Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Climate Change: How Desperate Can You Be?

The legend of the city of Ys has that it was swallowed by the sea. Many modern islands risk to suffer the same fate as the result of Global Warming (Image source). But their inhabitants tend to deny that, and for good reasons: they are desperate. 

Sometimes, what you read in the news really looks like the stuff legends are made of. So is the phone call that President Trump gave to the mayor of the island of Tangier, who had appeared in TV, worried that his island on the Chesapeake bay risked to disappear into the Ocean. Here is an excerpt from the "Washington Post".

Trump thanked the mayor and the entire island of Tangier, where he received 87 percent of the votes, for their support. Then the conversation turned to the island’s plight.
“He said we shouldn’t worry about rising sea levels,” Eskridge said. “He said that ‘your island has been there for hundreds of years, and I believe your island will be there for hundreds more.’”
 Eskridge wasn’t offended. In fact, he agreed that rising sea levels aren’t a problem for Tangier.
“Like the president, I’m not concerned about sea level rise,” he said. “I’m on the water daily, and I just don’t see it.”

Do you realize the lunacy of this exchange? Trump who tells the mayor, "don't worry, your island will be there for hundreds of years" Does he think he is Moses who can command the waters? And the good mayor of Tangier who says, "I'm not concerned about sea level rise, I'm on the water daily and I just don't see it." Ahem... Mr. Mayor, do you really expect to see a sea level rise when you are "on the water"? And then the mayor goes on, saying that despite the fact that the sea is not rising, the islands are sinking. Absolutely fantastic. Is this madness or what? Maybe not or, at least, there is method in it.

In a previous post of mine, I described how the government of the Maldives Islands also denied that sea level rise was a threat I wondered "Is this an epidemics of brain disease? Or do the Gods really drive crazy those whom they want to destroy?" A question that applies also to the inhabitants of Tangier, in the Chesapeake bay.

But no, this is not an epidemics of madness. There is a perfectly rational explanation for what's happening. I wrote in my post,

Imagine that you are part of the elite of the Maldives. And imagine that you are smart enough to understand what's going on with the Earth's climate. As things stand today, it is clear that it is too late to stop a burst of global warming that will push temperatures so high that nothing will save the Maldives islands. Maybe not next year but in a few decades, it is nearly certain. 
So, given the situation, what is the rational thing for you to do? Of course, it is to sell what you can sell as long as you can find a sucker who will buy. Then you can say good riddance to those who remain. 
What we are seeing, therefore, is a game in which someone will be left holding the short end of the dynamite stick. When the elites of the Maldives will have left for higher grounds, the poor will be stuck there. For them, the Seneca Cliff ends underwater.

The same considerations apply to the islands of the Chesapeake bay. Imagine you are mayor Eskridge. Imagine yourself telling Trump over the phone, "Mister President, I believe that you made a big mistake when you decided to leave the Paris Agreement. Insteas, you should promote emission cutting and renewable energy development." Yeah, can you imagine that?

The problem is not so much that Trump wouldn't listen, but that it is just too late for that kind of actions being able to save the Chesapeake islands, just as the Maldives islands. The only hope for the inhabitants of Tangier is that Trump will tell the US army to build a wall around the island. He may; he seems to like walls. But if you want him to do that, you should be nice, very nice, to him. 

The human mind is a curious contraption that has been perfected to what it is today by hundreds of thousands of years of natural selection. The minds that made the wrong choices were ruthless eliminated when the bodies they inhabited were eaten by sabertooth tigers or suffered equally bad fates. So, it may well be that in the current climate change drama, people are making the best possible choices in order to save (or try to save) their ass. The rich deny climate change because they plan to save themselves and dump the poors. The poor deny climate change because they hope to court the favor of the elites and be among those who will be saved by them. And so it goes.

So, when you read some absurd form of denial of climate change on the Web, don't think that the people who write are stupid, or evil, or paid by the PTB. They may, but they may simply be more desperate than you. 

You can find the same concepts expressed in narrative form in "The True Story of the Fall of Troy"

See also this post by Gaius Publius "Finding the Greater Fool"

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Fall of the Western Empire: Collapse is Not a Bug, It is a Feature

Esset aliquod inbecillitatis nostrae solacium rerumque nostrarum si tam tarde perirent cuncta quam fiunt: nunc incrementa lente exeunt, festinatur in damnum.”  Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE)

In my book "The Seneca Effect", the first chapter is titled "Collapse is not a bug, it is a feature". The idea is that the evolution of complex systems is discontinuous, it goes on oscillating and collapsing. It is part of the way the universe works and if there were no collapses, nothing would ever change. It is a rule that applies to political systems and it is described with stark clarity by Alastair Crooke, as reported by Raoul Ilargi in "The Automatic Earth" in a post titled "Coming Apart: The Imperial City At The Brink." Here is an excerpt

Alastair Crooke: David Stockman routinely refers to President Trump as the ‘Great Disrupter’. But this is not a bad quality, he insists. Rather, it is a necessary one: Stockman argues (my paraphrasing) that Trump represents the outside force, the externality, that tips a ‘world system’ over the brink: It has to tip over the brink, because systems become too ossified, too far out on their ‘branch’ to be able to reform themselves. It does not really matter so much, whether the agency of this tipping process (President Trump in this instance), fully comprehends his pivotal role, or plays it out in an intelligent and subtle way, or in a heavy-handed, and unsubtle manner. Either serve the purpose. And that purpose is to disrupt.
Why should disruption be somehow a ‘quality’? It is because, during a period when ‘a system’ is coming apart, (history tells us), one can reach a point at which there is no possibility of revival within the old, but still prevailing, system. An externality of some sort – maybe war, or some other calamity or a Trump – is necessary to tip the congealed system ‘over’: thus, the external intrusion can be the catalyst for (often traumatic) transformational change.
Stockman puts it starkly: “the single most important thing to know about the present risk environment [he is pointing here to both the political risk as well as financial risk environment], is that it is extreme, and unprecedented. In essence, the ruling elites and their mainstream media megaphones have arrogantly decided that the 2016 [US Presidential] election was a correctible error”.
But complacency simply is endemic: “The utter fragility of the latest and greatest Fed bubble could not be better proxied than in this astounding fact. To wit, during the last 5,000 trading days (20 years), the VIX (a measure of market volatility) has closed below 10 on just 11 occasions. And 7 of those have been during the last month! … That’s complacency begging to be monkey-hammered”, Stockman says. 

Read the whole article: Coming Apart: The Imperial City At The Brink

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Doughnut Economics:a step forward, but not far enough

Doughnut Economics, by Kate Raworth (Chelsea Green, 2017) is an interesting book that goes in the right direction in the sense that it promotes a circular economy, But it leaves you with the impression that it missed that extra step that would have lead it to define the goal in the right way. Bridging the gap between standard economics and biophysical economics is still far away.

So, what is this "Doughnut" that gives the title to the book? Initially, I had imagined that it was supposed to be a sort of mandala representing the concept of circular economy. But that doesn't seem to be the case: circular mandalas often represent the cyclical movement of a wheel, but the doughnut doesn't (as, indeed, most doughnuts are not supposed to be used as wheels). Here is how it is represented in the book:

It is described as "a radically new compass for guiding humanity this century." Ambitious, to say the least, but how is that supposed to work, exactly? Maybe I am missing something, but I not sure I can understand why the numerous concepts appearing in the figure should be arranged in a "doughnut."

The problem with the doughnut is not so much understanding why it is shaped like a doughnut, but what it lacks. Look at the outer ring; you will see 10 sectors, all related to pollution: climate change, ocean acidification, chemical pollution, etc. Something is conspicuously missing and it is not a minor element of the overall picture. It is natural resources and, in particular, non-renewable resources (*)

Natural resources, their depletion, and the related concept of "overshoot" are not just missing from the doughnut, they go mostly unmentioned and unnoticed in the whole book. To give you an example, Raworth mentions only once the 1972 study "The Limits to Growth" that was the first to pinpoint the resource problem. In a discussion of less than than two pages, I think her position can be summarized by the following statements:
Mainstream economists were quick to deride the model's design on the basis that it underplayed the balancing feedback of the price mechanism in markets. If non renewable resources became scarce, they argued, prices would rise, triggering greater efficiency in their use, the wider use of substitutes, and exploration for new sources. But in dismissing World 3 and its implied limits to growth , they too quickly dismissed the role and the effect of what the 1970s model simply called pollution ... World 3's modeling of pollution turned out to be prescient.... recent data ... find that the global economy seems to be closely tracking its business-as-usual scenario.
As it is often the case in this book, Raworth's statements need some work to be interpreted because they are always nuanced; if not vague, as when she says one should be "agnostic" about economic growth (**). Here, the interpretation seems to be that The Limits to Growth may have been right, but only because it took into account pollution. Instead, its treatment of non-renewable natural resources was wrong because depletion can be completely neutralized by market factors. Raworth doesn't seem to realize that she is contradicting herself, here: if the "business as usual" scenario produced good results in terms of comparison with the real world's economy, it is because it contained depletion as a major constraint. World 3 could also be run in the hypothesis of infinite natural resources, with pollution the only constraint, but the results would not be the same.

That's the thread of the whole book: natural resources are not a problem; we should be worried only about pollution. Raworth doesn't link the concept of the circular economy to recovering non-renewable resources; she proposes only in relation to abating pollution, with the corollary that it also brings about also better social equality. This is not wrong; it is true that a cyclical "regenerative" economy would be able, in principle, to reduce or eliminate pollution. Still, it is curious how the question of mineral resources is so conspicuously missing in the book.

Kate Raworth is described in the book flap as a "renegade economist", but she still reasons like an economist. The idea that the price mechanism will make depletion always irrelevant is old and it goes back to the 1930s, when the so-called "functional model" was presented, stating exactly what Raworth describes. The idea is that market factors will always re-adjust the system and magically make depletion disappear. By now, the functional model is deeply entrenched in the standard economic thought and there seems to be no way to dislodge it from its preheminent position.

The interesting point is that not only economists tend to dismiss depletion as irrelevant. In recent times, the whole "environmental movement" or the "Greens" have taken exactly the same position. All the debate about climate change is normally based on the supposition that minerals, and in particular fossil fuels, will remain cheap and abundant for the current century. If this is the case, it makes sense to propose to spend untold amounts of money for carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) rather than for renewable energy. It goes without saying that, if this assumption turned out to be wrong, the whole exercise of CCS, if it were undertaken at the necessary scale, would turn out to be the greatest resource misplacement of resources in human history, possibly even worse than nuclear energy.

Why is that? As a puzzle, it is difficult to solve. In principle, resource depletion and its negative effects would seem to be easy to understand. Easier than the complex chain of physical factors that leads from the emission of greenhouse gases to disastrous events such as sea level rise, heat waves, hurricanes, and the like. Maybe it is just a question of the lifetime of memes. The meme of depletion started before that of climate change and it is now in its downward trend. Whatever the case, we seem to be locked in a view of the world that misses some fundamental elements of the situation. Where this special form of blindness will lead us is all to be seen. 

Getting back to Raworth's book, despite the criticism above I can also say that it is worth reading for its broad approach and the wealth of concepts it contains. Its discussion on how the science of economics came to be what it is nowadays is, alone, worth the price of the book. Although it misses part of the problem, it may open up new views for you.

(*) You may also have noticed that the concept of "overpopulation" is missing in the doughnut. On this point, Raworth maintains in the text that if people are given the possibility of having a life free of deprivation, they won't reproduce like rabbits - a concept on which I tend to be in agreement; even though its practical implementation in the current world's situation is problematic, to say the least.

(**) The idea of a "zero growth" or "steady state" society would seem to be a fundamental feature of a circular economy, but it is barely mentioned in the book

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Wind Power: the True Story

They say that a good book should always tell a story. And this is true for this book by Paul Gipe. Titled "Wind Energy for the Rest of Us" is not just about the technology, but it tells the whole story of the development of the field, starting with the first windmills, all the way to the modern, high-power towers. And it is a book of excellent graphic and textual quality. Something that's becoming rare in a time when publishers provide less and less editorial services. Highly suggested if you want to learn about wind energy.

The book is choc-full of data, explanations, illustrations, descriptions, stories, and more, including a thorough discussion of the legends that surround wind power; from the idea that it causes various kinds of sicknesses to the one that it is a bird-destroyer. It includes a critique of the just as legendary "improvements" that crackpots keep proposing in terms of wonderful innovation meant to improve a technology that already works well enough for what we need and for what the physical system in which it operates can give.

So, this is one of the best books on renewable energy that I happened to read in recent times. But, of course, no matter how positive a book review can be, one need also to discuss shortcomings. In this book I found very little that I didn't like, but I may criticize the way airborne wind energy (AWE) (also known as "kite power") is described; dismissed as a useless dream in a few paragraphs. I understand that for people used to deal with Gigawatts and giant wind towers, the idea of getting energy from small kites looks a little ludicrous. And it is also true that, after that so much has been said about AWE, there is not a single machine on the market that can reliably operate continuously at a few kW of power. Still, I think there is the possibility for kite power to grow into a useful technology, if we don't expect it to save the world (as, unfortunately, some people keep saying).

Finally, I can note that it is disappointing that the development of such a good and reliable technology as wind power seems to be experiencing a slowdown. Here are the latest data from GWEC.

According to our calculations, wind power, just as other forms of renewable power, should grow much faster if we are to replace fossil fuels before the Paris emission targets are breached. Yet, despite the slowdown of 2016, wind power is still going strong worldwide, so we can hope it will play an important role in the future of energy supply. And so, we keep going onward!

Friday, June 9, 2017

The First Summer School of the Club of Rome: this September in Florence, Italy

May 12, news: The call for applications for the school has been successful with about 80 applications, which is close to the initial target. At a first examination, they all seem to be of good quality from young people and from people who are young in heart. But we still have some space, as we could arrive up to a maximum of 100 participants. So, the deadline has been extended to next Sunday (18/06). You still have time to apply! 

We are having a very busy time in putting together all the details of the Summer School that will be held in Florence this September. It is co-organized by the Club of Rome and the University of Florence and it promises to be a very interesting meeting. Just take a look at the list of the speakers - and there are more interesting people and events that will take place, as described in the program (we keep updating it).

In addition to talks and seminars, we also have a busy social program that will lead the participants to discover some angles of Florence not commonly seen by ordinary tourists, with real Florentines volunteering as guides. We are planning a dinner in Florence's "Secret Garden," a real gem right inside the town. You will be able to a visit a very peculiar science museum that will shock you, unlike the average science museums. You'll see amazing gardening technologies developed in Florence. Finally, the "Secret of Medusa" will be revealed to you.

The deadline for applications is this Monday (NOTE: EXTENDED TO SUNDAY 18th of June). There are still places available, so hurry up! The school calls for young people to attend, but your chronological age doesn't matter. It is important that you are young at heart.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Interview with Ugo Bardi: Climate, Fossil Fuels, Resources and All That

The MEDEAS project team at a recent meeting in Barcelona. At the center, the project coordinator, Jordi Solé, Another group of well-intentioned people engaged in saving the planet. Yes, we know it is difficult: we are doing our best. 

This interview was recorded this February and is reported here from the site of the European Project MEDEAS, only minimally edited. Take into account that none of the people involved (interviewers and interviewed) are native English speakers and you can understand why the grammar and the syntax are, well, let's just say "not perfect". Then, as in all non-edited interviews, the flow of the concepts is also far from being perfect. However, I thought to reproduce it here because it contains much of what I have been trying to say, lately. Maybe you'll find it interesting (U.B.)

On 17th February 2017, during MEDEAS first General Assembly in Brno, Czech Republic, Ugo Bardi from INSTM, partner of MEDEAS Project was interviewed by Mikuláš Černík for Deník Referendum, an independent online newspaper focused on social and environmental issues. The interview discussed how science nowadays can address challenges as climate change and possible limitations of resources for the transition to a low-carbon economy. The whole interview can be found below in English, while the original version is published in the newspaper’s webpage


Your main topic is resource depletion. Since the release of your book on the Limits to Growth, how has the situation changed?

The thread that runs through everything I study is resource depletion in the broadest sense. You can restrict its sense to minerals, which is to take the core meaning, but then there is also climate change. Climate change can be seen as the depletion of the atmosphere’s ability to absorb greenhouse gases without overheating. So it’s also depletion—everything’s a question of depletion. And everything is a question of resources. People have spoken about limits to growth, which at one time was a very innovative concept, but these limits on growth derive from limits on resources, and that’s something we’re still working on.

You’re writing a blog called the Cassandra Legacy. How did you, as a scientist, decide it was necessary to write a blog?

Because many people speak about there being two cultures, humanist culture and scientific culture. And in my modest opinion, this is completely wrong. There are no two cultures, there is only one culture. And so a scientist should be within the limits as much as possible, should be a humanist as much as possible within the limits, should know something about hard science such as thermodynamics and physics, and so on. But unfortunately our world has fallen into the trap of overspecialization, which means that a lot of people study so much that eventually they know everything about nothing—which is the definition of a specialist. So we have specialists who know absolutely everything about nothing, which is a little useless in my opinion. So we need a modern view of science, and this is a concept that some of us are working on. It’s a new conceptualization that tends to deemphasize what we call “reductionist science”. To emphasize what we call “systemic science”, which looks at changes at the whole-system level. Because if you are a reductionist, you would say What is the problem? I’m slowly running out of fuel for my car. So you say, No problem, hydrogen will fix everything. If you follow a systems approach, you say well, okay, maybe hydrogen is a way to change the system, but how will the system react? I think that’s a fundamental part of the MEDEAS project we’re working on. To take a systems approach. We have a valuable collaborator in Brno as well. We’re sure we can get this done.

Do you think that, as a scientist, when you publish a scientific paper, it has any impact on a broader readership and on the general public and policymakers? How do you perceive the relationship between science and politics?

There is no difference. Scientific communication is just one of many kinds of communication. And that has to do with the fact that we communicate within a system. The world—call it the mediasphere or the cybersphere or the brainsphere—the world is a huge system in which ideas, comments, novelties, the news and everything moves and competes in a space. All these things grow, they evolve, they change and they take over spaces, and that’s the most “systemic system”, if you like. It is hugely interesting to study, and that’s what we’re doing. You might not have noticed, but my coworkers and I are developing models for dissemination, for spreading ideas in the websphere, the world wide web, in the mindspace. What we’ve discovered is that your message—you want to know the theory of messaging my coworkers and I are developing? Messages are made up of two parts—the message itself and the communicator who sends it. So the message must be simple enough that it can reproduce, but that’s not enough. The message has a signature that makes it recognized as ‘self/nonself’ and if it is not recognized as “self” it is discarded and the whole attempt to transmit it is useless. So what you do when you send the message is you send yourself. And that’s it. You don’t always hit people with facts. The relevant fact is you, because you are relevant. If you are relevant, you send a message which is understood. You need to understand who is sending the message, you need to understand what a person is. So if you don’t know what you are, you can’t send the message.

This leads me to the next question. Don’t you think that, when scientists put out messages to the public, the public may believe in their correctness and yet feel that what they say is overly pessimistic? That they’re not enough to make them change their behaviour? I’m talking about alarmism. Some people argue that when you scare people too much, as a consequence they won’t be willing to change their behaviour. Do you agree?

This is because most scientists are children when it comes to communication. They know very little, nothing in this field. I won’t use the term ignoramus, but the definition is that when you don’t know anything about something, you are an ignoramus on that topic. Scientific education doesn’t cover communication. So when you try to do work in a field you’re ignorant of, you may achieve zero. And you’re likely to make mistakes. Just think of riding a bicycle for the first time. You don’t know what a bicycle is, what pedals or brakes are, and so on. You don’t really know how a bicycle works. You fall off the bike straightaway. This is what happens when scientists try to communicate all these pessimistic things about climate science to the public. They’re using the wrong communication model. Their message—its penetration—doesn’t depend upon pessimism or optimism. This is a mistake. Think about Christianity. What is the message? It is that there will come an apocalypse. And it is spread easily. Even though it’s predicting an apocalypse. Because Christians knew much better - the old, the ancient Christians, they knew how to promulgate their message. They were able to emphasize the messenger. If you’re willing to get eaten by lions, then the message is important for you, it carries weight. But you must be ready to be eaten by lions to demonstrate the message is real and that, I think, scientists are not willing to do for Climate Science. Maybe we don’t need to arrive to that point but the essence is the same - it doesn’t matter if the message is optimistic or pessimistic. The power is not in the message, it’s in the messenger. The messenger must be believable and this is the problem with climate science. Scientists have made a lot of mistakes and they are presenting a contradictory message. Some scientists say, “don’t worry, we have the solution: you don’t have to do anything” and maybe they start babbling about hydrogen or nuclear energy or whatever. Other scientist say, “well, you have to make sacrifices” and they talk about investing in double paned glasses, using bicycles and the like. But these two messages are not compatible with each other. And if the messenger doesn’t send a coherent message, he or she is not believed.

What about the term peak oil—which was much more widely used in the recent past than it is today. Could you tell us how this term has evolved in public debate?

It’s a good example of how to spread a message. Generally because the message was simple: just two words. “Peak oil”. It has a ring to it, it was interesting, and it was simple enough to spread. And spread it did. These messages have a cycle. They peak, and then they go down. But I think the spread of this message was successful in the sense that it was not only viral, but became part of our culture. Its greatest diffusion came around ten years ago. Then it lost popularity a bit because people had difficulty understanding the term. They see that oil isn’t expensive right now and think that’s because it’s abundant. But that changes. It’s like limits to growth. It was criticised, rejected, demonised, but it was a successful concept, because it is still with us. We debate it, maybe over a long period, but still we debate it. And that’s what we can do with messages. They don’t necessarily need to take over the world, but they remain with us. They can’t be ignored.

Could you also tell us something about the project you’re currently involved in? About MEDEAS; and how it is changing the debate?

MEDEAS is an extremely important project, as a next step after Paris. Paris COP21 told us what we should do, and it was a very good meeting with a huge impact because the communication was taken care of by people who knew what they wanted to do. To have a message which will take root, it must be simple. So Paris - we had thousands of people, hundreds of models, tens of thousands of scenarios, the whole climate science with uncertainties and things like that and final result was one number: 2 °C. You condense everything into something like a piece of genetic code which will then be unpacked. You send a little virus to the mind with a very tiny chink of genetic code. It takes up residency in your brain. It reproduces and grows.

So do you really think the Paris agreement is a step forward in tackling climate change?

Absolutely. It was a remarkable success because it was well packaged. But the numbers in it are not enough, because we don’t know how to achieve them. And that’s what MEDEAS is answering. We give you another number—how much it will cost? If we can afford it and the degree of sacrifice it entails. How much are you willing to pay for your survival?

Let’s imagine that we achieve a post-carbon future. Who will be the loser and who the winner in the transition?

Some scientists in the MEDEAS group have developed a concept they call Thanatia, which refers to a world not meant to be—one in which people have survived, but the planet has died in terms of minerals. This means there is no longer any ability to mine rare minerals, and these minerals are what allowed us to build our civilization. The result is a future that is completely different. There are no more mineral resources like oil and cobalt, because these mineral resources are concentrated—you can’t just find them anywhere you want. If you need something that you lack but someone else has, you may have to fight to get it. But in the future, this will no longer be done, because we will stick to resources that are abundant, like sunlight, silicon, aluminium, magnesium, etc. Society can be built in a locally-structured way that may give rise to less competition for resources and fewer wars.

In our country, the Czech Republic, if we want to achieve what was promised in the Paris agreement, we need to cut our coal consumption, despite its abundance as a resource. How would you advocate this position with the public?

I don’t think this is such a big problem. I mean, the Czech Republic is a very small part of the world and of what’s going on in the world. And if the world starts moving in a certain direction, the Czech Republic will follow. We have coal in Germany, in Poland, in Ukraine, and these regions are burning it. It has to be phased out slowly, and I think we are moving in that direction because the cost is really increasing. Coal is not as cheap as it seems. In the future, you won’t be able to afford to burn the coal, whatever the politicians may say. Mr. Trump said “we have a thousand years of coal” and this is an alternative fact, in other words, a lie. I think we will cease to burn coal sometime over the next decade or two. And hopefully we will do so because we have agreed to stop burning coal and also because we have agreed to deploy renewable energy and replace it.

So basically what you’re saying is, the sooner we make the move, the more we gain?

Yes, that’s correct. The change is going to take place anyway. People talk about problems and that’s bad. Once you say there are problems, you begin to think of solutions. But not all problems are problems, and not all solutions are solutions. If you remember the “Jewish Problem” at the time of Adolf Hitler, well, once you start to say the Jews are a problem, you start thinking of the solution, and the solution they found was a very bad idea – as we all know. So we don’t have to think in terms of problems/solutions – that may lead us to very bad ideas. Instead, we must emphasize change. That change is ongoing, and you have a choice: either you go along with the change, or you reject it. If you reject it, the change will change you, and you will not be happy but will be swept away by the change. In other words, you can solve a problem but there is no solution for a change. There is only one way to face change: to adapt to it.

Ok, thanks very much.

You’re not going to ask me anything about Italian football...?

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

What We Do in Life Echoes in Eternity - Also for Climate Change

"What we do in life echoes in eternity" is a line from "Gladiator"  (actually from Marcus Aurelius). What our politicians are doing now, and will be doing in the near future, for the climate will echo for a long time in the future of our planet. 

President Trump's decision to exit the Paris agreement has been correctly vilified almost everywhere outside the US, but some commentators noted that Trump may have done the right thing, even though for the wrong reasons. It seems that for many politicians and industrialists, the Paris treaty was seen as the perfect tool to appear to be doing something while at the same time doing nothing. Personally, I tend to agree with this interpretation, especially from what I know about Italian politicians.

So, here is a link to a text where Trump's decision is discussed in these terms. I am impressed by Graham Readfearn's statement that the Paris treaty was seen by the coal industry as a way to get financed for "clean coal" and other useless technologies. Again, knowing the people involved in this kind of tricks, it doesn't surprise me at all.

In the end, Trump's attempt to revitalize dying industries, such as coal, are bound to fail and this may give a bad reputation to some bad ideas that really deserve that. And that may create a momentum for doing the right things as argued, for instance, by Jean-Marc Jancovici.

What we do now will echo on the future of our planet and for a long time to come.

Here is an excerpt from Graham Readfearn

"At least two coal companies, Peabody Energy and Cloud Peak, had tried to convince Trump to remain in the Paris deal. Oil and gas giants Exxon and Conoco also voiced support for the Paris deal.

This internal fight represented two different approaches from a fossil fuel industry trying to sustain itself. One approach is to bulldoze and cherry-pick your way through the science of climate change and attack the UN process — all to undermine your opponents’ core arguments.

Another approach is to accept the science but work the system to convince governments that “clean coal” and efficiency gains are the way forward.

The latter was exactly the rationale reportedly deployed by coal firms like Peabody Energy and Cloud Peak.

According to White House officials quoted by Reuters, these firms wanted Trump to stay in the Paris deal because this gave them a better chance of getting support for “low-emission” coal plants. They might also get some financial help to support the development of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology."

Friday, June 2, 2017

Climate: limits and opportunities for the new economies

A post by Ilaria Perissi, from her blog "Systems". Ilaria is a researcher at the University of Florence, Italy, currently working at the EU "MEDEAS" project aimed at modeling material fluxes of the EU economy. 

by Ilaria Perissi

In a previous post titled Information, Energy and Human development, I concluded saying that we don’t know what will happen to our society if the planet will be overheated. I don’t have the answer, and maybe I will never have it, but I have surely been gaining new insights on what has been the influence of the climate on the history of civilisation, and what could be its role, if there is any, into a more equitable future and a sustainable society.

I start exactly from this last point: how are we now imagining a future civilisation?

We need a new source of energy that should be renewable (in the way we do not risk total depletion of it, at least till the sun will shine), also thinking about a new economy not based on an intensive exploitation of fossil fuels. That would represent a powerful tool to make a step forward to a better future. But, recently, interesting currents of thought are emerging in the economic scenario promoting alternatives to the incessant growth that already in the 70's revealed, thanks to the study of ‘Limits to Growth’, the weakness of continuing this economic vision on a planet with a limited carrying capacity.

One of these currents is the ‘Circular Economy’ (CE) that proposes a greater resource productivity aiming to reduce waste and avoid pollution, including the shift from fossil fuels to the use of renewable energies, promoting the role of diversity as a characteristic of resilient and productive systems, so that it represents an interesting way out from the limits of the present ‘Linear Economy’.

Another idea is the ‘Degrowth Economy’ (DE) that not only is based on the previous pillars of the CE, but it is also a new philosophy of lifestyle. The DE affirms that prosperity can be of better quality and more equitable for all the humankind even with fewer materials things, abandoning the frenetic rhythms of today's life and harmonising the economy production according to the natural cycles (and I completely agree).

We can grasp from the previous description why this current is called 'Degrowth': it simply pushes in the opposite direction of the widespread concept of 'Growth' economy, whose prosperity is based on the increasing demand of always new goods and services.

To be more precise, 'Degrowth' refers to the lowering of the indicator called Gross Domestic Product (or GDP), that measures the economic performance of a system according to, in simplified terms, the number of goods and services it can provide. Therefore, the DE assesses that more valuable prosperity is possible if we consistently lower the value of this indicator, in particular in those countries we call ‘Developed Countries’, that stand out for their very high level of GDP in comparison to the world average. DE underlines also that this difference in GDP exists because there is a huge gap, both in economic and development terms, between the North and the South of the planet. The predominance of the North holds hostage the South's socio-economic system, slowing down also its potential alternative trajectories toward a better life.

Look at this paragraph, extracted from the very interesting book 'Degrowth: Vocabulary for a new era':

The message is clear and the reality too: the condition of the South of the Planet is very different from that of the North of the Planet. The DE aims at re-equilibrating this difference, conquering a new welfare for all the humans based on more equity and environmental justice. Mumble to do it?

Usually, when we want to change something in any situation, it is a good idea to check some facts in the past, probably the reasons of the existence of certain things in the present have their roots in history.

Thus, when, in the past this predominance of the North economy started, was it due to random factors or are there any facts/evidence in the history of civilisation that advantaged the North in comparison to the South?

Take a look at the following picture:

Figure 1. Chronology of the most important ancient civilizations.

All the most ancient cultures were born in the North hemisphere.

I started to think this fact can not be ‘only’ a coincidence. Why civilization and the economy historically have progressed more in the North than in the South? Could this mainly due to a ‘physically different ‘ space instead of a ‘conceptual different space'?

I think so…The economy is made by humans exchanges, interactions, cooperation: all these conditions in which humans live and lived in the past determine the economy and the characteristics of their civilization (Here, I refer to 'civilization' as the attitude of humankind to dominate the environment according to the fundamentals of rationalism). In particular, the capacity to produce (manufacturing) and the capacity to distribute (transport) are the foundations of any world economic system.

Let’s start to examine which could be the macroscopic differences, in terms of the capacity of transportation and productivity, between North and South of the Earth.

First, we are terrestrial creatures, we move more easily by land than by sea. Also many domesticated animals that have been crucial for transportation, hunting, agriculture and so on, are terrestrials too. Take a look at the following picture:

Figure 2. The surface extension of emerged lands.

As we can see in figure 2, between the parallels - 60°S and + 60° N, i.e. in a climate that is not polar, the available land is much larger in the North than in the South.

Thus, an important macroscopic physical difference between North and South of the planet is the extension of emerged lands in temperate zones.

Moreover, the South portion of emerged lands is fragmented in 3 continents: South America, Africa and Oceania: if we move in the direction West- East (W-E, or vice-versa) we note that these three portions of land are at a distance of several hundreds of kilometers of water. Thus, any civilization born in the South would expand preferentially along the N-S direction.

Quite different is the availability of movement W-E in the North hemisphere. Here, Asia and Europe cover the largest portion of Northern emerged land. It was in these two continents that the most ancient civilizations in the history of humankind were born: China, Egypt, Greek, Romans and others, as already shown in figure 1. Probably, the presence of the Mediterranean sea, that is an almost ‘close’ sea in a temperate zone, permitted the development of navigation techniques and the development of commercial trade routes in more safe and protected areas.

We can summarize saying that the larger the available surface of emerged lands, the more there are possibilities of creating a network of connections and more are it possible to develop cities and manufacturing centers.

So, you will say that today the problem of the trade connections have been overcome by technology, so let’s say that the oceans or the extension of emerged lands don't represent any more serious obstacles in exchanging goods or information also in the South hemisphere.

But there is another problem, if you note, that still remains: along the N-S pathways (meridians), in any point of the globe, we had/have to face with a change in the climate conditions (figure 3).

Figure 3. The figure shows a rough, but significant split, of the three climate zones of the planet: polar, temperate and tropical zones.

Thus, I go back to the opening question of the post: did the climate have any impact on civilization? And could it be related to the productivity of the human beings?

There is an interesting book, ‘Civilization and Climate’ by E. Huntington, that for the first time examined this issue at the beginning of the 1900s.

Huntington, as himself reports, had the mission to investigate: “step by step, the process by which geologic structure, topographic form, and the present and past nature of the climate have shaped man's progress, moulded his history; and thus played an incalculable part in the development of a system of thought which could scarcely have arisen under any other physical circumstances."

I admit I haven’t yet read the entire book but if you search accurately in this treatise you can find that the author clearly reports that the temperate climate is the best environment for the development of civilization, under several points of view. And figure 3 shows that the portion of temperate climate zone in the North of the globe is decisively larger than in the South one.

Here, as one of the examples that reinforce the thesis of the author, I just report the following graphs, from his book:

This figure reports the main temperature in which a man, employed in a factory job, is able to reach his best performance in terms of productivity, intended as the best combination of mental and body energies. This temperature it is around 50 °F or 10 °C.

More recent studies assess that, in an office, the ideal temperature for mental activities is around 20-22 °C, and it makes sense: we probably need a warmer environment to reach the optimal mental-body energy combination to work in an office in which we stay sitting almost all the time. And we are sure enough that these average values of temperature are typical of the temperate climate zones.

The book from Huntington offers several more interesting examples, worth thinking about. It simply reveals that the human activities, and even the moral issues, still depend upon Nature. And this is a positive aspect, the author says, because it gives us the opportunity to correct our behaviour, knowing that there are climate physical conditions to take into account, even in planning a new economy.

Especially in a Degrowth Economy, the relationship between our body energy and the climate is, probably, the most important to keep in mind if we want to achieve more equity in the opportunity of future sustainable development for all the cultures, independently of the latitudes they are.
What I would like to point out with these ideas, is that the productivity of humans, on which civilization and economy both rely, have been and still remains highly conditioned by climate.

The North and the South of the planet are different environments, have different availability of space and climate, i.e. a mainly physical differences, that, reasonably, have affected the history of the world economies with an active role in originating the inequalities we are observing now.

Changing our economy implies to face these climate diversities, maybe now more than in the past, to image a future more equitable civilization as it is described in the vision of a Degrowth Economy, or another new desirable more equitable Economy, that I think, we need so much precisely ‘now’.

The message of Huntington is full of hope, he concludes his treaty saying: ‘If we are able to conquer the climate, the whole world will become stronger and nobler”.

But something is telling me…that we are going exactly in the opposite direction. The domain on climate risks to go out of our hand, and for this reason, the climate issue remains, in my opinion, the most urgent problem to face to leave a dignified human legacy to the future generations.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Why the American Way Of Life Is Negotiable: the Coming Transport Revolution.

Image: Volkswagen advertising in 1939 (source). Already at that time, Germany was planning to adopt the American model of "a car in every garage." But car ownership seems to be becoming more and more obsolete. Sooner or later, people will have to give away their cars, closing a peculiar and unusual cycle in the history of humankind (BTW, this is the most subversive post I ever published, I think)

In a previous post,  I discussed the RethinkX report by James Arbib and Tony Seba on the future of transportation. The report discusses a technological revolution that would bring about a new concept: "Transportation as a Service" (TaaS) that will see people move mainly by using publicly available, driverless cars. Many took the report (and my comments on it) as just another technofix aimed at keeping things as they are; business as usual. Indeed, the report framed the "TaaS" concept in terms of economic growth. Nothing else is acceptable in the public debate, today.

So, it seems that few people realized what kind of sacred cow Arbib and Seba are planning to slaughter and serve as well cooked burgers. It is nothing less than the private car, the pivotal element of the American way of life (yes, exactly what George Bush 1st said "is not negotiable"). This idea is as far from business as usual as I can imagine, one of the most disruptive and revolutionary ideas that I came across in recent times. So, I think I can go more in depth into this subject and explain why it is so disruptive and revolutionary.

Let start from the beginning: it all started in 1908 with the Ford T (figure from "The Daily Signal")

The growth in car ownership was the result of a political decision that most Western governments took at some moment (even Adolf Hitler took such a decision, at least in part). It didn't necessarily have to be taken: for instance, the Soviet Government always discouraged private car ownership. But governments, although not benevolent organizations, are made of people and people can recognize a good business when they see it. More cars meant more highways, more bridges, more shopping centers, more housing developments, and more opportunities to build things. That meant a lot of money flowing. So, the explosive development of private motorization happened because it could happen.

But, in recent times, the trend is reversing. The number of cars per person and per household is going down. These data by Sivak (2015) seem to be the most recent ones available

And it is not just the number of cars that's going down, also the number of miles driven per person or per car is falling. The trend is the same in many Western countries: we went through some kind of "peak car". 

So, what's going on? One factor is that cars are becoming more expensive (image from "The Atlantic"): 

That's mainly because cars are becoming heavier and more complicated. Today, a classic Volkswagen Beetle would cost very little, possibly less than it did at the time of the great motorization growth of the 1950s. But no insurance company would want to insure it, and no government would provide a license plate for it: too noisy, unsafe, and polluting.

But the increasing cost of ownership is probably a minor factor in comparison to deeper changes that are taking place. The increasing social inequality that leads to a larger and larger fraction of people becoming poor or very poor. See below the behavior of the "Gini Coefficient", a measure of the inequality in society.

So, cars are more expensive and there are more poor people. No wonder that car ownership is going down: a gradually higher fraction of the population cannot afford cars any more.

We shouldn't be surprised: for most of humankind's history, most people would walk; only a few could afford horses or coaches. One car in every garage was a very peculiar phenomenon that couldn't possibly last for a long time and that won't probably ever be repeated in the future. But the end of the cycle may not be painless for many. If you live, or have lived, in a Western suburban area, you know what the problem is (image from Pinterest).

There you are: miles away from anything that's not other people's homes. Miles from your workplace, miles from the nearest supermarket, miles from the closest train station. No car means no job, no groceries, no place to go.

By far and large, most families living in Western suburbs still own at least one car. They have to, even though that means an increasingly heavy strain to the family's budget. But, as the current trends continue, there will come a moment in which owning a car will become a burden too heavy to carry for a non negligible fraction of the suburban population. Then what happens? Well, there are several possible ways for people to cope: biking, carpooling, using donkeys, move to the city to live in a shack made of discarded cardboard containers or, simply, go zombie and die.

Cities are unlikely (to say the least) to establish conventional bus services for the citizens who find themselves stranded in the bloated suburbs: it would be awfully too expensive. So, as it happens in these cases, technological innovation is supposed to come to the rescue. And it does that with the concept of "TaaS" (Transportation as a Service). It is, basically, a high-tech car rental service where you use a vehicle only when you need it, thanks to the technological marvels of Global Positioning Satellites, automated driving, and electric power.

It is not obvious that TaaS will be less expensive than car ownership in terms of dollars per mile. But, with TaaS, you don't have the fixed costs of owning a car: you can save money by reducing your travels to the bare minimum. So, you can use TaaS to reach your workplace (if you still have a job) and to reach a supermarket to redeem your food stamps. For the rest of the time, you stay home and watch TV or use the social media. What else do you need?

Arbib and Seba have correctly described in their report how this phenomenon is not going to be gradual: it is going to be explosive. As car ownership goes down, the cost of cars will increase simply because of diminishing economies of scale. Add to it the decreasing profits of the oil industry and the whole thing is going to implode fast, generating a textbook example of the "Seneca Cliff".

By the end of the cycle, people (those who will survive the ordeal) might abandon the suburbs and move into high-rise apartment building that can be serviced by public transportation at reasonable costs. At this point, the American landscape could look much like that of the old Soviet Union (image from Wikipedia)

Eventually, TaaS is just an example of the concept of the "Internet of Things" that's so fashionable nowadays. It means that you won't own things anymore: cars or whatever; you rent them. So, your refrigerator, your TV set, even your toaster, are not your property but of the corporations leasing them to you. It looks like a good idea, because you can have the latest models and you don't have to worry about maintenance. At least as long as don't run out of credit, because, if you do, your toaster will refuse to toast your bread.

All this sounds like... well, you know what it sounds like. Would you have ever imagined that Communism would come one day to the US brought by corporations and in the name of technological progress? The "American way of life" really turns out to be negotiable

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Coming Seneca Cliff of the Automotive Industry: the Converging Effect of Disruptive Technologies and Social Factors

This graph shows the projected demise of individual car ownership in the US, according to "RethinkX". That will lead to the demise of the automotive industry as we know it since a much smaller number of cars will be needed. If this is not a Seneca collapse, what is? 

Decades of work in research and development taught me this:

Innovation does not solve problems, it creates them. 

Which I could call "the Golden Rule of Technological Innovation." There are so many cases of this law at work that it is hard for me to decide where I should start from. Just think of nuclear energy; do you understand what I mean? So, I am always amazed at the naive faith of some people who think that more technology will solve the problems created by technology. It just doesn't work like that.

That doesn't mean that technological research is useless; not at all. R&D can normally generate small but useful improvements to existing processes, which is what it is meant to do. But when you deal with breakthroughs, well, it is another kettle of dynamite sticks; so to say. Most claimed breakthroughs turn out to be scams (cold fusion is a good example) but not all of them. And that leads to the second rule of technological innovation:

Successful innovations are always highly disruptive

You probably know the story of the Polish cavalry charging against the German tanks during WWII. It never happened, but the phrase "fighting tanks with horses" is a good metaphor for what technological breakthroughs can do. Some innovations impose themselves, literally, by marching over the dead bodies of their opponents. Even without such extremes, when an innovation becomes a marker of social success, it can diffuse extremely fast. Do you remember the role of status symbol that cell phones played in the 1990s?

Cars are an especially good example of how social factors can affect and amplify the effects of innovation. I discussed in a previous post on Cassandra's Legacy how cars became the prime marker of social status in the West with the 1950s, becoming the bloated and inefficient objects we know today. They had a remarkable effect on society, creating the gigantic suburbs of today's cities where life without a personal car is nearly impossible.

But the great wheel of technological innovation keeps turning and it is soon going to make individual cars as obsolete as it would be wearing coats made of home-tanned bear skins. It is, again, the combination of technological innovation and socioeconomic factors creating a disruptive effect. For one thing, private car ownership is rapidly becoming too expensive for the poor. At the same time, the combination of global positioning systems (GPS), smartphones, and autonomous driving technologies makes it possible a kind of "transportation on demand" or "transportation as a service" (TAAS) that was unthinkable just a decade ago. Electric cars are especially suitable (although not critically necessary) for this kind of transportation. In this scheme, all you need to do to get a transportation service is to push a button on your smartphone and the vehicle you requested will silently glide in front of you to take you wherever you want. (*)

The combination of these factors is likely to generate an unstoppable and disruptive social phenomenon. Owning a car will be increasing seen as passé, whereas using the latest TAAS gadgetry will be seen as cool. People will scramble to get rid of their obsolete, clumsy, and unfashionable cars and TAAS will also play the role of social filter: with the ongoing trends of increasing social inequality, the poor will be able to use it only occasionally or not at all. The rich, instead, will use it to show that they can and that they have access to credit. Some TAAS services will be exclusive, just as some hotels and resorts are. Some rich people may still own cars as a hobby, but that wouldn't change the trend.

Of course, all that is a vision of the future and the future is always difficult to predict. But something that we can say about the future is that when changes occur, they occur fast. In this case, the end result of the development of individual TAAS will be the rapid collapse of the automotive industry as we know it: a much smaller number of vehicles will be needed and they won't need to be of the kind that the present aotumotive industry can produce. This phenomenon has been correctly described by "RethinkX," even though still within a paradigm of growth. In practice, the transition is likely to be even more rapid and brutal than what the RethinkX team propose. For the automotive industry, there applies the metaphor of "fighting tanks with horses."

The demise of the automotive industry is an example of what I called the "Seneca Effect." When some technology or way of life becomes obsolete and unsustainable, it tends to collapse very fast. Look at the data for the world production of motor vehicles, below (image from Wikipedia). We are getting close to producing a hundred million of them per year. If the trend continues, during the next ten years we'll have produced a further billion of them. Can you really imagine that it would be possible? There is a Seneca Cliff waiting for the automotive industry.

(*) If the trend of increasing inequality continues, autonomously driven cars are not necessary. Human drivers would be inexpensive enough for the minority of rich people who can afford to hire them.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

"Peak Hats." Social Change and the Coming Demise of Private Cars

For a long time, hats were oversized and expensive status symbols more than tools for protecting people's heads. During the past half century or so, they have nearly disappeared. A similar destiny may befall on private cars, also oversized and expensive status symbols rather than tools for transporting people. With the disappearance of cars, we may see hats coming back. 

If you look at images of people taken before mid 20th century, you'll notice that almost everybody was wearing hats. In those times, people would often wear top hats or bowler hats but, by the 20th century, people started wearing the ubiquitous Fedora hat as you can see in any gangster movie set in the 1920s and 1930s.

But, today, almost nobody wears hats and Fedora-wearing gangsters seem to have disappeared everywhere. The trend is confirmed by a search on Google Ngrams. Here is, for instance, the result for "Fedora hat". You could call what we see here as "peak Fedora" in analogy with the concept of "peak oil"

Searches for other types of hat confirm that we see a relatively recent phenomenon taking place during the second half of the 20th century. For instance, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was the last US president to wear a top hat at the inauguration ceremony, in 1961, just as Abraham Lincoln had done, long before. Afterward, hats disappeared from the heads of US presidents, just as of most ordinary people.

So what happened that caused the near disappearance of a clothing item that had been commonplace all over human history? Surely, fashion changes all the time but it is not always just a question of whim. There are often practical reasons: think of the uncomfortable corsets that disappeared in the 1920s, when women became more active in everyday life and needed more practical ways of dressing.

For hats, the story may have been different. A top hat may be a little clumsy to wear but surely it doesn't have the same practical problems of a corset. So, the decline of all kinds of hats probably comes from a different factor: the importance of hats as status symbols.

All over human history, hats have been used to separate the upper classes from the lower ones. In the Western World, it would have been unthinkable for workers or peasants to wear top hats, just as the upper class wouldn't even dream of wearing berets. Wearing or not wearing a certain type of hat was a choice determined by one's social status. So, it is in social factors that we can probably find the explanation for the demise of hats.

The 20th century saw a strong trend toward higher social equality in the Western World, at least for a while. Here are the data for the Gini coefficient for people's incomes (a parameter proportional to economic inequality)

As you see, there occurred something that we could call "peak equality" in the 1960s-1970s. This peak corresponds well to the disappearance of hats. It makes sense: in a society where wealth is reasonably well distributed, excessive display of one's status may be seen as poor taste. Many societies and ideologies that theorize equality have emphasized the concept that everybody, rich or poor, should wear the same kind of hat: think of the clothing that the Chinese wore at the time of the cultural revolution. Then, if everyone wears, say, the Fedora hat, what's the point of wearing it at all? You may as well leave it home. This is probably the main factor that made hats mostly obsolete in the Western World.

But things may be subtler than this. Although in the early 20th century social inequality had become less evident, it still existed. And people are natural hierarchical animals; they need to establish hierarchies. There lies the problem: hats were good status symbols as long as social mobility was low and people were born with a certain social status. In those times, a worker might have been able to afford a top hat, if he really wanted, but wearing it in public would have been unthinkable for him. But, in the 20th century, people had become socially mobile and also geographically mobile while, at the same time, monetary wealth rapidly became the main marker of social status. So, if you saw someone wearing a top hat, was he really rich or was he a cheater? It was hard to say. What was needed was a more robust social marker; something expensive enough that would provide a direct and reliable indication of a person's wealth. And it was found in the 1950s: the private car.

The private car had what was needed to be an excellent status symbol in the new social and economic structure. The shift to suburban life made private cars not anymore a luxury but a necessity. Then, cars were expensive enough that people had to commit a substantial fraction of their budget to buy one. And the industry soon provided a range of models with a price spread that selected buyers according to their financial status. Add to that the clever marketing idea of the "model of the year" and soon buying a car became the way to keep up with the Joneses. It would strain to the budget of suburbanites enough to provide an immediate and reliable signal of what was the income of the owner of a certain model of car.

Just as top hats were oversized and overexpensive for their practical purpose, cars soon became also oversized and overexpensive for their practical purpose. The extravaganza of tailfins was a phenomenon of the late 1950s and early 1960s, but it was not so bad as the present-day fashion of the monstrosities that go under the name of "sport utility vehicles" (SUV). (image source:

SUVs may be seen as a bad case of mechanical obesity, but most cars on the road are overexpensive and underused: they are idle most of the time and they are used only for a small fraction of their load capacity. All of them, so far, had their main reason to exist in the fact that they served their purpose of status symbols. But the situation is rapidly changing: the trends toward social equality changed sign in a phenomenon called "The Great U-Turn" that gradually brought us back to the inequality levels of the 19th century, when people wore top hats. The reasons for this evolution are complex and not completely understood (but there are hints that it is related to fossil fuel depletion) In any case, these epochal changes can't be without consequences for transport.

Society is now splitting in two social classes: the very rich and the very poor; while the middle class is being rapidly squeezed out of existence. Stuck in the suburbs, the poor (the former middle class) desperately need transportation but they don't care anymore about keeping up with the Joneses. It is more a question of survival and any contraption that moves on wheels will do for them. The rich, on their part, don't really need cars to show their wealth. They compete with people in the same social class by means of much more expensive status symbols: mansions, estates, art, private jets, or whatever. For both the rich and the poor, cars cease to be a status symbol and become part of the concept of transportation as a service (TAAS). This concept includes both the traditional public transportation systems, from buses to trains, as well as the new forms of individual transportation made possible by the development of new technologies.

As a consequence of these trends, private cars are going to become as obsolete as top hats. That doesn't mean reversing the inequality trends. The rich will still ride luxurious vehicles, they just won't own them anymore, normally, just like when they travel first class on planes and trains. The poor will use TAAS to the extent they can afford it, otherwise they'll have to walk. That will be a good opportunity to abandon the bloated suburbs of our times and rebuild human-sized cities. The number of running cars will drastically diminish and those that will remain will mostly be of the right size for what they are needed. That means we'll use fewer fossil fuels, we'll reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases, and apply a lower pressure on the Earth's ecosystem.

Don't take all this as a praise for social inequality. If it were for me, I would much prefer to live in a world where people are valued for what they give rather than for what they own. But that's not the way our world works, today. There are some ongoing trends that we can't ignore. The demise of the wheeled dinosaurs that have plagued us for such a long time might be quite rapid (a true Seneca Collapse) and that will be a good thing.

By the way: we'll also wear hats again.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Make the Anthill Great Again! The Ant Colony and the Human One

Image above: the 1998 movie "AntZ". This post was inspired by a post by Antonio Turiel titled "Of Ants and Men" where he used the example of an ant to discuss the difficulties that humans have to perceive the real problems facing humankind today. Here, I examine again, a little more in depth, the same issue.

Imagine yourself as an ant. What would be your perception of the world? Mainly, it is other ants from the same colony. As an ant, you are nearly blind but you have an excellent sense of smell and most of your sensorial inputs are the pheromones you receive from your sister ants that then you transmit to other ants. This kind of feedback-based pheromone exchange may lead to remarkably complex behaviors. Yet, the colony has no structure that we could see as a brain. If we define "self-consciousness" as the capability of a creature to model itself, the colony doesn't have this capability. It can react to external stimuli, and it can do that fast. But it can't plan for the future. It is the same for single ants: for them, the colony is a set of smells; they don't really perceive it.

Now, zoom back to your condition of a human being reading a blog post. What's your perception of the world? You are probably smarter than the average ant, but, like an ant, your perception of the world is mainly shaped by the pairwise contacts you have with other human beings, members of the same colony. These stimuli are verbal, not olfactory, but the mechanism of transmission and retransmission is the same. Like an ant, you are continuously exposed to stimuli from the media and from social networks that you then retransmit to other humans. This often generates transient bursts of reinforcing feedbacks that may generate rapid, even violent, collective reactions on the part of the whole colony. But the human colony doesn't have a brain, it can react to external stimuli but it can't plan ahead. Those large human colonies called "states" don't show an intelligent behavior; not more than ant colonies do. States explore their environment, compete for resources, occasionally fight each other, at times very destructively. But these are behaviors that ant colonies engage in as well.

Of course, single human beings have abilities that ants lack: they are self-conscious in the sense that they can model their environment and themselves. They even have specific brain structures dedicated to this purpose, such as the "mirror neurons" used to model the behavior of other humans. But all this doesn't seem to affect the behavior of the colony. The sophisticated modeling capabilities of human brains seem to be used mainly to gain an advantage in playing the sexual competition game between individuals. Outside of this realm, most humans probably see their "country" mostly as a semantic entity created by simple messages related to defense and attack. They have no perception of the immense complexity of a giant human colony of tens or hundreds of millions of individuals.

Theoretically, however, the power of the human brain could be applied to the management of the colony. In history, we see the widespread attempt to place a single human being - that is, a single brain - in charge of the activity of the state. That sometimes leads to attempts of planning for the future of the whole colony, but it often backfires creating disasters. A single human brain cannot manage the immense complexity of a human state. Dictators, kings, emperors, and the like are normally just as clueless about the system they are supposed to manage as their subject. Maybe as clueless as the ants of an anthill.

Yet, something changed in recent times. We may see the appearance of "world modeling" in the 1970s as the serendipitous awakening of consciousness in the human colony. Digital computers made it possible to perform studies such as the 1972 "The Limits to Growth" that modeled society on the basis of quantitative data and projected the results to the future. It was the first time in history that society could really plan for the future. In particular, the models identified a phenomenon scarcely known before: it was called "overshoot", the tendency of society to overexploit its resources and then collapse. The models could be used to plan ahead and avoid collapse.

But, as well known, these studies had little or no impact and the world's human colonies continued their blind path toward collapse. This is probably understandable. The emergence of complex structures such as brains is driven by evolutionary competition. Humans developed their large brains as tools for inter-group sexual competition. But states or industrial companies compete by exploiting the available resources as fast as possible. They have no advantage in the capability of planning for the long term, especially when the results of the planning is that they should slow down the exploitation rate. Doing that would only give more chances to their competitors who don't. So, the behavior of human colonies remains dictated by one very simple rule: grow as much as possible and don't care about anything else.

It is the same for ants: eusocial ant colonies have been around for more than 50 million years. If anthills had benefitted from being self-conscious, there was plenty of time for natural selection to create that characteristic. Instead, it seems that the intelligence of both individual ants and of ant colonies is optimized for the survival of the anthill. There is evidence that social insects are less intelligent than their wild counterparts as a result of the colony taking over in many tasks that were once for the individual to deal with. The same phenomenon may be taking place in human colonies: human brains have been shrinking during the past tens of thousands of years. The trend may have been greatly accelerated in recent times by the development of social networks on the Internet.

In the end, it may well be that the evolution of the human species is leading it to develop a eusocial behavior similar to that of social insects such as ants or bees. That would possibly entice an overall reduction of individual intelligence, not completely compensated by an increase in societal intelligence. Eusocial human colonies would keep competing against each other for the available resources as they ar doing now. As a eusocial species, humans might be very successful, just as eusocial ants have been very successful in the insect world. But, on the whole, these eusocial entities would not be self-conscious and wouldn't engage in long term planning

Yet, the future remains impossible to predict: humans are clever monkeys and you never know what they may be able to invent. There may be ways to make the human colony conscious and that would lead to a whole new spectrum of behaviors that, at present, we can only vaguely imagine. For the time being, it seems that we can't do much more than blindly keep at the impossible task of making the anthill great again.

Some references

Ant colony as an emergent phenomenon

The brain of social insects shrinks in size

The social brain hypothesis, Dunbar

The social brain hypothesis doesn't apply to social  nsects

Evolution of Ants starting from early Cretaceous, 100 million years ago. Article by Wilson and Holldobler

On the shrinking human brain.


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