Reading confidential reports passed on to me by Manuel (now Under-Secretary of State) I saw that up to 25% of high school students were vibrants. People who no longer even chose to go to university, because it was a waste of the little time they had left.

      The government's reaction to the growing Vibr epidemic was not exactly what I would have expected. As more and more children were orphaned, the welfare state was greatly expanded, so that public health and education were completely free, and programs were set up to take orphans of Vibr to university (fortunately, the children of addicts did not develop any addiction per se). The only condition required of orphaned students was that they prove their academic worth; if they did so, they could go wherever they wanted. I always wondered what happened to those who didn't measure up. Besides, I was surprised by the generosity of the state, and I did not understand where the resources to keep the system going came from. Years before such a development of the Welfare State would have been considered too expensive. What had changed?

      I understood the world less and less, and I got more and more fed up with it. On the plane, the number of vibrant people had long exceeded the number of non-vibrant people. In fact, those of us who weren't vibrating couldn't stand to talk to the vibrant ones: it was exasperating. A vibrant seems to speak with logic and reason, but in his arguments there is always a lack of attachment to things. Deep down, a Vibrant doesn't care about anything, he doesn't really have any preference. A Vibrant has no vision of how society should be, he or she adapts to whatever society there is, and nothing, however aberrant, seems to him or her to be a social injustice; for him or her it is a simple fact that must be taken into account, but it is never something that he or she wishes to change for the better because a Vibrant desires nothing.

      That is why, after several unpleasant experiences talking to vibrant, he had started paying more for the "non-vibrant" premium bills. We were a caste apart, a frightened minority, sheltering in the front of the plane so that we could get out of it as soon as possible, hastily even, in front of the shapeless mass that patiently and obediently waited behind us to leave in an orderly, martial way.

      And then it happened. The Government introduced a bill on the compulsory use of behavioural substances. I couldn't believe it when I read it. I downloaded the document and spent the rest of the day reading it, analyzing it carefully. Then I called Manuel.

      - I knew you were going to call me - that was the first thing he told me - we can't talk on the phone. We'll meet at the Café Central at seven. Be punctual, at eight I'll be gone.

      Something in Manuel's voice sounded like goodbye. Something was terribly wrong.

      I arrived at the Café Central at a quarter to seven. I sat down at our table, and slowly drank the coffee with milk that a solicitous waiter brought me right away. At seven o'clock Manuel entered the café, ordered a cognac and sat directly at my table.

      - What's going on, Manuel? - I said, without further ado.

      - More respect, young man, you are talking to the new Minister of Health - he let go. He left me no time to wonder - payment for the many services rendered, I suppose. Also, because they have no one left who is medium sized and who does not vibrate.

      - Did you write the new law? - I said, and my voice perhaps sounded a little louder than it should.

      He smiled bitterly.

      - I have fought with all my might, for years, to keep that law from seeing the light. Do you know me so little? But this comes from above. From the very top. Far higher than the President. It's global and concerted.

      I kept quiet, assimilating what Manuel was telling me. He took advantage of my silence to take a huge slab off his head.

      - Do you know all the times you've asked me where the money to pay for the new welfare state came from? Well, from the Vibr. Not from the sale of the Vibr, of course: the Vibr doesn't cost anything to make, and it's sold at a throwaway price. But the Vibr pays handsomely. Vibr has greatly reduced social security contributions, and productivity has skyrocketed. Did you know that part of the citizen's aid programme is paid for by the companies themselves, for whom the new system is much more profitable than the previous one? No, of course you don't, because we keep it a secret.

      Manuel drank his cognac, I remained in silence.

      - Many people with little training die when they are still young and highly productive in their unskilled jobs. They don't give costs, only benefits. And there's no shortage of manpower for those jobs. We regulate the migratory flow from much less developed countries with surgical precision. The least skilled workers are always young. Have you seen how the Café Central vibrates?

      I looked at him strangely, and suddenly I saw him. All the waiters. Very young, helpful. All vibrant. A chill ran down my back.

      - Of course, in the higher categories the replacement is not so fast," continued Manuel, "we don't have many qualified and prepared people like you," and he raised his glass as if toasting to me. - That's why there have been many suitable incentives to prevent the most valuable people from falling into the Vibr.

      - But, Manuel, what the hell is this? - That's all I was able to say.

      - You know it well, but you don't want to accept it," said Manuel, softly, with a sad smile. "In the end, more than being a big business for the pharmaceutical companies, the Vibr is and always has been an experiment in large-scale social control, which was very suitable for adapting to a world where resources are beginning to be scarce and the environment is very destabilized. Thanks to the Vibr, global consumption is following a gentle downward curve, a controlled and piloted decrease. And everyone is participating in this decline happily and collaboratively. That's the way it has to be.

      - But, with the new proposal...

      - With the new law we adapt to a faster descent phase - Manuel's gaze was lost at the bottom of his cup - only exceptional people can afford not to be vibrants. Like you. That's why I'm telling you: to leave some memory of this. You know? This descent won't last forever, and it will take someone who knows how to stop it, who will apply the brakes when we have come down far enough and before we crash.

      - That's crazy...

      - "Crazy or not, it's a done deal," said Manuel, and in one gulp he knocked down his glass. Save yourself. - And after saying this he got up and left.

      I stayed there still for a couple of minutes, stupefied, assimilating the new reality. Then I remembered that I was surrounded by vibrant people and I was flooded with a feeling of suffocation; I jumped up and walked out the door. I had been walking for a few meters when I realized that I had not paid. Neither had Manuel. I instinctively pulled a ticket out of my wallet, as a clumsy excuse, as if to stop the scrounger accusation of the waiter who had rushed out behind me and whose hand I sensed was going to land on my shoulder. But no waiter was following me. It was then that I understood. Vibrant people don't care, they have no preference. Society was maintained only by habit, only by appearance. The vibrant ones were already lost and wouldn't fight for anything.

      I called my wife, Marcela and my children and I'm meeting all of them at home. I had to talk to them, that very night.

      Marcela improvised a snack and set it on the table where we all sat. I presided over it. I didn't like having to preside over anything. But on that occasion I had to do it. And I would.

      - I suppose you know why I called you, I said.

      - "The new law," said Clara.

      - "The one that's going to get us all killed," said John.

      His mother frowned slightly, rebuking him.

      - That's right, to kill us," I said, and Mary stared at me with her mouth open. If I, who always took the iron out of things, said that, then the situation was serious.

      - With the new law - I continued - it will be obligatory to consume Vibr "to improve productivity" if certain objectives are not achieved, which will depend fundamentally on age and level of training. What counts, basically, is how much you earn. This is how people will be valued: by what they earn.

      I looked at Marcela:

      - You, Marcela, with your classes and your crafts, you don't make minimum wage. At your age, which is almost my age, you will be forced to take Vibr as soon as the law comes into effect, the day after tomorrow.

      I looked at my wife:

      - You, Maria, are a qualified employee. You won't have to take Vibr for the time being, but when you turn 55 they'll check your file again and your salary should have practically doubled from what it is now, and I'm sure that won't happen. So you're not gonna get to retire. I'm sorry.

      I looked at my kids:

      - You guys are going to college, so you're exempt from taking Vibr until you're 30. It may seem like a long time, but it's not that long. At 30 you'll have to have a job and your salary should be at least 4 times the minimum wage. According to the statistics, the chances are that one of you won't make it. At 35 your salary should be 6 times the minimum wage. It will be very difficult for both of you to make it, but if you work like beasts you might make it. At 40, the salary of the one who is still alive should be 12 times the minimum wage. According to the statistics, even taking into account that you belong to the most privileged 10% of society, you have - the one who survives - a 5% chance of achieving it. To get to 45, 1 in a thousand. I think we can take it for granted that you will not meet your grandchildren.

      They were all looking at me in desolation, taking the hit.

      - As for me - I said to finish - I am too important for them, and although my salary is not so extraordinary they have made a special chapter for people like me. I'll be retired by the time I'm 70 if my body can take it. After that, they will leave me two years to sort out my affairs, and then I will have the choice between killing myself or the Vibr. Redundancy is worthwhile.

      - What are we going to do, Dad? - said Clara, distressed

      I looked at my face in the dining room mirror. So many years of hard work and bad life had left me a face that was a cross between Santa Claus and George Clooney. With more of the former than the latter. I laughed, literally, at my face.

      I stood up. My back hurt a little, I felt my bones tired from so much traveling here and there, from so many meetings. So much effort to get to this point. What idiocy! What immense foolishness, that of the human race!

      One second to think about it, another to decide. I took the ticket for the Café Central out of my pocket, and I left it with a strong hand on the table.

      - Now, Clara," I said, in a loud voice, "now we are going to war.

      Antonio Turiel
      September 2018

      Thursday, July 16, 2020

      The End of an Age: The Failure of Catastrophism

      Colin Campbell, the founder of the association for the study of peak oil and gas (ASPO) explaining the essence of oil depletion.

      The considerations below originate from a post by Michael Krieger where he describes how he is so dismayed by the reaction of the public to the current epidemic that he is closing his blog to rethink the whole matter over. You can read of similar feelings in a post by Rob Slane of the "Blogmire" and of Chris Smaje on "Resilience." Many others are dismayed at how badly the Covid-19 crisis was managed: a threat that was real but by all measures not so terrible as it was described. Nevertheless, it generated an overreaction, more division than unity, political sectarianism, counterproductive behaviors, and it ultimately led people to accept to be bullied and mistreated by their governments and even to be happy about that.

      The "peak oil movement" was started by a group of retired geologists around the end of the 1990s. You could call us "catastrophists," but catastrophe was not what we were aiming for. We were not revolutionaries, we never thought to storm the Bastille, to give power to the people, or to create a proletarian paradise. We were scientists, we just wanted society to get rid of fossil fuels as soon as possible, although we did think that the final result would have been a more just and peaceful society. 

      But how to reach this goal? Of course, we understood that humankind is nothing homogeneous, but we saw no reason why the people in power shouldn't have listened to our message. After all, it was in their best interest to keep the economy alive. So, the plan was to diffuse the message of resource depletion as a scientific message, not a political one. We did our best to produce models, to make studies, to convene meetings, to publish scientific papers. The very fact that our main talking point was a bell-shaped graph meant that we were speaking to the tip of the social pyramid. We knew (or at least we should have known) that most people cannot understand a Cartesian graph. There is a reason, after all, why on Excel the default graphical representation of data is a bar chart.

      It was an utter failure. We might have expected it, but we were politically naive. We thought we could speak to "the ear of the prince" as Niccolò Machiavelli had tried to do, centuries ago. He discovered, as we did, that the prince doesn't want counsel, he only wants obedience. The prince operates according to a time-tested strategy that goes as "scare them, then force them to obey." The commoners operate on an equally time-tested strategy that goes as "be scared and obey" (not everyone needs to be truly scared, but for everyone it is convenient to pretend to be).

      So, what happened is that some threats were just ignored: peak oil, resource depletion, and now climate change. Instead, other threats were amplified beyond recognition and some elites used them as a chance to reinforce their power on other elites or on the commoners. That was the case of the recent coronavirus epidemic.

      As a combination of overreaction and non-reaction, we are now facing the downward slope that I had termed the "Seneca Cliff," the start of a probably irreversible descent, at least for several decades. No wonder that many of us are dismayed. But how is it that the human society either overreacts or doesn't react to external perturbations? Compare with the behavior of a system such as a forest. It is a system in many ways as complex as the human economy (quite possibly, more complex) but it tends to reach and maintain a certain level of stability. Forests manage and conserve their resources, maintaining an incredibly complex diversity. And when a fire starts, the forest waits for it to burn out, and then it patiently re-colonizes the burned area. It is the way natural systems work -- today we tend to define with the term of holobionts. 

      Why can't human systems behave in that way? Clearly, we have a lot to learn, especially on how natural holobionts evolved and attained their stability. Perhaps we are moving in that direction in any case. It is a question of natural selection, those entities which are unstable tend to disappear in favor of the more stable ones. Maybe human society naturally evolves in this direction, even though it will involve a lot of suffering and it will take a lot of time before we arrive there. Perhaps, we could think of some kind of "directed evolution," with the human intelligence used to turn society into a societal holobiont. But that's exactly what the catastrophists, peakers and the others, failed to attain -- evidently it is not easy. Whatever we do, in any case, we keep marching toward the future. And so, onward, fellow holobionts!

      Monday, July 13, 2020

      The Ten Best Long-Term Predictions in History

      Above: Ugo Bardi uses highly sophisticated forecasting techniques. 

      Prophecies often have a bad fame of ending in failure, as I described in a previous post, where I listed ten of the worst predictions in history. Here, I try to do the opposite: dealing with successful predictions. In working on this post, I must say that it was not easy to put together 10 really successful predictions. History is full of false prophets, poor forecasters, dumb extrapolators, disastrous meddlers with computer codes, and more. Really good, long-term predictions are extremely rare. The seers of old and the forecasters of our times faced, and still face, the same problem: if there exists such a thing as "the future" it is something we cannot make experiments with. Maybe the Gods see something we cannot see, but if they do, they don't share their knowledge with us.

      So, here is the list of the best prophecies I could find. Some are less than impressive, I know, but that's how things stand. Maybe, the secret of prophecy is not trying to predict the future, but being prepared for it.

      1. Seneca and collapse. Around 60 AD, the Roman Philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4 AD-65 AD) wrote that "Increases are of sluggish growth, but the way to ruin is rapid." As a prediction, it was somewhat generic, but there is no doubt that it turned out to be correct many times in history. It held true also for Seneca himself, who was struck at the height of a brilliant career when his former pupil, Emperor Nero, ordered him to commit suicide, charged with treason. Much later, Seneca's observation was turned into a mathematical theory by Ugo Bardi who dubbed it the "Seneca Effect" and there is no doubt that it may be applied to a variety of cases.

      2. Yeshua ben Hananiah and the fall of Jerusalem. Flavius Josephus (37 AD- 100 AD) wrote his “The Jewish War” written some years after the fall of Jerusalem, in 70 AD. In the book, he reports about a resident of Jerusalem of the time, Yeshua ben Hanania, that,

      … he every day uttered these lamentable words, as if it were his premeditated vow: “Woe, woe to Jerusalem.” Nor did he give ill words to any of those that beat him every day, nor good words to those that gave him food: but this was his reply to all men; and indeed no other than a melancholy presage of what was to come.. . Until the very time that he saw his presage in earnest fulfilled in our siege; when it ceased. For as he was going round upon the wall, he cried out with his utmost force, “Woe, woe to the city again, and to the people, and to the holy house.” And just as he added at the last, “Woe, woe to myself also,” there came a stone out of one of the engines, and smote him, and killed him immediately. And as he was uttering the very same presages he gave up the ghost.

      Yeshua was correct: Jerusalem did fall shortly after he was killed. But it must be said that for anyone who had access to the battlements, the vision of three Roman Legions camped around the city, equipped with all kinds of siege engines, must have made this a relatively easy prediction

      3. Thomas Malthus and the limits to the human population. The Reverend Malthus (1766 - 1834) is well known for his "Essay on the Principle of Population" where he was the first in history to note that "Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio." He then went on to predict that, in time, the growth of the British population would be stopped by famines, wars, epidemics, or a combination of these factors. The curious thing is that Malthus is often cited as an example of wrong predictions, but if you look at what he wrote, you'll notice that he never-ever said that the disaster he was seeing in the future was to take place at some specific date. Malthus was in fact prophetic because the human population did grow exponentially up to relatively recent times. How the ecosystem will intervene to put a limit to that is still to be seen, but Malthus prophecies are in line for being possibly the most realistic ever in human history

      4. Jevons' peak coal. William Stanley Jevons (1835-1882) was one of the most brilliant economists in history, recognized for several key ideas in economic science. He was especially good at understanding dynamic phenomena, for instance about the fact that technological improvements leading to higher efficiency do no lead people to reduce their consumption of natural resources. That's labeled as "Jevons' paradox" but, if you think about it, you'll see that it is not a paradox at all. It is just that modern economists don't have the vision that Jevons had. About predictions, Jevons hit the jackpot with his book "The Coal Question" (1866) where he examined the limited amount of coal resources in England. On the basis of the data he had, he couldn't calculate an exact time scale, but he wrote in his book that it would happen "within a century from the present time." Indeed, coal production in England peaked around 1920. Not an exact prediction, but a relevant one that, as usual, nobody really understood. (data from Aspo Newsletter)

      5. Jules Verne and the men to the Moon. Overall, the attempts of forecasting the development of new technologies fared very poorly but, in some cases, led to brilliant intuitions. One was when Arthur C. Clarke proposed orbiting satellites as telecommunications relays, already in 1945. Much earlier than that, in 1865, Jules Verne (1828 –1905) published a novel titled De la Terre à la Lune (From the Earth to the Moon) that was perhaps the first description of a physically conceivable interplanetary travel. With his idea of a projectile shot by a long and powerful cannon, Verne was more advanced than his younger contemporary H.G. Wells, who also sent characters to the Moon, but had them use an unlikely "gravity mirror" called cavorite. Of course, in practice it would be impossible to shoot people to space using a cannon, as it is described in Verne's novel. But actual travel to the Moon was made possible by missiles which were first developed as weapons that could have a longer range than conventional artillery. Today, the concept of using a high-power cannon to send objects to low earth orbit is sometimes called a "Verne gun," even though it doesn't appear that it was ever done in practice.

      6. Svante Arrhenius and Global Warming. Svante Arrhenius (1859 – 1927) was one of the founders of modern physical chemistry, he was awarded a Nobel prize and today his discoveries are still at the basis of many fields of chemistry. He was a polymath who studied also the physics of the atmosphere and who was the first, in 1896, to note the phenomenon we call today the "Greenhouse Effect." He found that the average surface temperature of the earth is about 15 C because of the infrared absorption capacity of water vapor and carbon dioxide. This is called the natural greenhouse effect. Arrhenius suggested a doubling of the CO2 concentration would lead to a 5 C temperature rise. This has not happened yet, but it is remarkably close to the values predicted by modern climate models.

      7. The rise of Fascism in the US. Sinclair Lewis (1885 – 1951) published in 1935 a novel called "It can't happen here" Lewis imagined the rise of a populist figure who becomes president after fomenting fear among the citizens and then proceeds to impose fascism to the US with the help of a ruthless paramilitary force. Was it really prophetic?

      8. Peak Oil The American geologist Marion King Hubbert deserves the credit of having been the first to see the main trends of the 21st century, nearly 50 years before it started. In his 1956 paper, Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels, he presented the figure below: a bold attempt to place the human experience with energy on a 10,000 years scale. Of course, Hubbert was overly optimistic about nuclear energy which, in reality, started declining before fossil fuels did. But, with this graphic, Hubbert had laid down the human predicament several years in advance with respect to "The Limits to Growth" (1972). Catton's "overshoot" (1980), and many others. The fossil fuel production has not yet reached its peak, but it seems very close to it, so Hubbert's prediction may have been a few decades off. Not much on a scale of 10,000 years!

      9 The extermination of all the non-human creatures. In 1970, Isaac Asimov published a short story titled "2430 AD" in which he told of how the human population of Earth had expanded to occupy the whole ecological space of the planet. The story is about the killing of the last few animals kept in a zoo. This leaves Earth in 'perfection', with its fifteen trillion inhabitants, twenty billion tons of human brain, and the 'exquisite nothingness of uniformity'. We haven't arrived to this point, yet, but the trend is clearly moving in that direction, with the number of wild vertebrates halved during the past 40 years or so. If things keep moving at the current pace, we won't need to wait for 2430 to see the disappearance of all the non-human vertebrates. As for the "exquisite nothingness of uniformity," we may be quite advanced with that, too.

      10. The Limits to Growth. In 1972, a group of researchers from the MIT in Boston published the results of a study that had been sponsored by the Club of Rome with the title "The Limits to Growth." It was an ambitious attempt to predict the evolution of the global economic system over a time scale of more than a century. The study became famous and was quickly rejected for having predicted something that looked impossible: economic growth worldwide would come to a halt and start an irreversible decline at some moment during the 21st century. According to the study, the most reliable data indicated that the start of the decline could occur at some moment before 2020. Today, in 2020, it looks like the prediction was even too good!

      Bonus 11th prediction (perhaps the best in history!). Robert A. Heinlein and the extraterrestrial epidemic. In 1951, Robert Heinlein published a novel titled "The Puppet Masters" where he described how the Earth was invaded by a race of parasites ("slugs") from outer space who would infect and take control of humans. The presence of the parasites was detectable on the skin of the infected people, so, in order to fight the infection, the President and congress mandate a law that requires people to go naked all the time to demonstrate that they are not infected. And people happily comply! Not exactly the current situation, of course, but it does ring ominously with it.....

      Friday, July 10, 2020

      On the Edge of the Cliff: We need a new way of seeing the world

      A new blog by Ugo Bardi, "The Proud Holobionts"

      Long-term predictive models don't have a very good record, but some turned out to be prophetic. One case is that of Hubbert's 1956 prediction of a peak in the production of fossil energy shortly after the start of the 21st century. He was optimistic about the possibility of replacing fossil fuels with nuclear energy, but, apart from that, he was right on target. Now we are on the edge of the cliff and we have to take a different attitude toward the ecosystem that supports our existence. The concept of "Holobiont" may help us a lot in this task. We are holobionts, the ecosystem is a larger holobiont, we must find a way to live together. 

      The American geologist Marion King Hubbert deserves the credit of having been the first to see the main trends of the 21st century, nearly 50 years before it were to start. In his 1956 paper, Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels, he presented the figure above: a bold attempt to place the human experience with energy on a 10,000 years scale.

      Of course, Hubbert was overly optimistic about nuclear energy which, in reality, started declining decades before fossil fuels did. But, with this graphic, Hubbert had laid down the human predicament several years in advance with respect to more famous studies such as "The Limits to Growth" (1972). Catton's "overshoot" (1980), and many others. Without a miracle that could replace fossils well before they would start declining, the human world as it was in the 20th center was doomed. Nuclear energy was not, and could not have been, that miracle.

      Hubbert's may not have been always cited, but the debate on the decline of the natural resources raged for decades -- with most of the debate being based on various interpretations of the concept of technological progress. In the most optimistic views, depletion was not considered a pressing problem and, in any case, it was believed that technology would chase the problem away, automatically and without pain for anyone, purely on the basis of market forces. In this view, it made no sense to slow down economic growth in order to save resources: on the contrary, accelerating the exploitation would lead to more growth and to the consequent availability of more and more advanced technologies. The opposite attitude was that the problem was important and imminent, but that predictive models could lead to planning efforts based on slowing down the exploitation of the remaining resources, giving sufficient time for a technological switch toward higher efficiency/new sources. Over time, the debate veered more and more toward the concept that climate change was a much more important problem than resource depletion. But the contrasting attitudes didn't change.

      All the debate led to nothing. Nothing was decided, nothing was done. Society turned out to be impervious to early alerts and technology unable to be the miracle that was touted to be. In 2020, we have arrived at a critical point: the start of the irreversible decline of the technological society that had been developed over about two centuries of use of fossil fuels as an energy source. We are seeing the "Seneca Cliff," the unavoidable destiny of a system that has expanded beyond its limits, that has gone in heavy "overshoot" to use Catton's definition?

      And now? Clearly, it is too late to deploy miracle technologies: we are starting to go down and the question is how to face the decline: can we still avoid to turn it into a crash? The data show that it would still be possible to soften the decline and to go down on a relatively smooth slope. But the resistance to the unavoidable is actually worsening the situation. Politicians and most of the public are still convinced that the way to go is to "growth" without realizing that they are hastening collapse and making it faster and harsher.

      How did we arrive here? It was not a failure of science and technology. It was a cultural failure. We tried to manage the future without the right tools. In retrospect, it was obvious that tools developed in an age of abundance wouldn't be useful, actually counterproductive, in an age of scarcity. Imagine a banker stranded on a remote island trying to get food by building a automated cash teller. You get the point.

      At this point, we could say that we need a new vision of the ecosystem. That's correct, although reductive. It is not a question of what we "need." It is a question of an unavoidable cultural transformation that's going to come, whether we like it or not. We have to come to terms with the ecosystem. In different terms, we could say that the ecosystem is going to decide what it is going to do with us -- not consciously (probably) but just practically. Either it is going to get rid of an obnoxious species -- the humans  -- that has done only damage to everything, or that species is going to take a different attitude that will make it less obnoxious.

      That's the challenge we face, not an easy one, but not impossible either. The cultural tools we need have been partly developed and are being developed. A basic one is the concept of "Holobiont" the idea that the fundamental components of the ecosystem are not organisms, but holobionts intended as colonies of creatures that hang together for mutual benefit. Human beings are holobionts, trees, forests, steppes, and tundras are holobionts. The whole ecosystem is a holobionts. And we can be proud of being good holobionts and learn to live together with the larger holobiont we call "Gaia" . Will we be able to do that?

      We can discuss these matters on the new blog "The Proud Holobionts" and in the Facebook group with the same name. Onward, fellow holobionts!

      Monday, July 6, 2020

      The Energy Transition: Who has the right to speak?

      Italy is not a windy country and it relies mainly on the sun for its renewable energy. Nevertheless, some spots of the Appennini mountains are swept by enough wind to make it possible to build wind plants. In the picture, you see the wind farm of Montemignaio, not far from Florence, where one of the first large wind plants in Italy was built, already in 2001. It has been working beautifully for nearly 20 years. Other wind plants are planned in Italy, but a strong local opposition and a lack of long-term vision at the national level make their construction difficult and slow.

      While the ecosystem starts showing signs of collapse, we desperately need to do something to promote the renewable energy transition. But we seem to be stuck: blocked by science denial, political polarization, sheer ignorance, and slick propaganda. Mostly, what we need seems to be a new way of seeing priorities in a world dominated by financial profits only. But, as the situation becomes worse, we seem to be retreating more and more into obsolete views where everyone sees nothing but their personal short-term interests. In the text below, you can find the transcription of a speech given by Professor Andrea Pase of the University of Padua in an ongoing debate on the advisability of building a wind power plant on the Apennines, in Italy.
      Pase masterfully identified a key element in the question: scale, both spatial and temporal. The same concept applies to many other public utilities. Who has the right to speak about a new, planned infrastructure? It often happens that the inhabitants of the affected territories engage in defending what they see as "their" land. But does this mean that the other Italian citizens, engaged in promoting what they think is good for the whole society should not have a say in the matter? Here, Pase broadens his vision to include even those who are not yet born, as well as polar bears, raptors, and salamanders, threatened by global warming that will wipe them out, as it will wipe us all out if we do not find a way to stop burning fossil fuels. 

      A beautiful speech, enjoy reading it! (UB)

      Translated from the Italian text that appeared on the "Effetto Cassandra" blog

      Good evening, Mr. President. Good evening to all of you.

      My name is Andrea Pase. I am a geographer of the University of Padua. I deal mainly with Sub-Saharan Africa, I do research in the Sahel: from Senegal to Sudan, through Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad.

      You will rightly wonder why I participate in this public inquiry, what I have to do with Mount Giogo.

      I'm here to try to explain.

      I start by expressing a dissenting opinion with regard to what was said in the last debate, if I understood correctly, by a political scientist, Professor Donatella Della Porta, when she said that the telematic mode undermines this public inquiry because it allows many people, perhaps too many, who are not inhabitants of the area, to express their opinion. And that is seen as a profound distortion of the debate. The real problem was thus put on the table: who really has the right to express their opinion on this project?

      On the other hand, I fully agree with what my colleague said: the ridge is a "commons". But what border does that commons have? How far does the community we are talking about extend? Is it only about the people who live in Mugello, or in the two municipalities of Vicchio and Dicomano, or does it include only the inhabitants of Villore and Corella?

      Whose wind is the wind blowing across the ridge? To whom does the water falling on the Apennine slopes belong?

      There is a problem and the problem is that of scale: a classic geographical theme.

      The scale actually creates the phenomena: the choice of the scale, first of all the spatial one, is fundamental to identify different aspects of an issue: what is to be included or excluded from the calculation of costs and benefits? One thing to think only in terms of the local scale, another is to think on a national scale and another about the global scale.

      The communities convened change depending on the scale chosen. And it is a political and ethical choice, as well as cognitive.

      Then there is also the time scale to consider: to whom do we turn? Only to those who live today or even to those who will live tomorrow?

      A Nigerian leader questioned in 1912 claimed that the earth belongs to a community of which many members have died, few are alive, and infinite numbers have yet to be born.

      I would like to call into this inquiry many voices that have not yet been heard, at different spatial and temporal scales.

      I would like to call on the inhabitants of the small oceanic islands that the rise of the sea due to climate warming puts at the risk of disappearance. Not many people, you tell me. Well, then I summon the inhabitants of the great river deltas of the world: the Nile, the Ganges, the Mississippi, the Yangtse, hundreds of millions of people, who are also exposed to more and more frequent floods. Then I call to witness the people of the Sahel, whose faces I have met many times. Climate change multiplies extreme weather events, violent rains, and droughts, complicating their already not simple life.

      But then I also summon the non-humans, and not just the raptors and salamanders of the Apennines, I summon the polar bears, I summon the hundreds of animal and plant species at risk of extinction, because of the impact of climate change. I also call to witness the inanimate world, the glaciers that are disappearing.

      I would like, again, to summon our grandchildren, those who are small and those who have not yet been born, to ask them what they expect from us.

      Everything is connected, we cannot cut out a single place from the world in which it is inserted, from the time it starts, we must assume awareness and responsibility that every choice, however small, has repercussions on other scales. And also the choice we are talking about today: please bear in mind all those we have called to testify tonight. To keep in mind the different spatial and temporal scales involved.

      "Scale conflicts", as anthropologist Eriksen says, are inevitable in a globalized world: each solution has different outcomes at different scales. It is not simple, but it is essential to try to make dialogue between the different scales: global emergencies and local situations, the rights of the living, and of those who still have to arrive on our land.

      I close by telling you where I'm talking from, that is, by explaining to you that one and a half kilometers from my house, there is one of the largest plants for the treatment of the wet part of the waste of the whole Po Valley. I assure you that it is not pleasant, especially in the summer. But managing waste is another major environmental challenge. It is not convenient for me to have this implant within reach of my nose. I have to tell you, I'd rather have a wind farm. Everyone, however, can only do his part.

      I am available to any deepening, gladly coming in person to Vicchio and Dicomano, or even better to Villore and Corella, maybe guest of some of the inhabitants. As a geographer, I love the territory.

      Thank you, and have a good work.


      Andrea Pase's professional page

      The planned wind plant on the Appennini Mountains


      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)