Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Conspiracy of the Stonecutters: is Climate Science Denial going through a Seneca Cliff?



In a recent article on WUWT, Tim Ball describes climate science as the result of a "cabal" devised by the Club of Rome as a way to promote world socialism. He is confusing the Club of Rome with the sect of the "Stonecutters" of "The Simpsons". They really seem to be running out of serious arguments. 


Sometimes I think about how difficult it must be to be a climate science denier. I have been studying climate science for years and I can tell you that it is tough stuff and that climate scientists are smart people who have been building their competency over decades of work. Climate science deniers can have a good time telling each other their beliefs in their sites frequented only by like-minded people. But only those of them suffering from a near terminal Dunning-Kruger syndrome can think they can debate a true climate scientist on climate science. No way.

So, I can almost sympathize with climate science deniers: they face a nearly impossible task. And one good example of their plight is a recent article by Tim Ball on WUWT. Worth reading because it is, in a way, honest. Ball writes (emphasis mine):

I know from experience that after you explain to an audience what and how the anthropogenic global warming (AGW) deception was achieved the next question is inevitable. What was the motive? Unless you answer that question, people become a little more skeptical but remain, at best, undecided. They can’t and don’t want to believe that scientists would be involved in anything nefarious or even misleading. They can’t believe that so many of them were misled, which is why the 97% consensus claim was so effective.

Truly pathetic, isn't it? Put yourself in the shoes of poor Tim Ball. Imagine that you are trying to explain to a group of adult people that, say, the Tooth Fairy really exists and that she has been kidnapped by Santa Claus who keeps her hidden in a secret igloo near the North Pole. Something like that. Wouldn't that be difficult?

Ball doesn't seem to be touched by the idea that he is dealing with normal people who may well be right in their skepticism. So, he proceeds with a desperate attempt to demonstrate the undemonstrable. He says that, clearly, people are skeptical about the idea that tens of thousands of scientists are all conspiring against the American people but, hey, this is not a "conspiracy", it is a "cabal", defined as "A small group of intriguers, especially one formed for political purposes."

What is the difference between a conspiracy and a cabal? Basically, none, except in the mind of Ball who seems to think that by using the term "cabal" he has dodged the objection that a conspiracy on climate would have to be too large to be kept hidden. He doesn't seem to realize that the problem remains unchanged: how is it possible that so many scientists in the world are involved in the conspiracy...er, cabal, and nobody ever talked about it?

Never mind that, Ball tries to substantiate his idea by digging into the corpus of legends that arose in the 1970s after the publication of "The Limits to Growth", the much maligned 1972 report to the Club of Rome. At that time, the Club was accused of the worst possible things, including to be initiating a conspiracy to take over the world. None of these accusations could ever be substantiated and, clearly, if the Club had really been planning to take over the world, they haven't been very successful in almost 50 years of attempts.

But Ball is undeterred; according to him, the Club of Rome is the culprit of everything. He is confusing the Club with the "Stonecutters" of "The Simpsons". But why would the Club be pushing their cabal? Obvious: they wanted (and they still want) to promote world socialism. Again, if that was the plan, they don't seem to have been very successful. Don't you think it would be easier to convince people that the Tooth Fairy really exists?

If you followed me up to here, I guess that, like me, you don't know whether you should laugh or get angry. Surely, it is such a pathetic story that one is tempted to laugh. But, then, if you think of the kind of disaster we are facing (and the Hurricane Harvey is only one of them), you see that people are suffering and dying because of climate change. And you may well get angry at people like Tim Ball are arguing that nothing should be done because they attribute everything to an obscure cabal devised by a group of white-haired people who collected in a smoke-filled room nearly 50 years ago in order to promote socialism.

Hopefully, a Seneca Cliff in the public opinion on climate will take care of this group of conspiracy theorists.



The most recent (March 2017) Gallup poll results on climate change. This can be seen as a "Seneca Cliff" in reverse. A hard core of unbelievers maintain their position, but the overall opinion is clearly tilting in the direction of thinking that climate change is real and it is a serious problem. 


For a detailed rebuttal of Tim Ball's post, see "The Hot Whopper"


Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Richard Heinberg: the problem is that we don't know what's the problem


The Italian National Railroad ("Trenitalia") prints on every ticket it issues an estimate of the amount of CO2 emissions avoided by purchasing it. I am not so sure that Trenitalia's heavy, high-speed trains are such great energy savers. Maybe, but in any case, fairness would dictate that the ticket should include something like, "but, you asshole, if you had stayed home, you would have avoided a lot more CO2 emissions!"

This is just an example of how the whole "ecological movement" seems to have settled to becoming little more than accountants in CO2 saving. Apparently, knowing that you saved "2.5 kg of CO2" (assuming that it is true) should make you feel that you are doing something to fight climate change. But, if you think about that, it is just a little prayer to the climate Gods so that they would spare us from their wrath. The problem cannot be solved by these little tricks; climate change is just a symptom of a much deeper problem: it is the wholesale destruction of the planetary ecosystem, in turn caused by resource overexploitation (aka, overshoot). We won't ever be able to cure this planetary sickness by looking only at the symptoms.

In this excellent, thought-provoking essay, Richard Heinberg frames the problem the way it should be framed. It is rather long but absolutely worth reading. And if you don't have enough time to read it all, just read the first block of the text and it is a perfect synthesis of the predicament we are in.


Climate Change Isn’t Our Biggest Environmental Problem, and Why Technology Won’t Save Us


By Richard Heinberg (reposted with kind permission from the author)


Our core ecological problem is not climate change. It is overshoot, of which global warming is a symptom. Overshoot is a systemic issue. Over the past century-and-a-half, enormous amounts of cheap energy from fossil fuels enabled the rapid growth of resource extraction, manufacturing, and consumption; and these in turn led to population increase, pollution, and loss of natural habitat and hence biodiversity. The human system expanded dramatically, overshooting Earth’s long-term carrying capacity for humans while upsetting the ecological systems we depend on for our survival. Until we understand and address this systemic imbalance, symptomatic treatment (doing what we can to reverse pollution dilemmas like climate change, trying to save threatened species, and hoping to feed a burgeoning population with genetically modified crops) will constitute an endlessly frustrating round of stopgap measures that are ultimately destined to fail.

The ecology movement in the 1970s benefitted from a strong infusion of systems thinking, which was in vogue at the time (ecology—the study of the relationships between organisms and their environments—is an inherently systemic discipline, as opposed to studies like chemistry that focus on reducing complex phenomena to their components). As a result, many of the best environmental writers of the era framed the modern human predicament in terms that revealed the deep linkages between environmental symptoms and the way human society operates. Limits to Growth (1972), an outgrowth of the systems research of Jay Forrester, investigated the interactions between population growth, industrial production, food production, resource depletion, and pollution. Overshoot(1982), by William Catton, named our systemic problem and described its origins and development in a style any literate person could appreciate. Many more excellent books from the era could be cited.

However, in recent decades, as climate change has come to dominate environmental concerns, there has been a significant shift in the discussion. Today, most environmental reporting is focused laser-like on climate change, and systemic links between it and other worsening ecological dilemmas (such as overpopulation, species extinctions, water and air pollution, and loss of topsoil and fresh water) are seldom highlighted. It’s not that climate change isn’t a big deal. As a symptom, it’s a real doozy. There’s never been anything quite like it, and climate scientists and climate-response advocacy groups are right to ring the loudest of alarm bells. But our failure to see climate change in context may be our undoing.

Why have environmental writers and advocacy organizations succumbed to tunnel vision? Perhaps it’s simply that they assume systems thinking is beyond the capacity of policy makers. It’s true: if climate scientists were to approach world leaders with the message, “We have to change everything, including our entire economic system—and fast,” they might be shown the door rather rudely. A more acceptable message is, “We have identified a serious pollution problem, for which there are technical solutions.” Perhaps many of the scientists who did recognize the systemic nature of our ecological crisis concluded that if we can successfully address this one make-or-break environmental crisis, we’ll be able to buy time to deal with others waiting in the wings (overpopulation, species extinctions, resource depletion, and on and on).

If climate change can be framed as an isolated problem for which there is a technological solution, the minds of economists and policy makers can continue to graze in familiar pastures. Technology—in this case, solar, wind, and nuclear power generators, as well as batteries, electric cars, heat pumps, and, if all else fails, solar radiation management via atmospheric aerosols—centers our thinking on subjects like financial investment and industrial production. Discussion participants don’t have to develop the ability to think systemically, nor do they need to understand the Earth system and how human systems fit into it. All they need trouble themselves with is the prospect of shifting some investments, setting tasks for engineers, and managing the resulting industrial-economic transformation so as to ensure that new jobs in green industries compensate for jobs lost in coal mines.

The strategy of buying time with a techno-fix presumes either that we will be able to institute systemic change at some unspecified point in the future even though we can’t do it just now (a weak argument on its face), or that climate change and all of our other symptomatic crises will in fact be amenable to technological fixes. The latter thought-path is again a comfortable one for managers and investors. After all, everybody loves technology. It already does nearly everything for us. During the last century it solved a host of problems: it cured diseases, expanded food production, sped up transportation, and provided us with information and entertainment in quantities and varieties no one could previously have imagined. Why shouldn’t it be able to solve climate change and all the rest of our problems?

Of course, ignoring the systemic nature of our dilemma just means that as soon as we get one symptom corralled, another is likely to break loose. But, crucially, is climate change, taken as an isolated problem, fully treatable with technology? Color me doubtful. I say this having spent many months poring over the relevant data with David Fridley of the energy analysis program at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Our resulting book, Our Renewable Future, concluded that nuclear power is too expensive and risky; meanwhile, solar and wind power both suffer from intermittency, which (once these sources begin to provide a large percentage of total electrical power) will require a combination of three strategies on a grand scale: energy storage, redundant production capacity, and demand adaptation. At the same time, we in industrial nations will have to adapt most of our current energy usage (which occurs in industrial processes, building heating, and transportation) to electricity. Altogether, the energy transition promises to be an enormous undertaking, unprecedented in its requirements for investment and substitution. When David and I stepped back to assess the enormity of the task, we could see no way to maintain current quantities of global energy production during the transition, much less to increase energy supplies so as to power ongoing economic growth. The biggest transitional hurdle is scale: the world uses an enormous amount of energy currently; only if that quantity can be reduced significantly, especially in industrial nations, could we imagine a credible pathway toward a post-carbon future.

Downsizing the world’s energy supplies would, effectively, also downsize industrial processes of resource extraction, manufacturing, transportation, and waste management. That’s a systemic intervention, of exactly the kind called for by the ecologists of the 1970s who coined the mantra, “Reduce, reuse, and recycle.” It gets to the heart of the overshoot dilemma—as does population stabilization and reduction, another necessary strategy. But it’s also a notion to which technocrats, industrialists, and investors are virulently allergic.

The ecological argument is, at its core, a moral one—as I explain in more detail in a just-released manifesto replete with sidebars and graphics (“There’s No App for That: Technology and Morality in the Age of Climate Change, Overpopulation, and Biodiversity Loss”). Any systems thinker who understands overshoot and prescribes powerdown as a treatment is effectively engaging in an intervention with an addictive behavior. Society is addicted to growth, and that’s having terrible consequences for the planet and, increasingly, for us as well. We have to change our collective and individual behavior and give up something we depend on—power over our environment. We must restrain ourselves, like an alcoholic foreswearing booze. That requires honesty and soul-searching.

In its early years the environmental movement made that moral argument, and it worked up to a point. Concern over rapid population growth led to family planning efforts around the world. Concern over biodiversity declines led to habitat protection. Concern over air and water pollution led to a slew of regulations. These efforts weren’t sufficient, but they showed that framing our systemic problem in moral terms could get at least some traction.

Why didn’t the environmental movement fully succeed? Some theorists now calling themselves “bright greens” or “eco-modernists” have abandoned the moral fight altogether. Their justification for doing so is that people want a vision of the future that’s cheery and that doesn’t require sacrifice. Now, they say, only a technological fix offers any hope. The essential point of this essay (and my manifesto) is simply that, even if the moral argument fails, a techno-fix won’t work either. A gargantuan investment in technology (whether next-generation nuclear power or solar radiation geo-engineering) is being billed as our last hope. But in reality it’s no hope at all.

The reason for the failure thus far of the environmental movement wasn’t that it appealed to humanity’s moral sentiments—that was in fact the movement’s great strength. The effort fell short because it wasn’t able to alter industrial society’s central organizing principle, which is also its fatal flaw: its dogged pursuit of growth at all cost. Now we’re at the point where we must finally either succeed in overcoming growthism or face the failure not just of the environmental movement, but of civilization itself.

The good news is that systemic change is fractal in nature: it implies, indeed it requires, action at every level of society. We can start with our own individual choices and behavior; we can work within our communities. We needn’t wait for a cathartic global or national sea change. And even if our efforts cannot “save” consumerist industrial civilization, they could still succeed in planting the seeds of a regenerative human culture worthy of survival.

There’s more good news: once we humans choose to restrain our numbers and our rates of consumption, technology can assist our efforts. Machines can help us monitor our progress, and there are relatively simple technologies that can help deliver needed services with less energy usage and environmental damage. Some ways of deploying technology could even help us clean up the atmosphere and restore ecosystems.

But machines won’t make the key choices that will set us on a sustainable path. Systemic change driven by moral awakening: it’s not just our last hope; it’s the only real hope we’ve ever had.


Are We Doomed? Let’s Have a Conversation.

My most recent essay, in which I discussed a highly publicized controversy over the efficacy of plans for a comprehensive transition to an all-renewable energy future, garnered some strong responses. “If you are right,” one Facebook commenter opined, “we are doomed. Fortunately you are not right.” (The commenter didn’t explain why.) What had I said to provoke an expectation of cataclysmic oblivion? Simply that there is probably no technically and financially feasible energy pathway to enable those of us in highly industrialized countries to maintain current levels of energy usage very far into the future.

My piece happened to be published right around the same time New York Magazine released a controversial article titled “The Uninhabitable Earth,” in which author David Wallace Wells portrayed a dire future if the most pessimistic climate change models turn to reality. “It is, I promise, worse than you think,” wrote Wells. “If your anxiety about global warming is dominated by fears of sea-level rise, you are barely scratching the surface of what terrors are possible, even within the lifetime of a teenager today.” Wells’s article drew rebukes from—of all people—climate scientists, who pointed out a few factual errors, but also insisted that scaring the public just doesn’t help. “Importantly, fear does not motivate,” responded Michael Mann with Susan Joy Hassol and Tom Toles, “and appealing to it is often counter-productive as it tends to distance people from the problem, leading them to disengage, doubt and even dismiss it.”

It’s true: apocalyptic warnings don’t move most people. Or, rather, they move most people away from the source of discomfort, so they simply tune out. But it’s also true that people feel a sense of deep, unacknowledged unease when they are fed “solutions” that they instinctively know are false or insufficient.

Others came to Wells’s defense. Margaret Klein Salamon, a clinical psychologist and founder of the climate action group The Climate Mobilization, which advocates for starting a “World War II-scale” emergency mobilization to convert from fossil fuels, writes, “it is OK, indeed imperative, to tell the whole, frightening story. . . . [I]t’s the job of those of us trying to protect humanity and restore a safe climate to tell the truth about the climate crisis and help people process and channel their own feelings—not to preemptively try to manage and constrain those feelings.”

So: Are we doomed if we can’t maintain current and growing energy levels? And are we doomed anyway due to now-inevitable impacts of climate change?

First, the good news. With regard to energy, we should keep in mind the fact that today’s Americans use roughly twice as much per capita as their great-grandparents did in 1925. While people in that era enjoyed less mobility and fewer options for entertainment and communication than we do today, they nevertheless managed to survive and even thrive. And we now have the ability to provide many services (such as lighting) far more efficiently, so it should be possible to reduce per-capita energy usage dramatically while still maintaining a lifestyle that would be considered more than satisfactory by members of previous generations and by people in many parts of the world today. And reducing energy usage would make a whole raft of problems—climate change, resource depletion, the challenge of transitioning to renewable energy sources—much easier to solve.

The main good news with regard to climate change that I can point to (as I did in an essay posted in June) is that economically recoverable fossil fuel reserves are consistent only with lower-emissions climate change scenarios. As BP and other credible sources for coal, oil, and natural gas reserves figures show, and as more and more researchers are pointing out, the worst-case climate scenarios associated with “business as usual” levels of carbon emissions are in fact unrealistic.

Now, the bad news. While we could live perfectly well with less energy, that’s not what the managers of our economy want. They want growth. Our entire economy is structured to require constant, compounded growth of GDP, and for all practical purposes raising the GDP means using more energy. While fringe economists and environmentalists have for years been proposing ways to back away from our growth addiction (for example, by using alternative economic indices such as Gross National Happiness), none of these proposals has been put into widespread effect. As things now stand, if growth falters the economy crashes.

There’s bad climate news as well: even with current levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases, we’re seeing unacceptable and worsening impacts—raging fires, soaring heat levels, and melting icecaps. And there are hints that self-reinforcing feedbacks maybe kicking in: an example is the release of large amounts of methane from thawing tundra and oceanic hydrates, which could lead to a short-term but steep spike in warming. Also, no one is sure if current metrics of climate sensitivity (used to estimate the response of the global climate system to a given level of forcing) are accurate, or whether the climate is actually more sensitive than we have assumed. There’s some worrisome evidence the latter is case.

But let’s step back a bit. If we’re interested in signs of impending global crisis, there’s no need to stop with just these two global challenges. The world is losing 25 billion tons of topsoil a year due to current industrial agricultural practices; if we don’t deal with that issue, civilization will still crash even if we do manage to ace our energy and climate test. Humanity is also over-using fresh water: ancient aquifers are depleting, while other water sources are being polluted. If we don’t deal with our water crisis, we still crash. Species are going extinct at a thousand times the pre-industrial rate; if we don’t deal with the biodiversity dilemma, we still crash. Then there are social and economic problems that could cause nations to crumble even if we manage to protect the environment; this threat category includes the menaces of over-reliance on debt and increasing economic inequality.

If we attack each of these problems piecemeal with technological fixes (for example, with desalination technology to solve the water crisis or geo-engineering to stabilize the climate) we may still crash because our techno-fixes are likely to have unintended consequences, as all technological interventions do. Anyway, the likelihood of successfully identifying and deploying all the needed fixes in time is vanishingly small.

Many problems are converging at once because society is a complex system, and the challenges we have been discussing are aspects of a systemic crisis. A useful way to frame an integrated understanding of the 21st century survival challenge is this: we humans have overshot Earth’s long-term carrying capacity for our species. We’ve been able to do this due to a temporary subsidy of cheap, bountiful energy from fossil fuels, which enabled us to stretch nature’s limits and to support a far larger overall population than would otherwise be possible. But now we are starting to see supply constraints for those fuels, just as the side effects of burning enormous amounts of coal, oil, and natural gas are also coming into view. Meanwhile, using cheap energy to expand resource-extractive and waste-generating economic processes is leading to biodiversity loss; the depletion of soil, water, and minerals; and environmental pollution of many kinds. Just decarbonizing energy, while necessary, doesn’t adequately deal with systemic overshoot. Only a reduction of population and overall resource consumption, along with a rapid reduction in our reliance on fossil fuels and a redesign of industrial systems, can do that.

Economic inequality is a systemic problem too. As we’ve grown our economy, those who were in position to invest in industrial expansion or to loan money to others have reaped the majority of the rewards, while those who got by through selling their time and labor (or whose common cultural heritage was simply appropriated by industrialists) have fallen behind. There’s no technological fix for inequality; dealing with it will require redesigning our economic system and redistributing wealth. Those in wealthy nations would, on average, have to adjust their living standards downward.

Now, can we do all of this without a crash? Probably not. Indeed, many economists would regard the medicine (population reduction, a decline in per-capita energy use, and economic redistribution) as worse than whatever aspects of the disease they are willing to acknowledge. Environmentalists and human rights advocates would disagree. Which is to say, there’s really no way out. Whether we stick with business as usual, or attempt a dramatic multi-pronged intervention, our current “normal” way of life is toast.

Accepting that a crash is more or less inevitable is a big step, psychologically speaking. I call this toxic knowledge: one cannot “un-know” that the current world system hangs by a thread, and this understanding can lead to depression. In some ways, the systemic crisis we face is analogous to the individual existential crisis of life and death, which we each have to confront eventually. Some willfully ignore their own mortality for as long as possible; others grasp at a belief in the afterlife. Still others seek to create meaning and purpose by making a positive difference in the lives of those around them with whatever time they have. Such efforts don’t alter the inevitability of death; however, contributing to one’s community appears to enhance well-being in many ways beyond that of merely prolonging life.

But is a crash the same as doom?

Not necessarily. Our best hope at this point would seem to be a controlled crash that enables partial recovery at a lower level of population and resource use, and that therefore doesn’t lead to complete and utter oblivion (human extinction or close to it). Among those who understand the systemic nature of our problems, the controlled crash option is the subject of what may be the most interesting and important conversation that’s taking place on the planet just now. But only informed people who have gotten over denial and self-delusion are part of it.

This discussion started in the 1970s, though I wasn’t part of it then; I joined a couple of decades later. There is no formal membership; the conversation takes place through and among a patchwork of small organizations and scattered individuals. They don’t all know each other and there is no secret handshake. Some have publicly adopted the stance that a global crash is inevitable; most soft-pedal that message on their organizational websites but are privately plenty worried. During the course of the conversation so far, two (not mutually exclusive) strategies have emerged.

The first strategy envisions convincing the managers and power holders of the world to invest in a no-regrets insurance plan. Some systems thinkers who understand our linked global crises are offering to come up with a back-pocket checklist for policy makers, for moments when financial or environmental crisis hits: how, under such circumstances, might the managerial elite be able to prevent, say, a stock market crash from triggering food, energy, and social crises as well? A set of back-up plans wouldn’t require detailed knowledge of when or how crisis will erupt. It wouldn’t even require much of a systemic understanding of global overshoot. It would simply require willingness on the part of societal power holders to agree that there are real or potential threats to global order, and to accept the offer of help. At the moment, those pursuing this strategy are working mostly covertly, for reasons that are not hard to discern.

The second strategy consists of working within communities to build more societal resilience from the ground up. It is easier to get traction with friends and neighbors than with global power holders, and it’s within communities that political decisions are made closest to where the impact is felt. My own organization, Post Carbon Institute, has chosen to pursue this strategy via a series of books, the Community Resilience Guides; the “Think Resilience” video series; and our forthcoming compendium, The Community Resilience Reader. Rob Hopkins, who originated the Transition Towns movement, has been perhaps the most public, eloquent, and upbeat proponent of the local resilience strategy, but there are countless others scattered across the globe.

Somehow, the work of resilience building (whether top-down or bottom-up) must focus not just on maintaining supplies of food, water, energy, and other basic necessities, but also on sustaining social cohesion—a culture of understanding, tolerance, and inquiry—during times of great stress. While it’s true that people tend to pull together in remarkable ways during wars and natural disasters, sustained hard times can lead to scapegoating and worse.

Most people are not party to the conversation, not aware that it is happening, and unaware even that such a conversation is warranted. Among those who are worried about the state of the world, most are content to pursue or support efforts to keep crises from occurring by working via political parties, religious organizations, or non-profit advocacy orgs on issues such as climate change, food security, and economic inequality. There is also a small but rapidly growing segment of society that feels disempowered as the era of economic growth wanes, and that views society’s power holders as evil and corrupt. These dispossessed—whether followers of ISIS or Infowars—would prefer to “shake things up,” even to the point of bringing society to destruction, rather than suffer the continuation of the status quo. Unfortunately, this last group may have the easiest path of all.

By comparison, the number of those involved in the conversation is exceedingly small, countable probably in the hundreds of thousands, certainly not millions. Can we succeed? It depends on how one defines “success”—as the ability to maintain, for a little longer, an inherently unsustainable global industrial system? Or as the practical reduction in likely suffering on the part of the survivors of the eventual crash? A related query one often hears after environmental lectures is, Are we doing enough? If “Enough” means “enough to avert a system crash,” then the answer is no: it’s unlikely that anyone can deliver that outcome now. The question should be, What can we do—not to save a way of life that is unsalvageable, but to make a difference to the people and other species in harm’s way?

This is not a conversation about the long-term trajectory of human cultural evolution, though that’s an interesting subject for speculation. Assuming there are survivors, what will human society look like following the crises ensuing from climate change and the end of fossil fuels and capitalism? David Fleming’s Surviving the Future and John Michael Greer’s The Ecotechnic Future offer useful thoughts in this regard. My own view is that it’s hard for us to envision what comes next because our imaginations are bounded by the reality we have known. What awaits will likely be as far removed from from modern industrial urban life as Iron-Age agrarian empires were from hunting-and-gathering bands. We are approaching one of history’s great discontinuities. The best we can do under the circumstances is to get our priorities and values straight (protect the vulnerable, preserve the best of what we have collectively achieved, and live a life that’s worthy) and put one foot in front of the other.

The conversation I’m pointing to here is about fairly short-term actions. And it doesn’t lend itself to building a big movement. For that, you need villains to blame and promises of revived national or tribal glory. For those engaged in the conversation, there’s only hard work and the satisfaction of honestly facing our predicament with an attitude of curiosity, engagement, and compassion. For us, threats of doom or promises of utopia are distractions or cop-outs.

Only those drawn to the conversation by temperament and education are likely to take it up. Advertising may not work. But having a few more hands on deck, and a few more resources to work with, can only help.


Wednesday, August 23, 2017

What fuels civil war? Energy and the rise of Fascism



Italian Blackshirts in the early 1920s. There is a Fascist song from those times that says (translated), "Fascists and Communists were playing cards. The Fascists won with the ace of clubs."  But the clubs used by the Fascists were only a marginal elements in a struggle that had as a fundamental factor the supply of energy to the Italian economy.


History, as we all know, may not repeat itself, but it surely rhymes. So, the theme of a civil war and of a return of Fascism is much discussed in the US nowadays. What kind of rhymes with past events can we perceive? On this point, I can propose to re-examine how Fascism took over in Italy, in the early 1920s, and in particular how it was related to energy supply factors. It is not, and it cannot be a complete analysis, but maybe it can help us understand what's going on.

In the 1920s, Italy was reeling from the tremendous effort of the First World War while the major allied powers, Britain, France, and the US, were carving the pie of the victory among themselves, leaving only crumbs for Italy. There were reasons for that; the main one was that the Allies saw Italy as more of a burden than a help during the war. In any case, there had been no "peace dividend" for Italy.

That was not the only problem for Italy, an even more important one was the dependency on British coal for its energy supply. In the aftermath of the war, the British coal production had peaked was headed for decline. You can see the data, below.


The two low points under the production peak correspond to the two major strikes of the coal miners of 1921 and 1926. But, even without strikes, the British economy was undergoing a major readjustment. Coal was not any more so abundant as before and that had effects on the British coal exports. In turn, that created an energy crisis in Italy. You can see in the data, below how coal imports from Britain had plummeted immediately after the war and how imports from Germany were initially insufficient to compensate the decline.

All this had political consequences. Most Italians couldn't understand why the victory in the Great War had brought to them only more poverty than before. Nor they could understand why the perfidious Britons were denying them the coal they justly deserved (you can read about this feeling in D.H. Lawrence's "Sea and Sardinia" of 1921). As a consequence, a delusionary attitude became widespread: it was widely believed that Italy was singled out as an enemy by the decadent Northern Plutocracies because they envied the strength and the power of the young Italian nation. In its extreme form, this illusion stated that Italy had won the war for the Great Powers with the offensive of Vittorio Veneto in 1918 and that the Great Powers didn't want to admit that because they loathed the power of the young Italian Nation. That was repeated so often that it became an obvious truth in Italy. Eventually, it led to to the overestimation of the country's military power, with disastrous consequences during the 2nd World War. Incidentally, a similar delusionary belief was common in Germany during these years: that the defeat of the country in WWI had been caused by the "stab in the back" received by the Socialists.

In those confused years, the lack of coal and the economic stress led to riots and disorders in Italy. This is a general result of the fact that in a situation of lack of resources, the best strategy may be to steal them from neighbors. This historical phase was described as the "two red years" (il biennio rosso) but it was not simply a confrontation between the Right and the Left (The Fascists and the Communists). There is an amazing animation that you can find in Wikipedia that illustrates the fragmentation of the Italian society into different political groups coming to blows with each other. (image created by Markuswikipedian)


Eventually, a local strongman, Benito Mussolini, emerged from the struggle as the winner and he and his Fascist party took power with the "March on Rome" of 1922. It was a bloodless coup, carried out with the support of the traditional elites, including the King of Italy. They were hoping that they could neutralize Mussolini and turn his movement into something that they could control. In the short run, they were right.

When the new Fascist government took over, in 1922, it benefited of two favorable circumstances; the main one being that the energy supply to the country improved. Coal imports from Britain had restarted, although not at the same level as before but, at the same time, the German coal industry had also recovered. Germany coal production would not peak until the late 1930s, and that meant that imports from Germany could now compensate the stagnating British production. In the long run, that would lead Italy's to a deadly embrace with Germany during the 2nd world war, but in the 1920s it was a vital flow of energy for the Italian economy.

The second favorable circumstance for Mussolini was that the previous governments had slashed down military expenses to 2% of the GDP from the more than 10% they had been during the war. Despite all of his warlike rhetoric, Mussolini was smart enough that he didn't increase the military budget, at least initially. Without the burden of large military expenses and with a good supply of coal, the Italian economy experienced a minor renaissance. Inflation disappeared and resources could be dedicated to rebuilding the civilian industrial infrastructure. Mussolini could even indulge in the attempt of creating a national coal industry by exploiting the coal deposits in Sardinia. It always remained a toy mine, but it had good propaganda value.

Finally, Italians seemed to believe that a dictatorship was preferable to civil war and that made things relatively easy for Mussolini, who didn't need to recur to extreme repression measures, at least at the beginning. Of course, as we all know, things changed. In the 1930s, a new coal crisis pushed the regime to a higher level of repressive control, the military budget was tripled and Mussolini became a victim of his own propaganda, pursuing his delusionary dream of rebuilding the Roman Empire. A series of senseless wars eventually led Italy to defeat and humiliation.

This is a simplified presentation of a series of complex events, but I think it may be useful for us to understand what are the main elements that can lead Fascism to take over anywhere in the world. After all, Fascism was an Italian invention, much admired by dictators everywhere. It was a combination of economic crisis linked to energy scarcity, of military victories turning out to be expensive defeats, and of a delusionary vision that blames foreign evil forces for all the ongoing troubles.

So, if the look at the situation in the United States nowadays, one obvious similarity with Italy in the 1920s is how a military victory can lead to no advantage for the winning country. In the 1990s, the US triumphed against the Soviet Union in the cold war and that was expected to bring a "peace dividend," but it never did. The US also successfully invaded Iraq in 2003 but, again, most Americans saw none of the advantages that had been prospected to them as the result of controlling the oil resources of Iraq.

In terms of collective delusions, we certainly have plenty in the US, nowadays. One is seeing the US as "the indispensable country," greatly overestimating the country's military power. Another is the idea of "energy dominance." It is unbelievable how many people in the US think that the fact that the country now produces more oil than it imports (which is correct) means that the country is not dependent on imports anymore (which is incorrect, of course). Even the Energy Secretary, Rick Perry, recently said that the US exports more than it imports, and this statement wasn't challenged in the mainstream media. In any case, much of what is said and done in the US and in the West is based on the even more fundamental delusion that technological progress will solve all problems.

Finally, we are starting to see plenty of sectarian violence in the US. People are openly talking of an ongoing "civil war" even though it seems that we are still far away from the level of violence reached in Italy after the 1st world war (but note also that the Italian violence of those times had no racial components). In any case, civil wars cannot last forever; eventually, one side must win and take over. So what can we expect for the future?

What happens to the economy of a country mostly depends on the energy supply needed to make it function. This is not commonly recognized, but we saw how Italy danced to the coal tune during the years between the two world wars. In our times, fossil fuels, oil gas, and coal are what makes the world's economy dance. And the availability of energy will determine the destiny of the United States.

As we all know, the mood in the US is bullish regarding fossil fuels and it is true that both liquid fuels and natural gas underwent a renaissance with the "fracking" extraction technologies. That stopped the decline that had started with the peaking of the oil production, reached in 1970, and led to a new cycle of increasing production rates. But the time of rapid growth seems to be over for the US oil and gas industry. "Fracking" is not forever and a new phase of production decline may be starting, Then, note also that the US military expenses are still large, even though declining. They stand now at about 3.3% of the GDP, higher in relative terms than they were in Italy in 1922.

So, the future of the US will depend on how much it will be possible to supply the industrial system with energy and keeping military expenses at a level compatible with the available energy. Even hoping that military expenses will not be raised again, it hard to think that the necessary energy to keep the system going could come from the exhausted American oil and gas fields. Could a new US government base a new economic renaissance on coal? That seems, indeed, to be Donald Trump's plan. Re-open the coal mines, lavishly subsidize coal production, and, perhaps, take the road of coal liquefaction to obtain synthetic fuels. Then use these fuels to boost the economy, create jobs, rebuild the country's military power and, probably, end the civil war before it becomes truly disastrous. After all, it is what Italy and Germany did, with some initial success, between the two world wars.

But is it possible to convert the US economy back to coal? Probably not for two reasons: the first is that the coal resources in the US, although still abundant, are not anymore what they were in the past. The second is that making the world's largest economy dependent on coal would give such a push to global warming that it would rapidly destroy the world's ecosystem as we know it.

But the fact that the task is hopeless doesn't mean that it can't be attempted. And a dictator who would attempt to do that has a good chance to do more damage to the country and to humankind than any dictator of the past ever managed.




Monday, August 14, 2017

Which EROI do we need to collect berries?



My wife, Grazia, collecting berries in the woods of Tuscany in a hot day of August. Maybe her ancestors were doing exactly the same, more or less in the same place, hundreds or thousands of years ago. Here, I present some reflections and some calculations showing that the EROI of this simple way of collecting food may be over 100, better than almost anything we have nowadays. Of course, no empire in history was based on hunting and gathering, but was that a bad thing?


The question of EROI - the energy return on energy invested - is raging nowadays, with some people insisting that a civilization cannot exist without an EROI of at least variously estimated values, at least 10 and higher (image on the right by Charles Hall). And that is said to mean we absolutely need sophisticated technologies, such as nuclear, in order to survive.

Yet, this morning I had been collecting berries in the wood with my wife and wondering: 'what is the EROI of what we are doing?' A reasonably good EROI, I am sure, enough for what our ancestors needed when they survived on hunting and gathering. All you have to do is to walk in the woods, find the berries and pick them up (and watch your step, you don't want to fall into a thorn bush).  If our hunter-gatherer ancestors used this method, and if we are here today - their descendants - it means it was an effective strategy for survival. Collecting what you can find is an ancient and tested strategy that goes under the name of "gleaning" and it has accompanied humankind for millennia. It is a good strategy just because it is so simple: no tools, no written laws, no overlords, no police, no fences. And it works.

As I was collecting berries, I started thinking things. How to program a drone to collect berries, for instance. Sure: a perfect way to bring down the EROI of the whole thing to nearly zero. And to destroy the bushes forever. Humans are like this, with their attempt of "improving" things they always pull the levers in the wrong direction. And that means making things more complicated, needing more and more energy to keep them running, and then complaining that we don't have enough.

Of course, with more than seven billion humans on this planet, it is hard to think that we can go back to gleaning to feed them all. But for how long we can trust the expensive, complex, delicate, and terribly inefficient enterprise we call "industrial agriculture"? I can't say. What I can say is that collecting berries is a big satisfaction, as you see below.





And now some approximate calculations: Today we collected 2 kg of berries. According to the available data, berries contain 125 kJ/100g. So, the total collection was about 2500 kJ, about 700 Wh.

Now, it was about one hour of low-intensity work for two people, so let's say it involved a total of 50x2x1h = 100 Wh of human work. Then, I found values of 20-25% for the human metabolic efficiency of converting food to mechanical energy, it means we consumed some 400-500 Wh of food energy in order to collect 700 Wh.

Very approximate, or course, but the final result is an EROI = 1.4-1.7. Not comparable to crude oil, but probably more than enough for our ancestors to enjoy berries as a seasonal treat.

But, of course, no one ever lived on berries alone, not even in paleolithic times. The energy content of several kinds of foods that you can find in a natural environment may be more than an order of magnitude larger than that of blackberries. Walnuts are reported to have more than 10,000 kJ/100 g. If you can collect one kg/hour, as we did for berries, it means an EROI of more than 100 (!!). Larger than the mythical EROI of crude oil of a hundred years ago. Wheat and cereals, in general, have also high energy content, wheat is reported to have 15,000 kJ/kg, showing how gleaning could be an extremely efficient food gathering strategy.

So, life was simple and easy, once, until we decided to make it complicated and difficult.






Thursday, August 10, 2017

Our Photovoltaic Future: the Next Five Billion Years

As part of a series of posts on photovoltaic energy as a metabolic revolution of the earth's ecosystem, I am reproposing a post that I published last year on "Cassandra's Legacy" with the title "Five Billion Years of Energy Supply". 



It seems to be popular nowadays to maintain that photovoltaic energy is just an "extension" of fossil energy and that it will fade away soon after we run out of fossils fuels. But photovoltaics is much more than just a spinoff of fossil energy, it is a major metabolic revolution in the ecosystem, potentially able to create a "stereosphere" analogous to the "biosphere" that could last as long as the remaining lifetime of the earth's ecosystem and possibly much more. Here are some reflections of mine, not meant to be the last word on the subject, but part of an ongoing study that I am performing. You can find more on a similar subject in a paper of mine on Biophysical Economics and Resource Quality, (BERQ)






"Life is nothing but an electron looking for a place to rest," is a sentence attributed to Albert Szent-Györgyi. It is true: the basis of organic life as we know it is the result of the energy flow generated by photosynthesis. Sunlight promotes an electron to a high energy state in the molecule of chlorophyll. Then, the excited electron comes to rest when a CO2 molecule reacts with hydrogen stripped away from an H2O molecule in order to form the organic molecules that are the basis of biological organisms. That includes replacing degraded chlorophyll molecules and the chloroplasts that contain them with new ones. The cycle is called "metabolism" and it has been going on for billions of years on the earth's surface. It will keep going as long as there is sunlight to power it and there are nutrients that can be extracted from the environment. 

But, if life means using light to excite an electron to a higher energy state, there follows that chlorophyll is not the only entity that can do that. In the figure at the beginning of this post, you see the solid state equivalent of a chlorophyll molecule: a silicon-based photovoltaic cell. It promotes an electron to a higher energy state; then this electron finds rest after having dissipated its potential by means of chemical reactions or physical processes. That includes using the potentials generated to manufacturing new photovoltaic cells and the related structures to replace the degraded ones. In analogy with the biological metabolism, we could call this process "solid state metabolism". Then, the similarities between the carbon-based metabolic chain and the silicon-based one are many. So much that we could coin the term "stereosphere" (from the Greek term meaning "solid.") as the solid-state equivalent of the well known "biosphere". Both the biosphere and the stereosphere use solar light as the energy potential necessary to keep the metabolic cycle going and they build-up metabolic structures using nutrients taken from the earth's surface environment.

The main nutrient for the biosphere is CO2, taken from the atmosphere, while the stereosphere consumes SiO2, taking it from the geosphere. Both metabolic chains use a variety of other nutrients: the stereosphere can reduce the oxides of metals such as aluminum, iron, and titanium, and use them as structural or functional elements in their metallic form; whereas the biosphere can only use carbon polymers. The biosphere stores information mostly in specialized carbon-based molecules called deoxyribonucleic acids (DNA). The stereosphere stores it mostly in silicon-based components called "transistors". Mechanical enactors are called "muscles" in the biosphere and are based on protein filaments that contract as a consequence of changing chemical potentials. The equivalent mechanical elements in the stereosphere are called "motors" and are based on the effects of magnetic fields on metallic elements. For each element of one of these systems, it is possible to find a functional equivalent of the other, even though their composition and mechanisms of operation are normally completely different.

A major difference in the two systems is that the biosphere is based on microscopic self-reproducing cells. The stereosphere, instead, has no recognizable cells and the smallest self-reproducing unit is something that could be defined as the "self-reproducing solar plant factory." A factory that can build not only solar plants but also new solar plant factories. Obviously, such an entity includes a variety of subsystems for mining, refining, transporting, processing, assembling, etc. and it has to be very large. Today, all these elements are embedded in the system called the "industrial system." (also definable as the "technosphere"). This system is powered, at present, mainly by fossil fuels but, in the future, it would be transformed into something fully powered by the dissipation of solar energy potentials. This is possible as long as the flow of energy generated by the system is as large or larger than the energy necessary to power the metabolic cycle. This requirement appears to be amply fulfilled by current photovoltaic technologies (and other renewable ones).

A crucial question for all metabolic processes is whether the supply of nutrients (i.e. minerals) can be maintained for a long time. About the biosphere, evidently, that's the case: the geological cycles that reform the necessary nutrients are part of the concept of "Gaia", the homeostatic system that has kept the biosphere alive for nearly four billion years. About the stereosphere, most of the necessary nutrients are abundant in the earth's crust (silicon and aluminum being the main ones) and easily recoverable and recyclable if sufficient energy is available. Of course, the stereosphere will also need other metals, several of which are rare in the earth's crust, but the same requirement has not prevented the biosphere from persisting for billions of years. The geosphere can recycle chemical elements by natural processes, provided that they are not consumed at an excessively fast rate. This is an obviously complex issue and we cannot exclude that the cost of recovering some rare element will turn out to be a fundamental obstacle to the diffusion of the stereosphere. At the same time, however, there is no evidence that this will be the case.

So, can the stereosphere expand on the earth's surface and become a large and long-lasting metabolic cycle? In principle, yes, but we should take into account a major obstacle that could prevent this evolution to occur. It is the "Allee effect" well known for the biosphere and that, by similarity, should be valid for the stereosphere as well. The idea of the Allee effect is that there exists  a minimum size for a biological population that allows it to be stable and recover from perturbations. Too few individuals may not have sufficient resources and reciprocal interactions to avoid extinction after a collapse. In the case of the stereosphere, the Allee effect means that there is a minimum size for the self-reproducing solar plant factory that will allow it to be self-sustaining and long-lasting. Have we reached the "tipping point" leading to this condition? At present, it is impossible to say, but we cannot exclude that it has been reached or that it will be reached before the depletion of fossil fuels will causes the collapse of the current industrial system.

The next question is whether a self-sustaining stereosphere can coexist with the organic biosphere. According to Gause's law, well known in biology, two different species cannot coexist in the same ecological niche; normally one of the two must go extinct or be marginalized. Solid state and photosynthetic systems are in competition with each other for solar light. There follows that the stereosphere could replace the biosphere if the efficiency of solid state transduction systems were to turn out higher than that of photosynthetic systems. But this is not obvious. PV cells today appear to be more efficient than photosynthetic plants in terms of the fraction of solar energy processed but we need to consider the whole life cycle of the systems and, at present, a reliable assessment is difficult. We should take into account, anyway, that solid state creatures don't need liquid water, don't need oxygen, are not limited to local nutrients, and can exist in a much wider range of temperatures than biological ones. It means that the stereosphere can expand to areas forbidden to the biosphere: dry deserts, mountaintops, polar deserts, and more. Silicon based creatures are also scarcely affected by ionizing radiation so they can survive in space without problems. These considerations suggest that the stereosphere may occupy areas and volumes where it is not in direct competition with the biosphere.

The characteristics of the stereosphere also allow it the capability of surviving catastrophes that may deeply damage the biosphere and that will eventually cause its extinction. For instance, the stereosphere could survive an abrupt climate change (although not a "Venus Catastrophe" of the kind reported by James Hansen). Over the long run, in any case, the earth's biosphere is destined to be sterilized by the increasing intensity of the solar irradiation over times of the order of a billion years. (and smaller for multicellular organisms). The stereosphere would not be affected by this effect and could continue existing for the five billion of years in which the sun will remain in the main sequence. Possibly, it could persist for much longer, even after the complex transformations that would lead the sun to become a white dwarf. A white dwarf could actually power PV systems perhaps for a trillion years!

A more detailed set of considerations of mine on a related subject can be found in this article on "Biophysical Economics and Resource Quality, BERQ). 


Notes: 

1. I am not discussing here whether the possible emergence of the stereosphere is a good or a bad thing from the viewpoint of humankind. It could give us billions of years of prosperity or lead us to rapid extinction. It seems unlikely, anyway, that humans will choose whether they want to have it or not on the basis of rational arguments while they still have the power to decide something on the matter. 

2. The concept of a terrestrial metabolic system called the stereosphere is not equivalent, and probably not even similar, to the idea of the "technological singularity" which supposes a very fast increase of artificial intelligence. The "self-reproducing solar plant factory" needs not be more intelligent than a bacterium; it just needs to store a blueprint of itself and instructions about replication. Intelligence is not necessarily useful for survival, as humans may well discover to their chagrin in the near future.

3. About the possibility of a photovoltaic-powered Dyson sphere around a white dwarf, see this article by Ibrahim Semiz and Salim O˘gur.

4. The idea of "silicon-based life" was popularized perhaps for the first time by Stanley Weinbaum who proposed his "Pyramid Monster" in his short story "A Martian Odissey" published in 1933. Weinbaum's clumsy monster could not exist in the real universe, but it was a remarkable insight, nevertheless. 







Monday, August 7, 2017

Our Photovoltaic Future: The Metabolic Revolutions of the Earth's History.






Illustration from the recent paper by Olivia Judson on "Nature Ecology & Evolution (2017) "The Energy Expansions of Evolution". 


Olivia Judson published a very interesting paper this March on "Nature Ecology & Evolution". It is a wonderful cavalcade along 4 billion years of the history of the Earth, seeing it in terms of five "metabolic revolutions." It is an approach that goes in parallel with a paper that I wrote last year on BERQ; even though I focussed on the future rather than on the past. But my paper was very much along the same lines, noting how some of some of the major discontinuities in the Earth's geological record are caused by metabolic changes. That is, the Earth's changes as the life inhabiting it "learns" how to exploit the potential gradients offered by the environment: geochemical energy at the very beginning and, later on, solar energy.

Seen in these terms, the Earth system is a gigantic autocatalytic reaction that was ignited some four billion years ago, when the planet became cool enough to have liquid water on its surface. Since then, it has been flaring in a slow-motion explosion that has been going faster and faster for billions of years, until it is literally engulfing the whole planet, sending offshoots to other planets of the solar system and even outside it.

Judson correctly identifies the ability to control fire as the latest feature of this ongoing explosion. Fire is a characteristic ability of human beings and can be argued that it is the defining feature of the latest time subdivision of the planet's history: the Anthropocene.

Judson stops with fire, calling it "a source of energy" and proposing that "The technology of fire may also, perhaps, mark an inflection point for the Solar System and beyond. Spacecraft from Earth may, intentionally or not, take Earthly life to other celestial objects." Here, I think the paper goes somewhat astray. Calling fire a "source" of energy is not wrong, but we need to distinguish whether we intend fire as the combustion of wood, that humans have been using for more than a million years, and the combustion of fossil hydrocarbons, used only during the past few centuries. There is a big difference: wood fires could never take humans to contemplate the idea of expanding beyond their planetary boundaries. But fossil energy could fuel this expansion at most for a few centuries and this big fire is already on its way to exhaustion. If the Anthropocene is to be based on fossil fuels, it is destined to fade away rather rapidly.

Does this mean that we have reached the peak of the great metabolic cycle of planet Earth? Not necessarily so. Judson seems to miss in her paper that the next metabolic revolution has already started: it is called photovoltaic conversion and it is a way to transform solar energy into an electric potential, coupled with the capability of controlling the motion of electrons in solid state conductors. It is a big step beyond fire and thermal machinery (*). It is, by all means, a new form of metabolism (**) and it is generating a new ecology of silicon-based life-forms, as I discussed in a previous post that I titled "Five Billion Years of Photovoltaic Energy". 

So, we are living in interesting times, something that we could take as a curse. But it is not a choice that we are facing: we are entering a new era, not necessarily a good thing for humans, but most likely an unavoidable change; whether we like it or not may be of little importance. It is a new discontinuity in the billion years long history of planet Earth that will lead to an increased capability of capturing and dissipating the energy coming from the sun.

The great chemical reaction is still flaring up and its expansion is going to take us somewhere far away, even though, at present, we can't say where. 


A new lifeform, just appeared in the Earth's ecosystem:









(*) The Jews have been arguing for about a century whether electricity has to be considered a form of fire and therefore prohibited during the Sabbath. It is surely an interesting theological discussion, but for what we are considering here there is no doubt that fire (a hot plasma ignited in air) is not the same as electricity (controlled movement of electrons in solids)

(**) The supporters of nuclear energy may argue that the next metabolic revolution should be seen as the production of energy from nuclear fission or fusion. The problem is that the resources of fissionable material in the whole solar system are too small that they could hardly fuel a truly new geological epoch. As for fusion, we haven't found a technology able to control it in such a way to make it an earth-based source of energy and it may very well be that such a technology doesn't exist. But, on the sun, fusion works very well, so why bother?



Friday, August 4, 2017

Does Propaganda Still Work? Donald Trump and Russiagate




Image above, from the Washington Post, 17 July 2017. Donald Trump seems to have been basically unaffected by the Russiagate campaign, even with those who disapprove him. Is it a sign that propaganda doesn't work anymore as it used to in the past?



It has been said that the best trick of the devil is to convince you that he doesn't exist. The same holds for propaganda, which draws most of its power from being able to convince people that it doesn't exist. Yet, it exists and its impact on people's lives has been gigantic. The more we try to ignore it, the more it affects us, especially those of us who claim to be immune from it.

Yet, it would seem that propaganda can work only when it can eliminate or marginalize the opposing voices in environments. Maybe the concept of "free press" is a little optimistic today in the Western World. Still, with the availability of the Internet, everyone can verify the media statements and there is no lack of opposing voices in the galaxy of the social media and the various independent media sites. That had led someone to prophesize "The end of Spin".

Can it be that propaganda has been weakened by the Web? Difficult to say, but some examples indicate that something has changed. A good example is the attack on Russia. It was done literally by the book, applying all the recipes that are known to work and have worked beautifully well in the past. In particular, it was based on demonizing the bad guy of the moment, Vladimir ("Vlad") Putin, accused to be a bloodthirsty dictator and compared to, well, you guess whom! The real objective, however, soon became to use the already done demonizing work to bring down the hated Donald Trump, accused over and over of connivance with the evil Russians,

Did it work? In short, no. At least for what it was its main purpose, that of bringing down Donald Trump, it was an abject failure. Despite the daily hammering of all sort of accusations about Trump being Putin's straw man, the idea just didn't stick. Even with those who disapprove Trump as president, the idea that he is somehow connected to, or working for, Russia and Putin ranks very low among the criticism list.

But that doesn't mean that the anti-Russian propaganda didn't work. Here are some recent Gallup poll results:


The barrage of anti-Russian news on the mainstream media has clearly had some effect, bringing 70% of Americans to have an unfavorable opinion of Russia. So, propaganda still works, it seems.

Yes, but only within some limits. If we compare these data with those for Iraq, we find that in 2003, 93% of Americans (!!) declared to have an unfavorable opinion of Iraq. That was a true triumph of modern propaganda that could obtain this result on the basis of a complete fabrication: that of the "weapons of mass destruction" allegedly deployed in Iraq. Such an extreme view of Russia seems unlikely to be attainable today.

So, could it be true that propaganda doesn't work anymore so well and so smoothly as it did in the past? Or is it Trump the maverick who is disrupting everything? The only thing we can say is that propaganda may have weakened a little, but it is still the formidable weapon it has been from the time when it was developed in its modern form by people such as George Creel and Edward Bernays.

Yet, in the long run, even the most wondrous contraptions are subjected to the Seneca Collapse. And one of the reasons why empires collapse is because of the mountains of lies that the elites tell to their subjects. It has happened in the past, it may happen again. It probably will.






Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The stoic viewpoint: make the best of what's in our power and we take the rest as it naturally happens.


 The Stoics are the people on the top of the hill. They are applying Epictetus' maxim that says "What, then, is to be done? To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens." (Discourses, 1.1.17). 
(Image courtesy: Nate Hagens.)


There comes a point in which you have to acknowledge reality: Business as usual, BAU, is dead. Not that it would be impossible to avoid, or at least soften, the imminent disruption of our way of life caused either by resource depletion or climate change (or both). But that implies making sacrifices, renouncing something today for a better world tomorrow. And people are just not going to do that. We are not wired to plan for the future. We are wired to exploit what we have at hand.

The recent global events have shown that humans, worldwide, are unable to see priorities. The richest country in the world, the US, has turned its back to what science says about our faltering ecosystem, pursuing the impossible dream to return to an imaginary world of happy coal miners as England was at the time of Charles Dickens. The US is not the only example of a society that desperately tries cling to the old ways, refusing to change. Practically every country in the world is pursuing a dream of economic growth which, at this point, is just as impossible as a return to coal.

Does that mean we have to fall into despair? Some people seem to have arrived at this conclusion: there is nothing that can be done, therefore nothing that should be done. After all, what was so bad with the Middle Ages? And, anyway, human extinction would surely solve a lot of problems. Other take the opposite view, desperately hoping for some technological miracle that will lead us to leave the earth, colonize other planets, and mine the inexistent ores on asteroids.

What is to be done, then? Over the years, I found myself closer and closer to that group of ancient philosophers who lived during the times of decline of the Roman Empire who called themselves "Stoics" and who themselves the same question: what's to be done? The answer was given by Epictetus in his "Discourses:" It is "To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens". (1.1.17). And, after all, Seneca, to whom I credit the idea of the "Seneca Cliff", was a stoic, too!

So, here is a picture of the vegetable gardens that we planted in the courtyard of a building of the University of Florence (here it is shown with two students who have volunteered to take care of it). We plan to plant many more of these gardens. And, in this way, we make the best of what's in our power and we'll take the rest as it naturally happens.







Who

Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" to be published by Springer in mid 2017