The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."

Monday, March 14, 2022

All the World is a Stage: How the Global Drama is Being Played Out


The "Commedia dell'Arte" was a form of popular theatre, often played without a script. The masked actors would improvise according to the characteristics of their "persona", their mask.

There are many ways of predicting the future, and my remote ancestors, the Etruscan Haruspices, would do it by examining the liver of a freshly killed goat. I may have inherited from them my interest in the future, although I don't usually go around killing goats. 

A gentler way of studying the future consists in considering the world as a stage. You know what the characters are, what they want, the way they usually behave. Then, when you put them on stage, they may act and create a drama even without following a script. It was the way the ancient Commedia dell'Arte worked. No script, actors would just play their part, according to their "persona." a term that in Latin means "mask" and that in our times came to be related to "personality,"

It may also work for states. They have a certain persona, a way to behave that may be predictable. About two months ago, I proposed an interpretation of the current drama patterned on an older drama: the European tragedy of World War 2. The actors, the states, were different, but their masks were very similar, and I sketched out what their behavior could have been. 

You see how things are going: the world powers are acting on stage as their masks impose them to do. In particular, the EU is playing the role that was of Italy in 1940. The lack of natural resources forces the EU to depend on foreign sources, in particular on importing natural gas from Russia -- which plays the role that was of Britain in the 1930s: that of fossil fuel exporter. In the old drama, in 1940, Italy attacked its main coal supplier, Britain, in a desperately ineffective campaign. In my earlier post, I wrote that the current situation "could easily develop into a similar outcome as in 1941, with the EU doing something completely idiotic: attacking Russia." It is happening, although only indirectly, so far. And, as things stand, the EU campaign doesn't seem to be much more effective than the old Italian campaign against Britain, although not (yet?) turning into a similar humiliating disaster. 

The new drama is just in its early stages. If it continues along the same lines as the old one, we'll see the involvement of the bigger players and the growing confrontation will lead to some kind of final catharsis. Let's just hope that, afterward, there will be someone left to ponder on what has happened.

(h/t "Art Deco") 

Monday, January 10, 2022

How to keep gasoline prices low: bomb your gas station


An Italian fighter plane (note the "fasci" symbols on the wings) shot down in England in November 1940, during WW2 (source). Sending obsolete biplanes with open cockpits against the modern British Spitfires is one of the most glaring examples of military incompetence in history. Among other things, this old tragedy may give us hints about the current situation in the world and, in particular, why the consumers of fossil fuels tend to bomb their suppliers. 

Not everyone in Europe has understood exactly what is happening with gas prices, yet, but the consequences could be heavy. For a brief moment, prices rose of a factor ten over what was considered as "normal." Then, prices subsided a little but still remain way higher than before. Electricity prices are directly affected by the trend and that is not only traumatic for consumers, but also for the European industry. 

So, what's happening? As usual, interpretations are flying free in the memesphere: those evil Russians, the conspiracy of the Americans, it is all a fault of those ugly Greens who don't want nuclear energy, the financial lobby conspiring against the people, etcetera.

Let me try an approach a little different. Let me compare the current situation with that of the 1930s in Europe. Back then, fossil fuels were already fundamental for the functioning of the economy, but coal was the truly critical resource: not for nothing it was called "King Coal."

The coal revolution had started to appear in Europe in the 19th century. The countries that had large coal reserves, England, Germany, and France, could start their industrial revolutions. Others were cut off from the bonanza: the lack of coal was the main cause of the decline of the Southern Mediterranean countries. The Turkish empire, the "sick man of Europe," was not really sick, it was starved of coal. 

But it was not strictly necessary to have coal mines to industrialize: it could be done by importing coal from the producing countries. Sailing ships could carry coal at low cost just about everywhere in the world, the problem was to transport it inland. Coal is bulky and heavy, the only way to do that is to have a good network of waterways. And having that depends on climate: the Southern Mediterranean countries are too dry to have it. But Northern Mediterranean countries had the network and could industrialize: it was the case of Italy. 

Italy went through its industrial revolution much later than the Northern European countries but succeeded using British coal. That, of course, meant that Italy became dependent on British coal imports. Not a problem as long as the two countries were friendly to each other. Unfortunately, as it often happens in life, money may well take the priority over friendship. 

In the early 1920s, coal production in England reached a peak and couldn't be increased any more. That, of course, led to higher prices and cuts in exports. At that time, nobody could understand how depletion affects production (not even nowadays people do). So most Italians took the reduced coal supply from Britain as a geopolitical attack. It was an evil strategy of the decadent plutocracy called the Perfidious Albion, specifically designed to harm the young and growing southern countries.  

The Italian conquest of Ethiopia was the turning point of the struggle. Britain reacted by stopping the exports of coal to Italy. That, and other international economic sanctions, pushed the Italian economy, already crippled by the cost of the war, to the brink of collapse. Given the situation, events played out as if following a prophecy written down long before. Italy had to rely more and more on German coal and that had obvious political consequences. 

The tragedy became a farce when old Italian biplanes tried to bomb Britain into submission in 1940. The campaign lasted just two months, enough for the Italian contingent to take heavy losses before it was withdrawn (*). It was not just a tactical blunder, but a strategic disaster since it gave the British and their allies an excuse to bomb Italy at will. Which they did, enthusiastically and very successfully. 

The curious thing about this disastrous campaign is how it inaugurated a tradition: bombing one's supplier of fossil fuels. Italy's bombing of Britain was just the first of a long series: in August 1941, the British attacked and bombed Iran to secure the Iranian oil wells. They were much more successful than the Italians and Iran surrendered in less than a week. In the same year, in November, the Japanese attempted the same trick by bombing the United States, their main supplier of oil. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was a tactical success, but a major strategic disaster, as we all know. 

After WWII, the "Carter Doctrine" implied the strategic value of oil producers in the Middle East. One of the outcomes was the protracted bombing of Iraq from 1991, still intermittently ongoing. Other oil suppliers bombed by Western states were Libya and Syria. 

In short, the tradition of bombing one's suppliers of fuels remains alive and well. Whether it can accomplish anything better than the disastrous attempt of Italy in 1941 is debatable, to say the least. After all, it is equivalent to blasting away your neighborhood gas station in order to get the gas you need, but this is the way the human mind seems to work. 

So, on the basis of this historical tradition, let's try to build a narrative about what's going on, right now, with the gas supply to Europe. We just need to translate the roles that some countries had in the 1930s with those of today. 

Coal --> Natural Gas
Italy --> Western Europe (EU)
Britain --> Russia
Germany --> USA

The correspondence is very good: we have a consumer of fossil energy (now Western Europe, then Italy) which is militarily weak, but threatens the supplier (Now Russia, then Britain) with military action despite the obvious superiority of the latter. The weak consumer (Europe/Italy) feels that it can get away with this suicidal strategy because it has the backup of a powerful ally (Now the USA, then Germany). 

Just like Britain did in 1936 to Italy, Russia appears to have reduced the supply of gas to Europe. In both cases, the result was/is a crisis in the economy of the consumers. Just as it happened in the late 1930s, the stronger ally is coming to the rescue: in 1936, Germany started supplying coal to Italy by rail, now the US is sending cryogenic gas to Europe -- both are expensive methods of transportation but allow the supplier to access a market that would have been barren, were it not for political reason. But becoming the customers of a militarily powerful country has political costs. 

The correspondence is so good that the current situation could easily develop into a similar outcome as in 1941, with the EU doing something completely idiotic: attacking Russia, hoping for the support of the powerful US ally. (also, traditionally, attacking Russia is done in Winter: what could go wrong?). 

One conclusion of this story is that humans always tend to worsen whatever major problem they happen to face. Apart from this, perhaps there is an alternative scenario that could lead Europe away from the perspective of nuclear annihilation: maybe we can learn something from the Italian experience. 

In 1936, during the coal embargo imposed by Britain, Italy carried out an attempt to reduce its consumption of fossil fuels that went under the name of "autarchy" (Autarchia). It was based on the renewable technologies available at that time, and it involved some crazy ideas, such as making shoe soles out of cardboard and dresses out of fiberglass. But, on the whole, the idea of relying as much as possible on national and local products made plenty of sense. It didn't work, mainly because the government squandered the Italian resources in useless wars, but, who knows? Today it might work better if we don't make the same mistake. 

(*) The Italian pilots had to fight with obsolete canvas biplanes: much slower than the British Spitfires. The Italian planes were also poorly armed, without an armored cockpit (the pilots used sandbags as makeshift armor), without sufficient heating, without the right training. And, of course, poor reliability of almost every mechanical system in a cold climate. Most of the Italian losses were due to mechanical failures, while no British planes are reported to have been lost to the Italians. If the definition of "epic" involves fighting against an overwhelmingly superior enemy, then the experience of the Italian force in the Battle of Britain can surely be defined in this way: an epic disaster. But whoever had this absurd idea deserved to be hanged, and at least one of them was.    


  1. Hello Ugo

    Glad to see you revisit this. Now that hindsight has a chance to kick in, I suppose the USA and China are both playing the part of the wealthy backer for the combative players.

    The differences exist too, the interconnected (world wide web) world and the lived cold war experience of the PTB may change things dramatically.
    And I believe it was you (?) that once pointed out that resource wars usually happen on the way up on the growth side of the Seneca cliff, not once the skidding downhill starts gathering speed.

  2. It's always dangerous to be a drug dealer whether the drug is an actual drug or whether it's hydrocarbons.

  3. You have a tendency to look mainly on oil and gas, and in this case it's myopia.

    Population of Russia is around 144-164 million, depends how you treat occuppied terrotories and Belarus. Population of EU is around 448m. Steel output of Russia is 72 million metric tons, of EU over 170.

    Electricity generation capacity of Russia is 220 GW, in France alone that's 135 GW, and mainly nuclear (of course German energy policy was moronic, but EU is not equal to Germany).

    Of course, imposing no fly zone over half of Russia, while doable conventionally, is out of question because of Russian nuclear deterrent, but otherwise EU (and NATO) could do with poor Russia whatever they desired. But nuclear deterrence works, thus no true war over Ukraine.

    PS. I had technical issues with comments here, but perhaps it works now.

    1. Russian economy is about the size of Texas in US economy or Italy in EU economy IIRC.

    2. Excuse me, Liberty, but I don't agree. The big numbers for the GDP, the electric power production, and the rest are possible only if there is a supply of energy to make the industrial and agricultural machine work. Remove the energy supply, and the GDP goes to zero. And everybody dies. Maybe not everybody, but a lot of people, surely.

      So, in my opinion, the idea that "EU (and NATO) could do with poor Russia whatever they desired" is an enormous strategic blunder. Think that, despite everything, Russia is still supplying gas to Europe. If they stop, the EU is going to collapse like a house of cards. I don't know what our leaders are thinking, but, so far, they have been acting as if they wanted to destroy Western Europe. Which, for all I know, might be exactly the plan.

    3. Energy supply and use are complicated, and what you are doing is oversimplification. It's not a computer game where "electricity shortage" simply shuts down your whole production like on-off command. Real country is perfectly able to shut down only, for example, parts of heavy industry while leaving agriculture and residential with full supply. And that could sometimes cause issues with parts of tractors, sure... after ten years. It's not like Europe has no coal or nuclear power generation. Russian gas is somewhat important, yes. At the same time, it's NOT the only part of much bigger and diversified energy structure.

    4. I am sorry, Liberty, but I am describing what I am seeing. In Italy, the doubling of the costs of energy and the loss of the exports to Russia are wrecking the economy. This morning, I went to shop at the local supermarket and the shelves were half empty. I have friends who work in companies and they say that at these energy costs they cannot keep going for more than a few months. Then, they will have to close. About "shutting down industries on an on-off command," think about that. Suppose you have a glass factory (as one of my friends does). You turn off the ovens, and what you get is a giant block of solid glass that nobody ever will be able to melt again. You don't restart a glass oven by turning the "on" switch. You throw it away and rebuild a new one. If you have the resources to do that.

      That doesn't mean we are close to cannibalism. There are many things that can be done to avoid disaster. But I am afraid that the damage will be enormous, unless the war stops soon. Very soon.

    5. To reinforce your point Ugo, Im here in NZ, as far from the action as you can get and our costs for fuel are sky rocketing, our supply lines stretched to breaking. The whole world economy is like a clock mechanism, you cannot take out cogs. And the spring driving it is fossil fuels. If you restrain the spring the time wont read correctly.

  4. Though you are usually a great interpreter of the large trends of human, and especially Western, civilization Mr Bardi, I fear you may have erred in appointing characters in this Commedia. It would seem that at this time the Gas Station seems to be bombing the consumers and over 100,000 of its attendants are presently in a sovereign nation committing atrocities.

    1. I understand your point, Mr. Unknown, and you correctly noted that there is no character in the list for "Ukraine." There is a reason for this: This fight is not about Ukraine, it is a hugely larger struggle.

    2. Indeed. Whatever side starts the war, things sprial.
      Which nations are probably not predictable, but fossil fuels (and all energy resources) as a driver are.

  5. Thank you for the reply Mr. Bardi. I completely understand that you are alluding to the wider global struggle to secure energy. What I am referring to is my surprise that you cast the EU in the role of attacker and Russia in the role of victim. Russia, it seems, is trying to violently re-create its empire while the EU went so far as to neglect its commitment to NATO and other forms of appeasement to placate the Russians. I fail to see the EU in the role of "gas station bomber", but am willing to be convinced.

    1. Honestly, Unknown, I don't see how Russia could think to recreate its old empire. They just don't have the economic resources that would be necessary. It is not that I justify attacking Ukraine, but my view is that the world history goes on in terms of tit-for-tat. For every tat, there is always a tit, before. And everyone has forgotten who started with the first tit.

    2. Unknown, I for one cannot see how Russia is the aggressor anymore than the boy in the schoolyard who hits the school bully. The bully meanwhile despite being told to back off repeatedly has kept pushing, and now has a blood nose. He is crying in extreme outrage, its not fair. Thats Europe and the US who should have realised that baiting bears is very dangerous.

    3. Whatever provocations you seem to believe in(Eastward expansion of NATO, etc.)it is Putin's troops killing and destroying a non-NATO country. If you really believe Russia was bullied, it must itself be another bully which brutally attacks a weak third party. Putin's rambling, inaccurate assessment of Russia/Ukraine history speech he gave before the invasion says all we need to know about his motivation,i.e., a real estate grab. He, along with George W. Bush, should stand trial as war a criminal.


  6. My approach to see this as one of those drivers like food and water,All commodity trades requires movement of fuel.
    The Ukraine and Russia feed European markets.. powered by Russian fossil fuels. I am still guessing from safety here?

  7. Dear Mr. Bardi,

    I have long enjoyed your writings, and (if you will allow me to stray off topic here a little), I have noticed that as an Italian interested in history, you often make references to your country's ill fated attempt to conquer Abyssinia.

    I wished to draw your attention to my recent book on Ethiopia ('A Gallop in Ethiopia, Wax, Gold & the Abyssinian Pony').

    It's a small book, recounting my times in Ethiopia trying to run horse riding treks.
    It also looks at the ongoing collapse in the country (recent estimates of the war taking place, in near media silence, have death numbers at 500 000).

    Not much thought is given to Africa (or other poorer parts of the world), and the impact of rising food and fuel prices, as globalisation stalls as nearly all (all?) commentators writing on these topics do so from a Western (or sometimes Russian, hello Dmitry Orlov), perspective.

    The book is available on Amazon, and you can read a summary of it on my site,

    Kind regards,

    Yves-Marie Stranger

    1. Thank you, Yves-Marie. Yes, the Italian conquest of Ethiopia is a dark spot in Italian history that most Italians try to forget -- but they should not. I'll see to get a copy of your book. And I would have loved to ride a horse in Ethiopia, it is a fascinating country that, unfortunately, I know only indirectly from Ethiopians living today in Italy

    2. Have your book. Fascinating!!

  8. OK. This post sould have 17 hundred posts by now, not 17. Maybe a bigger microphone is needed, but maybe people just don't want to think.
    Sorry ugo.

    1. Well at least the comments here are valuable, and yours particularly Art Deco. I prefer reading a few good comments than hundreds that would create a fog. I appreciate quality over quantity. So please Ugo keep whispering for the happy few and do not use a microphone!

    2. So is life. Certain things can't be pushed.

  9. I thank you for kind words, and the truth in the other half of your comment, Thierri. It's true that I visit here and not the Mega sites because of the Mega noise level.

  10. Going to read a few posts on the Irish Famine. Our next disaster may carry a scale to price fuel and food on the spot , since they are not indexed in official inflation figures AFAIK.

  11. Behold the Horsemen of the Apocalypse ... a videogame based on the ancient Commedia dell'Arte .

    The  lead horse man in red armour...Genocide rides a roan stallion, metal armour flecked with gore.

    The Black Rider of Pestilence with plague mask and cloak  follows  the Gaunt Wreck of Famine measuring money against grain ...

    ...A pale horse and a scythe wielding skeleton follows the other three horsemen and leaves no survivors.

    So in the words of Chaung Tzu ,
    Where warhorses once grazed, only thistles will grow.

    And to some of us, the population graph looks like  a cliff,  not at all like a bell curve .