A Blog by Ugo Bardi

Collapses are the way the universe gets rid of the old to leave space for the new. It was noted for the first time by the Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) and it is called today the "Seneca Effect."

Friday, December 2, 2022

The Dreary Machine: What we are Becoming

 

Giorgio Agamben discusses how we are being destroyed by an endless wave of laws, decrees, and regulations encroaching on our living space, and forced upon us by another endless wave of propaganda. The dreary machine in which we are living will eventually destroy itself, but it will take time. Above, a clip from Seven7Lives that seems appropriate as a comment.


The lawful, the obligatory, and the prohibited

28 novembre 2022
by Giorgio Agamben

According to Arab jurists, human actions are classified into five categories, which they list in this way: obligatory, praiseworthy, lawful, reprehensible, and forbidden. To the obligatory is opposed the forbidden, to that which deserves praise, that which is to be reproved. But the most important category is the one that lies in the middle and constitutes, as it were, the axis of the scale that weighs human actions and measures their responsibility (responsibility is said in Arabic legal parlance to mean "weight"). If praiseworthy is that whose performance is rewarded and whose omission is not prohibited, and reprehensible is that whose omission is rewarded and whose performance is not prohibited, lawful is that about which law can only be silent and is therefore neither obligatory nor prohibited, neither praiseworthy nor reprehensible. It corresponds to the heavenly state, in which human actions produce no responsibility, are in no way "weighed" by law. But - and this is the decisive point - according to Arab jurists, it is good that this zone that law cannot in any way deal with should be as wide as possible, because the justice of a city is measured precisely by the space it leaves free of norms and sanctions, rewards and censures.

In the society in which we live, exactly the opposite is happening. The zone of the lawful is shrinking every day, and an unprecedented regulatory hypertrophy tends to leave no sphere of human life outside obligation and prohibition. Gestures and habits that had always been considered indifferent to the law are now minutely regulated and punctually sanctioned, to the point that there is hardly any sphere of human behavior that can be considered simply lawful anymore. First, unidentified security reasons and then, increasingly, health reasons have made it compulsory to have a permit to perform the most habitual and innocent acts, such as walking down the street, entering a public place, or going to one's workplace.

A society that so narrows the paradisiacal scope of behavior unweighted by law is not only, as the Arab jurists believed, an unjust society, but is properly an unlivable society, in which every action must be bureaucratically authorized and legally sanctioned, and the ease and freedom of customs, the sweetness of relationships and forms of life are reduced to the point of disappearance. Moreover, the quantity of laws, decrees, and regulations is such, that not only does it become necessary to resort to experts to know whether a certain action is permissible or prohibited, but even the officials in charge of enforcing the rules become confused and contradictory.

In such a society, the art of life can only consist in minimizing the part of the obligatory and the forbidden and conversely enlarging to the maximum the zone of the lawful, the only one in which if not happiness, at least gladness becomes possible. But this is precisely what the wretches who govern us do their utmost to prevent and make difficult by multiplying rules and regulations, controls, and checks. Until the dreary machine they have built will ruin upon itself, jammed by the very rules and devices that were supposed to enable it to function.


Sunday, November 27, 2022

The Most Amazing Graph of the 21st Century: How the Empire is Striking Back!

 


In 1956, Marion King Hubbert predicted that the US oil production would follow a "bell-shaped" curve, starting an irreversible decline around 1970. He was basically correct but, around 2010, the production curve restarted growing. This abrupt rebound was an amazing event that propelled the US back to the role of largest world producer of crude oil, and to become noticeably more bullish in geopolitical terms. Buoyed by its large oil production, the Empire is striking back. But for how long? (image by Paul Kedrosky)


Years ago, James Schlesinger noted that human beings have only two operational modes: complacency and panic. It is an observation that rings true and that we can generalize in terms of groups: some humans are catastrophists, and some are cornucopians. I tend to side with the catastrophists, to the point that I created the term "Seneca Effect" or "Seneca Cliff" to define the rapid decline that comes after that growth stops. Indeed, catastrophes are a common occurrence in human history, but it is also true that sometimes (rarely) a catastrophic decline can be reversed: I termed this effect the "Seneca Rebound.

There is an impressive example of rebound with the story of the US oil production. You probably know how, in 1956, Marion King Hubbert proposed his idea of the "bell-shaped" curve. He turned out to be approximately right in his prediction: the US oil production started to decline after peaking in 1970, following a trajectory that seemed to be irreversible. In the early 2000s, after nearly 40 years of decline, no geologist sane in his/her mind would have said that the decline could be stopped, to say nothing about reversing it. It was not a question of being catastrophist or cornucopian: the members of both categories would normally agree that extracting large amounts of oil from "non-conventional" sources was simply unthinkable in economic terms. 

And then, something happened that changed everything. It took a few years before the new trend was clear but, by the mid-2010s, it couldn't be ignored anymore. By 2018, the US production had returned to the levels of its 1970 peak. In 2019, it had overcome it, and it kept growing. The production of natural gas followed the same trend, shooting up rapidly to levels never seen before. In 2020, the Covid crisis caused a new drop in production, at present only partially recovered. But let's forget the Covid story for now. What happened that changed things so much in the US oil industry?

You probably know that the cause has a name and a story: it is called tight oil or "shale oil," extracted by "fracking". It itself, it is nothing especially new, the concept was already known in the 1930s. The idea is to use high pressure to fracture the rock that contains the oil. That makes it possible for the liquid to flow to the surface. The problem with fracking is that it is expensive. So much that it is commonly said that nobody made any money on it. In 2017, an analysis by the Wall Street Journal arrived at the conclusion that, since 2007, “energy companies have spent $280 billion more than they generated from operations on shale investments.” Other analysts expressed the same concepts: you can extract oil from shales, but don't expect to make any money out of it. So, why are people insisting on pouring good money into bad wells? 

There are good reasons. The people who discounted the possibility of extracting tight oil were perfectly able to evaluate the economic convenience of the process, but they didn't consider that the "market" is an abstraction that doesn't always work, actually, almost never works. So, those financial entities that provide money for oil exploration are part of a mix of interests that include the oil industry, the aerospace industry, the military industry, and others. This mix is what keeps the US economy alive. But there would be no aerospace or military industries if the oil industry could not produce enough oil. 

It is impossible to say how the decision to pour immense amounts of money into tight oil was taken. Maybe it was a strategic decision taken by the military lobby in the US government (you may also note something curious: why was the US the only country that invested in shale oil extraction? After all, there are shale oil deposits in many other countries. I can think of an explanation, but I leave it to commenters to harp on conspiracy theories.) Or maybe the financial lobby recognized that they could survive losses in their investments in oil if these investments kept other sectors of the economy able to generate profits. Or, perhaps, it was a collective decision created by the great panic of 2008, when oil prices spiked up to 150 dollars per barrel. That event scared everyone enough to convince some of the key players that investing in oil was a good idea. In any case, with the second decade of the 21st century, the world changed.




The image above is by Michael Roscoe. It is not updated to the latest levels of oil production, but it shows how the US dominated the oil market (and the world), up to the 1960s. For a while, it was challenged by Russia and Saudi Arabia, but now the US is taking the lead again. Like all complex systems, the American Empire depended on the inflow of energy from the outside. So, it's not surprising that the Empire is striking back!  


One of the visible consequences of the return of the Empire is that it abandoned Afghanistan, which it had invaded 20 years ago in search of new oil resources in Central Asia. These resources turned out to be elusive, perhaps not existing, but the US stubbornly insisted on staying in the area. Then, with tight oil, the powers that be realized that the US didn't need those resources anymore. And that they could concentrate on juicier targets, moving aggressively to push its main competitor, Russia, out of the European gas market. The US is also behaving aggressively toward China, which it correctly considers its main long-term competitor. Whether this will lead to a war, is all to be seen. But it is energy that makes wars possible. 

But for how long will the shale bonanza last? As always, the future is obscure, but not completely. Shale oil remains a limited resource, no matter how often we hear that it will give us centuries of prosperity, or even that technology made it unlimited. After the Covid tsunami, shale oil production restarted to grow, but it has not yet reached the level it had in 2019. Also, its growth is clearly slowing down, while the Empire is facing new constraints in terms of overexploited resources: land, water, food, fertile soil, and more. 


Is tight oil going to peak again and, this time, forever? We cannot say. We can only say that the American Empire is following the ebb and flow of the resources that make it exist. Such is the power of energy, and empires are but slaves to the forces that govern the universe! 


 

 

Monday, November 21, 2022

COP27: The Reasons for a Failure

 


The COP27, in itself, wouldn't deserve a comment. It is over, and that's it -- been there, done that, and nobody cared. But I think it is a good occasion to reproduce this text by Stuart B. Hill that nicely explains why we make mistakes all the time when trying to manage complex systems. The COP27, indeed, has been a good example of the concept of "pulling the levers in the wrong direction" as Jay Forrester, the creator of System Dynamics, explained to us. So, here it is. h/t Thorsten Daubenfeld. 



10 Common ‘Mistakes’ to Avoid, & ‘Needs’ to Meet, When Seeking to Create

 a Better World – Prof Stuart B Hill – 2008 (updated Dec 2012)

 

Because of the holistic nature of the approach being advocated, all of the areas below overlap & are highly interactive & interrelated. This was written in response to the Commonwealth Government’s announcement of the Australia 2020 Summit in Canberra, ACT (19-20 April, 2008: http://www.australia2020.gov.au/); downloadable as a PowerPoint presentation from: www.stuartbhill.com 

 

1.    Getting the usual ‘experts’ (mostly older males) together to talk & plan 

-       always leads to tinkering with existing (flawed) plans – [‘rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic’]; & being trapped in dominant paradigms

-       excludes most, including those affected by such plans & their ‘fresh’ ideas

 

Need 

-       involve mostly ‘different’ people, including (if possible) those most affected

-       start by focusing not on plans, but on values, beliefs, worldviews & paradigms 

-       then feelings & passions

-       then, emergent from these, hopes, dreams, visions, imaginings, & creative thoughts

-       only then can ‘design/redesign-based plans’ be enabled to emerge (these proactively enable systems [structures & processes] to meet long-term to short-term, & broad to specific, goals, & to make systems as ‘problem-proof’ as possible)

-       then critically analyse, integrate, & flesh these out, etc

-       detail participatory opportunities, responsibilities, time lines, resource & support needs, means for monitoring outcomes (feedback), tracking progress, & for ongoing redesigning & fine tuning

 

2.     Emphasising enemy-oriented, problem-solving approaches (back-end, reactive/responsive, curative) 

 -   these tend to focus on symptom management & neglect the need to address the underlying maldesign & mismanagement roots of all problems [trying to make systems work that can never work!] 

-    they typically over-focus on measuring problems (a main strategy for postponing action - by those who benefit from the status quo),

-    & they usually focus on efficiency & substitution strategies, e.g., improved application of pesticide & on finding less disruptive (but still purchased) substitutes, such as biological controls & genetically modified organisms

-       same story in other areas: medicine, energy, etc  

 

Need

-       redesign existing systems (& design new systems) to make them as problem-proof as possible; & to support the effectiveness of natural controls

-       & to enable effective change from flawed/defective systems to significantly more improved (sustainable, wellbeing enabling) ones

 

3.    Getting stuck in activities ‘pathologically’ designed to postpone (feared) change 

-       particularly measuring problems (‘monitoring our extinction’)

-       endless over-collection of data (often ‘justified’ by arguments for ‘evidence-based [vs. responsible] approaches’)

-       hearings, committee meetings, report-writing, etc. [appointment to such committees may be designed to limit one’s influence]

-       most such preoccupations have NO follow-through, & usually only lead to more of the same

 

Need

-       postponing ‘pathologies’ must be recognised, exposed, contradicted & addressed; by taking responsible, timely, appropriate, collaborative action 

-       access to relevant data is needed to make responsible decisions; however, adequate data are often already available from other places, in other languages etc. 

-       globally, billions of dollars are wasted annually unnecessarily repeating studies in new locations or with mischievous intentions (often related to perceived threats to existing commercial & power advantages)

 

4.     Trying to solve problems within the disciplines or areas responsible for creating them; or with multidisciplinary teams of selected experts/authorities from favoured disciplines, with others excluded

 

Need

-       genuine transdisciplinary, trans-competency & multi-experience teams, able to access disciplinary & specialised knowledge as needed

-       include competencies relating to holistic approaches to design, sustainability, wellbeing, meaning & effective change processes

 

5.    Patriarchal (them doing things to/for us, & us doing things to/for them) & ‘driven’ do-good approaches are rarely exactly what is needed 

-       these are generally not embraced by those being ‘helped’, or are not sustained after the helpers leave

-       also, they invariably have diverse negative unexpected consequences

 

Need:

-       inclusion of those most affected by proposed ‘improvements’; as primary collaborators in all change processes; & from beginning to end

-       enables ownership, relevance, achievability, ongoing improvement & openness to unforseen/surprise benefits

 

6.    Planning ‘Olympic/mega-scale’, heroic initiatives (from hearings to projects; talk to action) with no follow-through or provision for ongoing support (this needs to be more than just funding)

-       these invariably only reach the analysis, planning & preliminary stages; & then are abandoned

-       most have unforseen numerous long-term & widespread harmful side-effects (personal, social, ecological, etc.)

 

Need

-       diverse, mutually supportive, doable initiatives that have long-term commitment & support

-       consideration of opportunities for ongoing improvement & learning our ways forward collaboratively towards improved futures

 

7.     Over-focus on knowledge & data, & neglect of wisdom & experience (most ‘wisdom’ cannot be supported by data; it involves working with the ‘unknown’ – this is most of what is – not just the limited ‘known’ –  often in ways that rely on intuition, ‘right brain’ & gut feelings, etc.)

 

Need

-       to be much better at recognising, valuing & involving the wisest & most experienced in our society, & not so obsessed with ‘cleverness’ (whereas wisdom enables us to work with the ‘unknown’ & ‘know’, cleverness is limited to working with the miniscule ‘known’)

 

8.    Over-focus on ‘productivity’, profit, power & quick dramatic results

-       predictably leads to burn-out, only short-term, limited benefits, & often unexpected disbenefits (additional problems that are often initially unrecognised)

 

Need:

-       much more focus on rehabilitation &‘maintenance’ activities [sustainable ‘productivity’ is a by-product of this]

-       caring for one another (& other species & the environment)

-       spontaneous (vs. distractive & compensatory) celebration – helps validate & spread good ideas & initiatives

-       venting feelings, & access to support for ‘healing’ our (often denied) psychological wounding, etc.

-       prioritise time & resources for these activities

-       realising that sustained productivity is emergent from the effective design & maintenance of whole healthy systems

 

9.    Homogenisation tendencies

-       these tend to result in construction of currently favoured ‘norms’ (for people, structures, processes, etc.)

-       failure to consider diversity & ‘alternatives’

-       creation of favoured in-groups & excluded out-groups

-       also, other expressions of inclusion, exclusion & blaming

-       failure to benefit from the creativity that resides at the margins & in the borderlands of society

 

Need

-       openness to appreciation of the value of heterogeneity & ‘functional’ diversity within all systems, with its opportunities for synergy, mutualism…

-       lateral & paradoxical thinking & acting

-       extension beyond the usual competencies

-       relevance to core needs & possibilities (plus, ‘Testing Questions’ & ‘Integrator Indicators’ for these]

-       a sense of inclusion, ownership, & a sense of place, etc.

 

10.   Neglect of the arts, or only token involvement

-       over-focus on economic (not psycho-social) growth, the sciences, technologies, business, politics, the professions, the media, & the other major powerful institutions within our society 

-       as a result, the arts are poorly supported, regarded as a luxury or optional extra, an afterthought, or even irrelevant

 

Need

-       recognition of the arts, in its broadest sense (including humour), as being an essential part of both the foundation & means for implementation of all efforts to achieve genuine & sustainable improvement

 

 

Emeritus Professor Stuart B. Hill | Foundation Chair of Social Ecology – Mobile: +61 (0)400 081 440

School of Education, Western Sydney University (Kingswood Campus); Locked Bag 1797, PENRITH, NSW 2751, AUSTRALIA; Location: Building KI, Room K-2-19A, Kingswood Campus; P: +61 (0)2 4736-0799 | Ext: 2799 (Kingswood staff only) | Fax: -0400; Email: s.hill@westernsydney.edu.au | Web: http://stuartbhill.com/

Founding Co-Editor, Journal of Organic Systems: www.organic-systems.org; Latest PPTs: http://stuartbhill.com/ & http://www.scribd.com/doc/55937783

Latest YouTubes: https://youtu.be/z0SITdQA47g; www.wakeupsydney.com.au/Interviews/The-SandboxSyndrome.aspx; http://youtu.be/mzY1eZLwOdk; https://vimeo.com/123569201 & https://youtu.be/RdAWokEU64M

westernsydney.edu.au

 

My latest books are Ecological Pioneers: A Social History of Australian Ecological Thought and Action (with Dr Martin Mulligan; Cambridge UP, 2001), Learning for Sustainable Living: Psychology of Ecological Transformation (with Dr Werner Sattmann-Frese; Lulu, 2008) and Social Ecology: Applying Ecological Understanding to our Lives and our Planet (with Dr David Wright and Dr Catherine Camden-Pratt; Hawthorn, 2011).




Thursday, November 17, 2022

Colin Campbell (1931-2022). A tribute to the father of the "Peak Oil" concept

 

Colin Campbell died at 91, on Nov 13th, 2020, in his home, in Ballydehob, Ireland. He loved to illustrate the concept of peak oil using beer. No fancy theories, no ideology: beer is a real thing that you can't create out of thin air. And after you have drunk it, there is no more of it! 


I met Colin Campbell for the first time in Italy, in 2003, when I invited him to give a talk at the University of Florence. That day, it was clear that Colin was bringing us an important message. He knew that our world, our proud civilization, and our (perhaps) great achievements, were all based on the availability of cheap oil. No oil, no energy. No energy, no civilization. 

Not everyone who listened to him understood his message, but some of us did. It was just two years after that the Twin Towers in New York had fallen in flames. It was an event that screamed for an explanation, but that could not be understood in the framework of the world that was presented to us by the official media. It was on that day that a small group of Italian scientists and researchers collected in my office to meet Colin after his talk. An electrifying experience: we all had the impression that a veil was being lifted, that we could see what was behind the propaganda curtain, that we could finally perceive the machinery that kept the world moving. A new reality was being revealed to us. 

Colin was not an academic scientist. He was primarily an "oil man," people who have practical, no-nonsense views, and can't be easily swayed by ideologies or fashionable trends. People hardened by experience, used to setting realistic goals and attaining them. Colin was not a man who could be easily intimidated or browbeaten. 

As a former oil man, Colin had access to data that for most of us are too expensive to buy, or simply unavailable. Together with his longtime friend and coworker, Jean Laherrere, they revisited an old model that Marion King Hubbert had proposed in 1956, they revamped it with new data, and they published their results in a 1998 article in "Scientific American" titled "The End of Cheap Oil." The model was simple, and the data still uncertain, but the study went straight at its target and arrived at a clear conclusion: the oil resources of the world were becoming more and more expensive, and economic growth was going to be a thing of the past in a non-remote future. The consequences were unknown, but potentially disastrous. Later, I called the descent ahead the "Seneca Cliff,"

Colin was moving along a path parallel to the one created, some 30 years before, by the authors of "The Limits to Growth" and their sponsors, the Club of Rome. Colin was a big fan of the "Limits" study, actually one of those people who brought the study back to the attention of the public in the 2000s. Sharp-minded as usual, Colin could recognize ideas that were grounded in the real world. He would never have bought the vague arguments that had been deployed against the study, such as that resources are "created" by human intelligence. No, resources are something real, something physical, something that you can weigh and measure. They do not come for free: you must pay for what you extract, and the cost may be more than what you can afford to pay. This is the essence of the idea of gradual depletion that leads to the "bell-shaped" curve. It was the basis of the "Limits to Growth" study and the basis of the "Peak Oil" theory. Below, you can see the main result of the 1998 study.



In the early 2000s, Colin went on to establish the "association for the study of peak oil and gas" (ASPO). It was a group of scientists, intellectuals, and simple citizens who had understood a simple concept: the future was not going to be what we were told to expect. It was an attempt to alert governments and everyone about the dangers ahead. 

Rethinking about that story, today, it is amazing how Colin succeeded, alone and only with his own resources, in creating an organization that arrived to have some effect on the global debate. High-rank politicians heard the message, although often reacted by criticizing it. For a while, ASPO was also a watering hole for all sorts of subversives, including the arch-conspiracy theorist Michael Ruppert, whom I personally met in Vienna at one of the ASPO meetings. I am reasonably certain that ASPO was infiltrated by the CIA, I have no proof, of course, but I would be surprised if they hadn't probed ASPO to see what we were up to. Evidently, they decided that we were harmless (they were correct) and they left us in peace.

ASPO went through a cycle of popularity that lasted about 10 years. For a while, it looked like we could influence the world, that the people who had the power to do something would listen to our message and intervene. In 2005, Colin Campbell proposed his "Oil Protocol" (also called the "Rimini Protocol") that would have put a limit on the extraction rate of hydrocarbons worldwide. That raised much interest in the mid-2000s. But that didn't last for long. 

The trajectory of ASPO went along a similar path as that of the Club of Rome and its "Limits to Growth" study. In both cases, a group of intellectuals tried to alert the world rulers about the finiteness of the material resources on which the economy was based, and that something had to be done to avoid the "overconsumption trap" that would necessarily lead to a crash. In both cases, the message was rejected and demonized, then ignored. 

In 2008, ASPO's predictions seemed to have been borne out when oil prices shot up to levels never seen before. Was it "peak oil" arriving? It probably was, at least for what it had to do with "conventional" oil, but the consequences were unexpected. The powers that be reacted aggressively to the crisis, pumping gigantic amounts of money and resources into the exploitation of new oil and gas resources in the US. It was the start of the age of "fracking." From 2010 onward, a huge amount of oil started flowing out of the "tight oil" wells, reversing the declining trend that had started 40 years before. For many, it was the delivery from a nightmare. Some spoke of a "new era of abundance" that might have lasted for centuries, if not forever. 

None of the geologists in ASPO, or outside ASPO, had predicted this development. Cornucopians and catastrophists, alike, judged that the revenues from shale oil could not justify the costs of extraction. They couldn't believe that the oil industry would embark on such an expensive and uncertain adventure. Indeed, fracking didn't bring profits: it was mostly a political decision, meant to keep the current elites in power. In this sense, it worked very well, although nobody can say for how long. 

Fracking was the death knell for ASPO. After 2010, the public rapidly lost interest in peak oil, Perhaps it was unavoidable. People easily forget unsettling truths, much preferring comfortable lies. And that's what happened. ASPO never officially died, but it declined to a much lower level of activity than it had shown at the beginning. Colin Campbell retired in his home in Southern Ireland, and his last comment on peak oil was published in "Cassandra's Legacy" in 2018.

Rethinking today about Colin's legacy, we can see that he was not always right in his assessments. One of the limits of his approach was that it was focused only on oil and gas. His models were sometimes oversimplified, and, at times, he would be too quick in disparaging new technologies that could change the picture. Perhaps his main limit was to have overemphasized the importance of the peak date as a turning point for humankind and to have believed that it could be determined by models. I know that he understood that the peak was just one point in a smooth curve, and he said that several times in public statements. But many people misunderstood the meaning of "peak oil" and saw it as equivalent to "running out" of oil. For some, it was the equivalent of the religious concept of apocalypse, and that led to accusations against ASPO of being a millenarian cult of some kind. 

It should go without saying that Colin's ideas were as far from millenarism as they could possibly have been. His approach was good, data-based science, and he was fond of quoting Keynes saying, "when I have new data, I change my mind, what do you do, sir?" (actually, Samuelson said that). Colin's capability of dispassionately analyzing data led him to avoid the mistakes that other members of ASPO made, such as putting all their hopes on nuclear energy or refusing to accept climate science as a valid scientific field.  

So, even though right now the concept of "peak oil" seems to be out of fashion, good ideas are like souls. They move from one generation to another, being reborn as new incarnations if they are good. Campbell's ideas have that power, right now they are nearly forgotten, but waiting to reappear in a suitable body, like the spirit of the Dalai Lama. We, humans, forget things so easily, especially important things. But one day we'll understand Campbell's main message that what we get from the Earth may seem to be free, but it must be repaid, sooner or later. And the debt recovery agency employed by Gaia is ruthless and cannot be bribed using money. 

From the time when I first met Colin, that day in 2003, I considered him my mentor as I moved into a field of research, resource depletion, that was wholly new to me. It was in large part with his help, which he was always happy to provide, that I succeeded in carving for myself a niche in this new and fascinating field. Over the years, I came to know Colin and his wife Bobbins well. He was not the kind of man who cared for his public image, nor he was used to boasting about his accomplishments, but I can tell you one thing: he truly was a good person. He was at the highest level of the empathy scale, as my friend Chuck Pezeshky defines it. 

Colin cared for people. For his family, his friends, his coworkers, and also for humankind as a whole -- otherwise he wouldn't have done what he did with ASPO. He understood how resources, and crude oil in particular, are at the basis of much of the oppression and suffering of humankind, and he tried to do what he could to free people from this immense burden. Today, we can see him as one of the great minds of the past decades who tried to alert humankind of the dangers ahead, such as Aurelio Peccei, Donella Meadows, Rachel Carson, Herman Daly, and many others. They were not heard, but their memory will not be forgotten.  

May Colin rest in peace in the arms of that Earth that he studied so much as a geologist. 



Monday, November 14, 2022

Did the Catholic Church really rule that Native Americans have no soul? How propaganda can still affect us after half a millennium

 


You may have heard a common version of the story of the "Controversy of Valladolid." It says that during the 16th century, a court convened by the King of Spain and staffed by Catholic priests decided that the Native Americans had no soul and that, hence, could be enslaved or exterminated at will. It is one of the many legends that surround us. The Valladolid Court of 1550-1551 actually ruled in favor of the Natives, forbidding their enslavement. But they were enslaved and exterminated anyway. The ruling of the court was distorted and turned into a propaganda piece that accused the Christian Church of being the instigator of the extermination. And many people still believe this story after nearly five centuries!  But so is propaganda, one of the most powerful (and evil) technologies ever devised by humans.


Not long ago, I was taking a foreign friend to visit Piazza Signoria, in Florence, showing him the many statuary pieces lining the square. All wonderful pieces, in many ways, but also disquieting for their depiction of murder and death. Today, nobody could get away with a piece of art where a man beheads a naked woman. And yet this is exactly what one of the main pieces in the square shows to us, Perseus and Medusa, in an unbelievably cruel depiction of a murder. 

As we walked past the Perseus, I told my friend, "you see, there is an invisible wall that cuts the square in two. On one side, there are older pieces of statuary, all with Christian themes: David and Goliath, Judith and Holophernes, and more. On the other side, you have pieces inspired by classical myths from the Pagan age: Hercules, Perseus and Medusa, the rape of the Sabines, and others." 

It was at that point that something clicked in my mind: "why exactly does that invisible wall exist?" The question arrived together with the answer. The wall is related to the "Controversy of Valladolid," a debate requested by King Charles 5th of Spain in 1550 to decide the fate of the Native Americans. It is an event that still reverberates in our perception of history, but distorted and transformed into the opposite of what it was by propaganda. But let me start from the beginning

The 16th century had been a century of military triumphs for Europe, and for Spain in particular, with the conquest of Mexico and Perù. That had brought a question for the new rulers: what to do with the Native inhabitants? Were they to be given rights as citizens of the Spanish Empire? Or should they be enslaved for their own good?  King Charles 5th of Spain, an enlightened ruler, convened a court in Valladolid to discuss it. After two years of debate, the court ruled in favor of the Natives and the King duly enacted laws banning their enslavement. But the story was not going to end there. There were enormous financial interests in Europe that dictated that the Natives should have been used as expendable, cheap labor. And it the Valladolid Court had said that it was not to be done, then down with the Valladolid Court and the Christian principles at the basis of the ruling. And down with Christianity, just as well. 

It was a profound paradigm shift in European views, still reverberating in our times. Perhaps the best place to see it is just where the Perseus stands: In the Piazza della Signoria square, in Florence. In a few decades, Europe had completely switched from an art inspired by Christian principles to one inspired by Pagan ones. A reflection of the debate at Valladolid, where one of the two discussants, Juan Gines de Sepulveda cited Aristotle to argue that if civilized societies, such as the Greek and Roman ones, permitted slavery, then it could be practiced even in modern Europe. 

It was a blueprint for what was going to happen, with European society starting to model itself on what Europeans thought was the ancient Greek society. One of the results was the invisible wall in Piazza della Signoria. Cellini's piece with Perseus and Medusa, brutal as it is, acquires a specific meaning when understood in the frame of the enslavement and the extermination of the Natives. The strong survive, and the weak perish. Perseus personifies the winning Europeans, Medusa the weaker Natives.


In time, the proceedings of the Valladolid Court were turned into the legend, common nowadays, that the court was charged to decide whether the Native Americans had a soul or not. Some versions of the story say that the court had decided that, maybe, they didn't have it -- they were beasts. It was probably the result of the distorted interpretation of a book by Bartolomé the Las Casas, one of the discussants at Valladolid. He described how the decisions of the court were ignored in his "A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies" (1552). The book was turned into anti-Spanish propaganda by those who were actually exterminating the Natives, the British, and North European colonists. The Catholic Church received such a blow from this campaign that it never completely recovered from it. 

This is one of the most evil legends around us because it condemns the honest efforts that many people of good will expended trying to save the Natives. But we still believe this ancient propaganda, nearly half a millennium later! The evil Goddess named Propaganda still deceives us.

 

Below, you'll find a post by Paul Jorion that tells the true story.  


This text by Jorion was also discussed in a previous post on the collapse of science. See also this post on how the Perseus is related to Elon Musk's takeover of Twitter. 

The "quarrel" or "controversy" of Valladolid (1550-1551)

 

This text will find its place in the panorama of anthropology that I am writing at the moment. As this is a subject that I am new to and where I cannot avail myself of any expertise, please be so kind as to point out to me any factual errors I make. Thank you in advance !

 

In 1550 and 1551 a debate took place in the city of Valladolid in Spain, which would go down in history as the “quarrel” or “controversy,” bearing the name of this city in the province of Castile and Leon.  

What was it about? It dealt with the Christian European civilization behaving like an unscrupulous invader on a continent of which it knew nothing, within populations of which it was until then unaware of the very existence, which it then discovered in real-time as it grew. advance in the territory of the New World, and the devastation that accompanied this advance.  

What all this meant as to how the victors would now treat the vanquished would be the question posed in a great debate that would cover a period of two years and where two champions of Spanish thought at the time would face off. Great intellectual and ethical problems had to be resolved in the scholastic tradition of a disputatio, before the enlightened public of what we would today call a commission, which would decide at the end of the debate which of the two speakers was right. There were basically only church people there.  

Two thinkers were on stage, both solemnly defending opposing points of view. They clashed at the level of ideas by mobilizing all the art of dialectics: that intended to convince, an art developed specifically for the speeches held in ancient Greece on an agora. To defend one of the points of view, Juan Gines de Sepulveda (1490-1573) considered, in a word, that the inhabitants of the New World were cruel savages and that the question was, basically, how to save them from themselves. To defend the opposing point of view, there was the Dominican Bartolomé de Las Casas (1474-1566) who affirmed that the Amerindians were, like the Europeans, human beings, whose differences should not be exaggerated, and that the question was about integrating them peacefully into a Christian society by conviction rather than by force.

The brutal conquest of Mexico took place from 1519 to 1521, it was no less bloody than in Peru from 1528 to 1532. We are now in 1550, almost twenty years after this last date. The situation, from the point of view of the Spaniards, is that they have won: the huge empire of New Spain has been conquered by secular Spain. It is a victory, even if internal quarrels continue, on the one hand between the colonized, as at the time of the conquest, which their incessant dissensions had fostered, and on the other hand between the colonizers themselves, manifested by a litany of palace revolutions and assassinations of conquistadors between them, in Peru as in Mexico.  

But the time has come for Charles V (1500-1558), “Emperor of the Romans”, to take a break. We must think about how to treat these conquered populations, decimated in equal parts by battles and massacres, and by the ravages of smallpox and measles, against which the local populations were helpless, having no immunity to these diseases hitherto absent from the continent. It is considered today that Mexico had some 25 million inhabitants on the eve of the first landing of the Spaniards in 1498. In 1568, the population was estimated at 3 million and it is believed that in 1620 there were only a million and a half Mexicans left.  

The phase still to come would no longer be that of Mexico or Peru, whose conquest was completed and where colonization was then carried out well, but that of Paraguay, which would begin in 1585, thirty-five years later.

Charles V, was an enlightened sovereign, like his rival François 1 st. They were contemporaries: two thinking kings, not only just kings, but men who had questions about history, knowing that they were major players. They shared a conception of the world enlightened by the same religion: Catholicism. The reign of Charles V will end a few years later: in 1555. It will then be his son Philip who will become sovereign of Spain and the Netherlands. Later, in 1580, he will also be King of Portugal. Charles V demands that any new conquest be interrupted as long as Las Casas and Sepulveda exchange their arguments on the question of the status to be recognized for the indigenous populations of the New World.  

Charles V had not, however, remained indifferent to these questions even before: already in 1526, 24 years before the Valladolid controversy, he had issued a decree prohibiting the slavery of Amerindians throughout the territory, and in 1542, he had promulgated new laws which proclaimed the natural freedom of the Amerindians and obliged to release those who had been reduced to slavery: freedom of work, freedom of residence and free ownership of property, punishing, in principle, those who were violent and aggressive towards Native Americans.  

Paul III was the pope from 1534 to 1549. In 1537, thirteen years before the beginning of the Valladolid controversy, in the papal bull Sublimis Deus and in the letter Veritas Ipsa, he had officially condemned, on behalf of the Catholic Church, the slavery of the Native Americans. The statement was "universal," that is, it was applicable wherever the Christian world could still discover populations unknown to it on the surface of the globe: it was said in Sublimis Deus: " and of all peoples that may be later discovered by Christians ”. And in both documents, so in Veritas Ipsa too: "Indians and other peoples are true human beings."

When the quarrel began, Julius III had just succeeded Paul III: he was enthroned on February 22, 1550.

The general principle, for Charles V, was that of aligning with the Church policy. In the "quarrel" or "controversy" of Valladolid, one of the moments of solemn reflection of humanity on itself, it is not the Church, but the Kingdom of Spain, which summons religious authorities , experts, to try to answer the question "What can be done so that the conquests still to come in the New World are done with justice and in security of conscience?"

It is heartbreaking that the television film “La controverse de Valladolid” (1992), by Jean-Daniel Verhaeghe, with Jean-Pierre Marielle in the role of Las Casas and Jean-Louis Trintignant in that of Sepulveda, as well as the novel by Jean- Claude Carrière, from whom it was inspired, took such liberties with historical truth that it was affirmed that the central question in the quarrel was to determine whether the Amerindians had a soul. No: this question had been settled by the Church without public debate thirteen years earlier. Sublimis Deus affirms that their property and their freedom must be respected, and further specifies "even if they remain outside the faith of Jesus Christ", that is to say that the same attitude must be maintained even if they are rebellious to conversion. It is written in the Papal Bull Veritas Ipsa that Native Americans are to be “invited to the said faith of Christ by the preaching of the word of God and by the example of a virtuous life. »In 1537: thirteen years before the commission met.

The question of the soul of the Amerindians was of course raised in Valladolid, but in no way to try to resolve it: on this level, the issue was closed. In reality, it had been resolved in the real world by the Spanish invaders: it would have been possible to summon young men and women of mixed race in their twenties to Valladolid, including Martin, son of Ernan Cortés and Doña Marina, “La Malinche”: living proof that the human species had recognized itself as “one and indivisible” in the field and that the question of whether these people, whom their mother could accompany if necessary, dressed in Spanish fashion, and most often militants of Christianity in their actions and in their words. Whether or not they had a soul, would have been an entirely abstract and ridiculous question, the problem having been solved in the facts: in the interbreeding which took place, in this reality that men and women have recognized themselves sufficiently similar not only to mate and immediately procreate, but to sanctify their marriage, in a sumptuous way for the richest, according to the rites of the Church. Circumstances, it must be emphasized, the opposite of the rules that were followed in North America, while in the case of Protestant settlers in their almost all - except Quebec - from the end of the 16th century.

The meetings in Valladolid were eld twice over a month, in 1550 and then in 1551, but most of the texts available to us are not transcripts of the debates: they are correspondence between the parties involved: Juan Gines de Sepulveda, Bartolomé de Las Casas, and the members of the commission.

Las Casas had first been himself an encomendero, a slave settler: he led plantations where Native American slaves were originally found, plantations in which, reacting to the Church's commands to give back their freedom to the natives enslaved, he had replaced on his own authority the labor of Amerindian slaves that he ceased to exploit with other laborers: blacks imported from Africa. This will be a great regret in his life, he will talk about it later. Most of the encomenderos were not as attentive as Las Casas to instructions from the mother country or the Vatican. Already in 1511, in Santo Domingo, the Dominican Antonio de Montesinos, who exercised a decisive influence on Las Casas, refused the sacraments and threatened with excommunication those among them whom he considered unworthy. Here is his famous sermon:

"I am the voice of the One who cries in the desert of this island and that is why you must listen to me with attention. This voice is the freshest you have ever heard, the harshest and the most tough. This voice tells you that you are all in a state of mortal sin; in sin you live and die because of the cruelty and tyranny with which you overwhelm this innocent race.

Tell me, what right and what justice authorize you to keep the Indians in such dreadful servitude? In the name of what authority have you waged such hateful wars against those peoples who lived in their lands in a gentle and peaceful way, where a considerable number of them were destroyed by you and died in yet another way? never seen as it is so atrocious? How do you keep them oppressed and overwhelmed, without giving them food, without treating them in their illnesses which come from excessive work with which you overwhelm them and from which they die? To put it more accurately, you kill them to get a little more gold every day.

And what care do you take to instruct them in our religion so that they know God our creator, so that they are baptized, that they hear Mass, that they observe Sundays and other obligations?

Are they not men? Are they not human beings? Must you not love them as yourselves?

Be certain that by doing so, you cannot save yourself any more than the Moors and Turks who refuse faith in Jesus Christ. "

Las Casas' reflection led him to give up this role of planter and he took a step back for several years. Charles V then offered him access to vast lands in Venezuela on which he could implement the policy he now advocated towards the Amerindians: no longer the use of force, but the power of conviction and conversion by example. Las Casas was a Thomist. Following the line drawn by Thomas Aquinas, he read in human society a given of nature. It is not a question of a cultural heritage, that is to say of the fruit of the deliberations of men, but of a gift from God, so that all societies are of equal dignity, and a society of Pagans is no less legitimate than a society of Christians and it is wrong to attempt to convert its members by force. The propagation of the faith must be done there in an evangelical way, namely by virtue of example.

Facing Las Casas, Sepulveda stood: an Aristotelian philosopher who found in the texts of his mentor, not a justification for slavery, absent in fact from the texts of the Stagirite, but the description and the explanation of the slave society of ancient Greece, represented as a functional set of institutions: a legitimate model of human society. Sepulveda considered slavery, obedience to orders given, to be the status that suits a people who, left to themselves, commit, as we can observe, nameless abominations. Sepulveda finds argument in the atrocities committed, in particular the uninterrupted practice of human sacrifice, for which the populations brutally enslaved by the dominant society of the moment, constitute an inexhaustible source of victims, but also their anthropophagy, as well as their practice of incest. in the European sense of the term: fraternal and sororal incest within the framework of princely families in Mexico, "incestuous promiscuity" if you will, in the pooling of women among brothers, a difficulty that the Jesuits later encountered in the case of the Guaranis of Paraguay, which they will resolve by banning the “longhouse”, the collective dwelling of siblings.

Las Casas responded to Sepulveda by stressing that Spanish civilization is no less brutal: "We do not find in the customs of the Indians of greater cruelty than that which we ourselves had in the civilizations of the old world." Very diplomatically, he draws his examples from the past and says "formerly:" "In the past, we manifested a similar cruelty", highlighting for example the gladiatorial fights of ancient Rome. He also drew an argument from the monumental architecture of the Aztecs as proof of their civilization.

If the two points of view differed, and even if their positions were considered diametrically opposed, the two parties agreed on the fact that the invaders not only have rights to exercise over the Amerindians but also duties towards them, and in particular, in the context of the time and the question to be answered. There is no dispute between them as to the duty to convert: this is the dimension strictly speaking "Catholic" from the very framework of the debate. Their difference lies in their respective recommendations of the methods to be used: peaceful colonization and exemplary life for Las Casas and, for Sepulveda, institutional colonization based on coercion, given the brutal features of the very culture of the pre-Colombian populations.  

Let us remember that the context was extremely brutal texts on both sides. Las Casas, at the end of his life, will write a small book devoted only to the atrocities committed by the conquistadors, a small book that propaganda consistently used against Spain to advantage its rivals: the Netherlands, France and England, although this does not mean that these nations will not also be guilty of the same crimes in the territories that they will annex in their business colonial. Mutual surveillance therefore of European nations vis-à-vis possible abuses committed by others, from a diplomatic perspective of foreign policy.

The controversy officially ended in 1551 when Charles V, on the recommendations of the commission, formalized the position defended by Las Casas. It will therefore be by invoking the Gospels and by example that conversion will have to continue and not at the point of the sword.  

A victory which, however, will not immediately have enormous consequences on the ground, any more than the papal bulls had had before it. The encomenderos will only weakly respect the injunctions coming from the mother country. Wars between Amerindian tribes will continue despite the presence of missionaries and a small military contingent. The Bandeirantes of Sao Paulo will organize raids, supplying the encomenderos with prisoners, who will be on the plantations, as many de facto slaves. Etc.

A year after the controversy was over, in 1552, Las Casas undertook to write his Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias , the very brief account of the destruction of the Indies, which will therefore be his testimony on the destructions and the atrocitie, of the colonization of New Spain by the Spaniards.  

When, from the end of the same century, missions are founded in Paraguay, called "Reductions", it will be in the exact line of the proposals of Las Casas.

It will be essentially Las Casas who will obtain, thanks to his vibrant plea in favor of the local populations, that the question of slavery would be closed once and for all in Central and South America: there will be no indigenous slaves, Amerindians will be considered as full citizens and, as an unexpected consequence, since the Church has not pronounced on the question of knowing whether Africans could be enslaved or not, the Spanish and Portuguese authorities will consider that the decision in favor of the position of Las Casas opens suddenly the possibility of a systematic exploitation of the African populations to draw from them the stock of slaves required by the plantations of the New World. It is Las Casas who will be in a way responsible for an acceleration of the slavery of Africans insofar as the authorities, both civil and ecclesiastical, by discouraging the enslavement of the Amerindians, will indirectly encourage the planters to turn, as a replacement, towards the slave trade in African blacks, a situation in which Las Casas found himself at the time when he was encomendero. In his correspondence, at the end of his life, he bitterly regretted having been indirectly the cause of an aggravated enslavement of Africans.  

The sincere concern of Bartolomé de Las Casas to spare the Amerindians, will have preserved them from the even more tragic fate of their brothers and sisters of North America within the framework of an essentially English colonization at the start, made of spoliation and genocide, without any interbreeding.