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

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” 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's 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 used 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. A polymath who studied also the physics of the atmosphere, he 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 at 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.....

1 comment:

  1. Jevons has not been the only genius blinded by fossil fuels, failing to realise there is no such thing called 'efficiency'.

    Efficiency means that instead of burning more energy before your own eyes, you let others burn it out of your sight, out of your mind.

    Or, why the less-efficient system couldn't perform as the more efficient one?

    The answer is - more energy were burned into designing, mining, constructing and activating the latter!

    This far, James Watt's more efficient steam engine is many folds heavier and having many folds more parts than Newcommons' earlier and less efficient design.

    What has made more people getting steam engines and steam power in 1800s Britain, actually, is the magical lease-agreement contract that governed the digging for coal, which didn't charge for the energy burned at the mouth-pit out of the total of what has been dug up - i.e. almighty Economics!

    Therefore, we saw miners became more miserable the more they dug up coal, but the coal they dug up have built fortunes and empires!

    And we see today all oil industries in 3rd world nations and Russia are magically nationalised - to hide the colossal energy-cost of oil production!

    In the US, oil, gas and coal production is heavily subsidised or it will stop - owing to the fact that fossil fuels production is energy-negative by Physics.

    Our Western Civilisation's Economics couldn't have enough of this 'smoke and mirrors' reality - all along.

    When the air is cleared in London or Los Angeles, owing to more 'efficient' cars - the air became so polluted in Beijing.

    In the 21st century, when humans have been turned so high in illusions by Economics, talking Renewable Energy, Nuclear Fusion, Space Mirrors, Climate Change, EVs, Li Batteries, etc - helpless nations start to be unable to run even a fridge - Efficiency means you shift the problem from one place to another!

    The footage below shows people in Iraq rioting against the government asking for grid electricity in the harshly hot country that exports 4.5 million barrel of gold-grade oil into the global energy market, daily, except those smuggled quantities that no one of us can quantify!

    Economics claim the pandemic has caused demand for energy falling - which is untrue, or why no supplies have been diverted to Iraq to run an electric fan or a fridge, or to other billions of people that don't enjoy any power supply worldwide?!

    The bottom line is that today, there are no enough fuel to run power stations to generate as little as <19GW of power for Iraq - and this is the reality more powerful and truthful than any mainstream colourful misleading chart!

    Efficiency is, in fact, nothing about Efficiency, but a very high-price illusion that our Western Civilisation doesn't talk about, knowing one day we ALL be paying it painfully.



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)