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."

Monday, June 27, 2022

The Dewdrop World is a Dewdrop World, and yet, and yet..... The Ethereal Nature of Collapse


It is said that the Japanese poet Kobayashi Issa wrote this haiku upon the death of his daughter: "The dewdrop world is a dewdrop world, and yet, and yet......." (tsuyu no yo wa tsuyu no yo nagara sari nagara). It is poetry at its best: it hints at much more than it says. Here, I start from this poem about dew being an incorporeal thing to examine how another incorporeal thing, such as money, can affect us.

 
A few days ago, I was looking again at the presentation that Nathan John Hagens produced for the Earth Day of 2021. I had watched it when it appeared, but something made me return to it. It is a long story, but the point that remained in my mind is when Nate shows a graph with a clear "Seneca" shape for the global oil production curve. That is, something that grows slowly, then declines rapidly (at minute 38 of the presentation). Later, at minute 44, he shows a similar curve for the GDP. 

 
Nate attributes the slanting forward of the curve to financial effects. My first reaction to that was that financial tricks, in themselves, do not produce oil (and can't raise the GDP, either). How can a basically non-existing thing such as money, mainly numbers stored in computer memories, affect the real world in such a way?

But, rethinking the matter, I am not sure anymore that the financial world really is an ethereal and inconsequential thing. Maybe it is the opposite. As I learn more about more things, I am always surprised by what I discover. My latest epiphany came from a talk given by Fabio Vighi, who teaches at the University of Cardiff, about a correlation between the lockdowns of 2020 and the global financial situation and, in particular, of the "REPO" market (you can find his take at this link). 

I must confess that I had no idea of what the REPO was, not even that such a thing existed. Now, I know that it stands for "Repurchase Agreements" and I think I have some idea of how it is supposed to work. Basically, it is a market where financial operators can resupply with money by borrowing it. Where does that money come from? Typically, financial firms with large pools of cash do not want to let that money sit around, so they lend it to financial institutions, banks, at low interest rates. Then, the banks will use this money to fund short-term needs. The REPO market is a short-term thing.

I am far from having assimilated the obscure mechanisms operating inside the entrails of the REPO market, but this much I can understand: it determines the cost of money. Now, connect this concept with the real economy. The economy is made out of real things: resources, materials, equipment, goods, people, and more. And everything in the economy is subjected to depreciation (a name that economists use for the thing that physicists call entropy). If you want to fight depreciation (entropy) you must expend energy. (you can do that in an open system -- in closed ones, entropy always increases, but this is not the case for the economic system.) 

So, to keep the economy running, you need energy. In order to get energy, you need energy (you probably heard the concept of "energy return on energy invested", "EROI"). But, in order to get energy to be invested, our economic system is geared in such a way that you need that non-physical thing called "money."  No money, no investments. No investments in energy, no production of energy. 

What if there is no money? Energy is not produced. Then people become very poor, and many die. Incidentally, it also happens that the rich get richer, but that's another story. Apart from the rich, the poor slide down the downward step of the curve: the Seneca Cliff. I do think that Nate is right in his interpretation: the Seneca Cliff would arrive even independently of financial factors, but financial factors can make it steeper. Money doesn't create resources (as economists are fond to say). But it can direct more resources to exploitation, making it faster. That gives people the illusion that there is more of it. 

You see how everything is connected: our fate is determined by such mysterious things as the one called the "REPO market." Then, something horrible happened in 2019: a cash crunch caused the repo rate to soar — reaching as high as 10 percent intraday on Sept. 17. It pushed up the federal funds rate to levels much higher than it was supposed to be (between 2-2.25 percent) at the time.

The interesting thing about the story is Fabio Vighi's interpretation that the lockdowns of 2020 were the result of the attempt of the powers that be to cool the REPO market and avoid a financial Seneca Cliff. If this was their aim, they succeeded spectacularly.


Note how the REPO rate went down from the Spike of September 2019 to a very low, and apparently stable, level in 2021. So, Fabio Vighi's interpretation could make sense. But can it be true? Personally, I think it might well be the case, but it is also true that correlation does not mean causation and the spike disappeared much before the lockdowns. On the other hand, the powers that be may have been scared enough that they put into practice an emergency plan they had concocted long before. Whatever the case, they will never tell us the truth. 

The thing that doesn't cease to amaze me, though, is how it is possible that humans placed themselves to me so dependent on the thing called "money."  It is an ephemeral entity that has no physical consistency.  I can also understand that small disturbances in the repo (and other money) markets can ripple through the entire system. The physicists call this the "butterfly effect" and you know how small perturbations can send huge systems tumbling down to their doom. Money has no more consistency than the morning dew. And yet, and yet......

Take a look at this incredible painting by Quentin Matsys, "The Money Lender and His Wife." painted in 1514 and representing two burghers of Antwerp, the ancestors of the people who have been playing with the REPO market in modern times. Just like Issa's poem, this painting hints at much more than it shows, but in the opposite way. Whereas Issa hints that the world is not real, here we see it as even too real. Reality is gold coins, much more important than the book of devotions that the wife of the banker should have been looking at, but she is not. Yet, the true value of those coins is all in the minds of people, by themselves they are not worth more than dew in the morning.




You can find Nate Hagen's 2021 posts at https://www.thegreatsimplification.com/
A more recent documentary is at this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g0w3GfW240M 







 

Friday, June 24, 2022

Limits and Beyond: A Review of Jorgen Randers' Chapter


 

Ian Sutton is generating a series of reviews of the chapters of the recent report to the Club of Rome "Limits and Beyond."  Here is the one about the chapter written by Jorgen Randers, one of the authors of the 1972 report. 


By Ian Sutton


The book Limits and Beyond, edited by Ugo Bardi and Carlos Alwarez Pereira, provides a 50th anniversary review of the seminal report Limits to Growth (LtG). The following is from the back cover of the book.

50 years ago the Club of Rome commissioned a report: Limits to Growth. They told us that, on our current path, we are heading for collapse in the first half of the 21st century. This book, published in the year 2022, reviews what has happened in the intervening time period. It asks three basic questions:

  • Were their models right?

  • Why was there such a backlash?

  • What did the world do about it?

Our review of the first chapter drew two major conclusions.

  1. There is a “yawning communications gap” between the scientists who developed the LtG model and the public and policy makers. This failure of communication contrasts with the way in which many Evangelical Christians believe in ‘The Rapture’. Yet both LtG and ‘The Rapture’ provide a vision for TEOTWAWKI (The End of the World as We Know It). Why did scientific communication fail, while religious communication flourished?

  2. Reports such as LtG tend to have a threatening tone. They say that if we do not take action quickly then we are going to be in serious trouble. Yet people generally respond better to a positive message. Had the report described the opportunities that a world without growth offers it may have had a better reception.


Jorgen Randers (1945- )
Dr. Jorgen Randers (1945- )

The second chapter is written by one of the original LtG authors: Jorgen Randers. The chapter’s title is “What did The Limits to Growth really say?”

Decoupling Economic and Physical Growth

He makes the point that LtG was not a prediction of the future. It was, in fact, “a scenario analysis of 12 possible futures of the period 1972 to 2100”, and, “. . . delays in global decision making would cause the human economy to overshoot planetary limits before the growth in the human ecological footprint slowed.”

In other words, either we manage decline in a controlled manner (which we have not done) or else collapse happens to us, whether we like it or not. One option that is not open to us to maintain Business as Usual, i.e., a continuation of material growth that simultaneously expands our ecological impact. In other words, the report did not predict the end of growth — it merely predicted, as its title suggests, limits to growth.

How economic growth could continue without simultaneous physical growth the report did not say — it did not show how to decouple these two types of growth. The experience of the last 50 years shows that the two have remained linked to one another inextricably. It appears as if decoupling is not possible. (At least, there has been no serious attempt to do so.)

The Test of Time

Randers asks, “Has the message of LtG stood the test of time?” His response is that “the real world has evolved as foreseen in LtG”. In other words, LtG has withstood the test of time. The report provides 12 different scenarios, they are all similar to one another up to about the year 2020. Events of the past 50 years have followed what these scenarios forecast.

To summarize,

  1. Economic growth and the use of physical resources are tightly linked. Decoupling does not appear to be a possibility.

  2. The scenarios in LtG up to our time, the present day, have turned out to be reasonably accurate.

  3. We are now in overshoot. Managed decline has not happened; collapse is in our future.

Given this background, it is useful at this point to show one of the scenarios that were presented in LtG. (I have added the date overlays.)

The chart makes for grim reading. It shows that, starting about now,

  • The world’s population increases for the next 30 years (which is why some of the per capita numbers are so unfavorable),

  • Services per capita drop precipitously,

  • Industrial output per capita drops almost as quickly,

  • Available resources plunge,

  • Pollution, which includes greenhouse gas emissions, climbs steeply, but then declines, presumably as a consequence of the rapid decline in industrial output.

  • Food per capita also drops sharply — a phenomenon that is one of increasing concern this year.

It is no surprise that a colleague of mine who is very familiar with climate change issues prefers not to look at this chart.

Technological Fix

A common response to results such as those shown in the chart is that technology will provide “save us”. Randers says that, “many thoughtful observers . . . believe that technology will be able to remove planetary limits faster than the rate at which we approach them.”

The report does not predict whether, “investments in electrification and renewable energy will take place at sufficient pace to halt global warming.” In fact, it seems unlikely that such a transition will happen in the short amount of time available. (Once more, we could have managed such a transition had we acted with resolve 50 years ago — but we didn’t.) We now understand that no source of “green” energy has the unique combination of properties provided by fossil fuels, particularly crude oil. Moreover, the transition to new energy sources will require an immense use of fossil fuel energy. Technology may provide some useful responses, but it is not “the answer”.

Conclusion

In the ‘Final Reflection’ that concludes Chapter 2, Randers points out that LtG was published when “human belief in the power of technology was at an all-time high”. That belief is not what it was fifty years ago.

Moreover, there seems to be no way to establish economic growth while not increasing our ecological footprint. Hence, this chapter leads to the well-worn refrain that we should have taken action, but we didn’t. But we have left it much too late to implement managed decline (even if there were any serious interest in doing so, which there isn’t). Therefore some form of induced collapse is in our future.

Essentially, the message of this chapter is the same as it was for Chapter 1 — it is one of failed communication. We never gained the Name of Action.



Monday, June 20, 2022

What's Really Happening in Ukraine? The Rules of Disinformation During Wartime

 


The front page from the Italian newspaper "La Stampa" on Oct 12, 1941. A good example of wartime propaganda.  

War is a complicated story with plenty of things happening at the same time. Not for nothing, there exists the term "fog of war," and it may well be that even generals and leaders don't know exactly what's going on on the battlefield. Then, imagine how the media are reporting the situation to us: it is not just a fog that separates the news from the truth: it is a brick wall. Yet, the media remain a major source of information for us. Can we use them to learn at least something about what's going on, discarding the lies and the exaggerations? 

To start, we can look at how wartime news was reported in historical cases. As an exercise, I examined how Italians were (dis-)informed by their government during World War 2. I used the archive of "La Stampa," one of the major Italian newspapers of the time, still existing today. The other national newspapers weren't reporting anything really different. Another advantage is that the archive of La Stampa is free to peruse. 

The archive contains a huge amount of material (all in Italian, sorry). I don't claim that I examined everything, but I did go through the decisive moments of the war, in 1941/43. It is a fascinating experience to imagine people reading the news of the time and trying to understand what was really going on. Could they figure it out? Probably not, at least for most of them. But let's go into the details.

Above, you can see an example of how news about the war was presented to Italians. The front page of "La Stampa" of Oct 12, 1941, was titled the "destruction of the Azov pocket." It was true: the battle of the sea of Azov was a major victory for the Axis forces. Even the report on the number of prisoners taken, about 100,000, was approximately correct. 

On the lower left part of the front page, you read of another front: in Ethiopia. The Italian troops fighting in the Amhara region ("Amara" in the text) are said to be offering an "indomitable resistance" against the attacking British troops. Again, it was true. The stronghold of Gondar, in Northern Ethiopia, was successfully resisting. 

That's just the first page. You can read more in the inner pages: reflections on how the defeat of Bolshevism in Russia will unavoidably bring the final defeat for England, of the victorious advance of the Italian troops in the Donetsk region, of heavy losses of the enemy on all fronts, including long lists of British warships damaged or sunk. 

So, if you were an Italian reading one of the national papers in October 1941, you would reasonably conclude that the Axis powers were winning in Russia, that Italy was successfully resisting in Ethiopia, and that the British were facing serious difficulties in all war theaters. That would not have been such a bad evaluation at that moment, perhaps the most favorable for the Axis during the whole war. 

The problem is that, as we know from our modern viewpoint, in October 1941 the German advance was already starting to slow down, and it would completely stall in early December. In Ethiopia, Gondar was just the last pocket of resistance of the former "Italian Empire." It was surrounded by the British, and it had zero chance to survive. It surrendered on Nov 27th 1941. 

How was this less than exciting news presented to the Italian readers? About the Russian front, in December they were told that the Germans had decided to stop their advance and that they were preparing to restart the offensive in spring. At the same time, they were repulsing Russian attacks. Then, about the defeat in Ethiopia, the Italians were told nothing. The fall of Gondar in November was simply not reported. Only on Dec 6, more than a month later, you could read that the "Italian officers of Gondar" were allowed to keep their swords while surrendering. From this, you could finally understand that Gondar was no more in Italian hands. As a compensation, you could read in the column nearby of "more British ships sunk in the Atlantic."


This is very typical. Bad news was simply not reported or delayed during the war. When the Italian contingent in Russia was destroyed, in 1942, it just disappeared from the news. As another example, in 1943, the British had been attacking the island of Pantelleria in the Mediterranean Sea. Up to June 12th, "La Stampa" was reporting the heroic resistance of the Italian defenders facing superior enemy forces. 


Remarkably, when the news above appeared, Pantelleria had already surrendered without firing a shot. That was not reported until June 14th as just a few lines in a corner of the front page. One day later, one of the pundits of the time explained why the loss of Pantelleria was of no importance and that the final victory of Italy was certain. Then, it was silence.   

This kind of disinformation is normal: it happens everywhere, surely not just in the Italian press during WW2. The interesting part is whether we can learn something from this story. I think I can propose a few rules of thumb on how wartime misinformation works. 

RULES FOR DETECTING DISINFORMATION DURING WARTIME

1. When the news reports a major victory of your side that involves a verifiable result, say, the occupation of a city or of a region, then it is most likely true. 

2. When the news reports that an enemy attack has been repulsed and that the enemy suffered heavy losses, it may be true, but it means that the enemy has superior forces in that area and that sooner or later will break through. 

3. When you don't hear anything anymore of a specific contingent, city, or region, it means that the contingent has been destroyed or that the city/region has been conquered by the enemy. 

4. When you read non-verifiable positive news ("enemy cruiser sunk" "40 enemy planes downed"), it is most likely false.

5. Whatever you hear from the "experts" has zero value. With one exception: when the  pundits start saying that "the situation looks bad, but the final victory is certain," it means that the war is lost.  

6. The golden rule: never, ever trust anything that the media tell you. 

 

These rules have a certain logic: despite the attempts of the media to "create their own reality" (Rumsfeld style) they cannot completely suppress the real reality. During WW2, even with the heavy censorship of the Fascist regime, Italians could find other sources of information, including what returning soldiers were telling, and the broadcasting from "Radio Londra," the British radio. Tuning to that station was forbidden and could be dangerous, but surely many people did that. Not that the British propaganda was any more truthful than the Italian one but, at least, Radio London provided Italians with a different version of the news. For instance, the fall of Gondar in 1941 was announced in British newspapers the day after it took place, with titles such as, "END OF MUSSOLINI'S EMPIRE." Radio Londra surely broadcast that and the people who listened were informed about the event several days in advance in comparison to those who had to wait for the Italian press to report it.  

About the current war in Ukraine, these rules can help. For a start, they can be used to filter out the most blatant lies. For instance, you surely heard the story of the "Ghost of Kyiv," the Ukrainian pilot said to have downed as many as 40 enemy planes (some say just six, others 10 or 20). It was non-verifiable news, and hence you could have suspected from the beginning that it was false. Indeed, it was confirmed to be fake by the Ukrainians themselves. The same is true for many reports of the rape of Ukrainian women and children. The originator of these reports, Lyudmila Denisova, Ukraine's commissioner for human rights, was removed from her post by the Ukrainian parliament under the accusation of having provided exaggerated and false news. And the same goes for the many obviously exaggerated reports of heavy losses on the Russian side.

Then, even with the heavy censorship we are embedded in, we can still manage to find a trickle of information from the "other side," not better than from this side, but still providing a different angle of view. The official Russian channels do not report heavy Russian losses (obviously!). Pro-Russian pundits repeat that Russia is winning, although they have toned down their statements several times. They have been telling us, repeatedly, that the Ukraine military was going to collapse, but that is just good evidence for the validity of the rule that says, "The opinion of the experts has zero value." In any case, the reports from both sides agree that, at present, the Russians are advancing, although slowly. Therefore, it is probably true. 

About the final outcome of the war, for the time being, we are in a condition similar to that of Italians in 1941. It would have been difficult for them to understand who would win, although they might have concluded that things were not going so well as the official reports said. But, by late 1942, a critical analysis, even just of the national news, should have made clear to anyone with a functioning brain that the war was lost for the Axis. About Ukraine, instead, we cannot say much for the time being, but it is hard to think that the war could last years. So, we should be able to know more in the near future. For the time being, just don't forget the golden rule: never, never trust what the media are telling you.



Saturday, June 18, 2022

The Collapse of Trust in Science: Climate Science is one of the Victims

 

 
The blog of El Gato Malo is fun to read and, often, reports useful data and correct discussions of the COVID pandemic -- of course, it is very political, as you can see if you peruse the site. But when the Gato tries to apply his skills to climate science, it is a complete disaster, such as in this screed about the climate of planet Venus. The Gato's failure is a good example of how you should always maintain a certain degree of humility when you approach a field you are not familiar with. 

The problem is not so much the site of a person who signs himself as "The Bad Cat".  The problem is that it is a wave. It could become a tsunami. There is a clear phenomenon of loss of trust in science resulting by the mounting evidence of corruption and politicization of those who claim to be the "voice of science" and whose advice the public should follow. The result is a wholesale rejection of everything that's supposed to be supported by "Science." It is not just that climate science becomes a conspiracy by the Greens. It also becomes a commonplace opinion that chemtrails exist, that renewables consume more energy than they produce, that electric cars pollute more than diesel and gasoline cars, that peak oil is an invention of the oil companies, and much more. 

Climate science is an easy victim of this phenomenon because it is a complicated matter that most people do not completely understand (and maybe nobody does). It is relatively easy to comb the data to find examples that don't (or don't seem to) agree with the standard interpretation. From there on, it all becomes politics and all attempts to use reason or data are destined to fail. Politics is not based on data. Just look at the comments to El Gato's post and be horrified: you are staring directly into the abyss. 

Yet, we must cling to science because it is the only thing we have that allows us to understand the world around us. In a sea of corruption, ossification, and ignorance, there do exist islands of sanity and understanding. Below, you can see an example of an attempt to develop a new way of looking at the ecosystem. It means not just turning CO2 into the villain of an adventure movie, but trying to understand how the whole system works and the role of the biosphere in maintaining the climate we need to survive. If we lose good science, we lose everything (UB)


From "The Pround Holobionts" Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Do we focus too much on CO2 alone? An appeal for the conservation of natural ecosystems

 Have we exaggerated with the idea that CO2 -- carbon dioxide -- is the arch villain of the story? Aren't we overemphasizing solutions that imply CO2 removal? How about geoengineering, sometimes touted as "the" solution that will allow us to keep going on burning fossil fuels? 

There is no doubt that the emissions of carbon dioxide are returning the ecosystem to a condition that was never seen before at least one million years ago. There is no doubt that CO2 is warming the planet and that none of our Sapiens ancestors ever breathed in an atmosphere that contains a concentration of CO2 of 420 parts per million -- as we are doing. 

But by focussing so much on CO2 alone is easy to forget what humans have been doing to the ecosystems that keep the biosphere alive (and with it, humankind). The ecosystem is a giant holobiont that strives for stability: a fundamental element to stabilize Earth's climate. It is a dangerous illusion to think that we, humans, can replace the work of Gaia with our fancy carbon capture machinery, or whatever other tricks we may concoct. 

Here is a reminder by a group of people from Eastern Europe who managed to maintain a certain degree of mental sanity. They remind us of the damage we are doing. Will anyone listen to them? (UB)

Appeal to the international community, governments, scientific, public organizations and business

https://www.es-partnership.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/Appeal_Protect-Ecosystems.pdf

RECOGNIZE THE VALUE AND ROLE OF NATURAL ECOSYSTEMS FOR CLIMATE CHANGE!

Terrestrial and marine natural ecosystems are the basis for preservation of biological life on Earth. They have existed almost unchanged for millions of years and all this time have supported climate stability, biochemical flows, global water circulation and many other processes, irreplaceable and essential for preservation of life on our planet. Undisturbed natural ecosystems maintain the Earth's temperature, suitable for human life.

The laws of nature are the basis of life on Earth, and all the laws of human society that regulate economic, political, social and cultural relations are secondary to them and must take into account the biosphere’s operating principles and man’s place in it.

However, over the past decades, human activities aimed at meeting the needs for food, energy and 
water have caused unprecedented changes in ecosystems, including land degradation and deforestation. These changes have helped improve the lives of billions of people, but at the same time, they have destroyed nature's ability to regulate the environment and maintain the climate.

According to current estimates, more than 75% of natural ecosystems are subject to degradation and loss of their functions, which undermines all efforts to preserve the climate and threatens the achievement of SDGs, including hunger, disease and poverty eradication. 

Humanity is standing on the edge of a precipice. Over-threshold disturbance of ecosystems leads to
irreversible loss of the gene pool, up to complete disappearance of ecosystems. In the face of growing efforts and understanding of the threat of climate change, it is now necessary to recognize and support the unique role of natural ecosystems in preserving the climate and a vital environment. International climate policy adjustments and fundamental changes in national development strategies are required.

We call to wake up and recognize the fundamental and irreplaceable value of natural ecosystems and for strong and urgent action, including:
  1.  To recognize the goal of preserving natural ecosystems as humanity’s highest priority and stop their further destruction through adopting a global moratorium on any further development of territories still untouched by human activities, with international support mechanisms, including funding.
  2.  Promotion of large-scale natural reforestation is an urgent task. Climate-regulating functions of forests, associated with the ability to retain soil moisture and maintain continental water transfer, are their main value, which are orders of magnitude higher than the cost of wood. Undisturbed forests should be completely removed from economic activity by law and allocated to a separate category with the maximum degree of protection. 
  3. At all levels, from international to regional, national and local, it is necessary to review ongoing development strategies and take urgent measures to protect natural ecosystems and wildlife. It is necessary to adjust all sectoral policies, including agricultural practices, in order not only to meet the demand for food, but also to minimize the burden on natural ecosystems
  4. A transition from conventional sectoral management to basin and ecosystem management is required, including raising the status of nature conservation goals. Water resources management should ensure that natural ecosystems are guaranteed priority in water supply that is necessary for their conservation, as well as protection and restoration of aquatic and other ecosystems - from mountains and glaciers to deltas and reservoirs.
  5. Measures aimed at preserving natural ecosystems also require a review of existing incentives and tools and creation of new ones, so that ecosystem services are no longer perceived as free and unlimited, and their management takes into account the interests and roles of the populations and local communities which directly depend on them and are their custodians.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

International Socio-Ecological Union, Eco-Forum (of 54 public organizations) of Kazakhstan, 
Association (non-governmental organizations) «For Sustainable Human Development of Armenia»,
Eco-Forum (independent non-governmental organizations) of Uzbekistan, as well as professional and non-governmental organizations of Armenia, Moldova, Russia, USA and others

Monday, June 13, 2022

Bye-bye, university! How to leave research and be perfectly happy


 Imagine a university campus seen from a drone. Zoom down to one of the buildings. There, imagine a human figure running out of it, screaming while holding his head with his hands. Imagine him running and running, dashing out of the campus gate, and then disappearing in the fog, still running at full speed and screaming. That was me, leaving the University of Florence forever. 


I still had some time before mandatory retirement, but I couldn't take it anymore. The Covid regulations were the killing blow to an institution that had already become a monstrosity. And I left my university this March, after 40 years of employment. 

To explain why I quit my job, I should tell you how it is to work at a mid-level university. Of course, the definition of "mid-level" depends on the parameters you use, but the University of Florence is normally ranked somewhere within the first 500 universities worldwide. This is not so bad considering that there are tens of thousands of institutions in the world that label themselves as "universities." But it is nothing to be enthusiastic about. 

Is it a bad thing to work at a mid-level university? Not necessarily. I have experience working in top-level ones (just to name one, I was a post-doc at Berkeley) and I know that in a higher-level university I could have had a higher salary, more support, and more chances to attract financing. But also more stress, more pressure, and more control. 

So, I don't envy the life of the colleagues who have been running the rat race. The way scientific research is organized nowadays implies discouraging interdisciplinary and innovative research. Actually, not just discouraging -- the whole system aims at carpet bombing with napalm everything and everyone who tries to do something new. If you work in a top-level university, you are supposed to perform. And performing means acting strictly according to the rules. But, in a mid-level university, you are not so heavily pressured, and that gives you a chance to explore new ideas and move to new fields. 

To be clear, this is not a hymn to mediocrity. Being in a mid-level university does not mean you can't do top-level work. By all means, you can, and you should. True, you don't have the same kind of financial support you can have at the top scientific watering holes. From the periphery of the Global Empire, you just can't access the old boy networks that manage scientific funds. But you can compensate with creativity and flexibility. As an example, the Chemistry Department of the University of Florence, where I was working, scores consistently as the best department of chemistry in Italy, and it is at the top level worldwide in several fields. It has done so well, I think, because researchers were left mostly free to organize their work and to pursue the lines they thought were most rewarding. 

So, what led me to run away screaming from a structure that I considered not so bad? In one word: bureaucracy. It has been a slow trend but, year after year, bureaucrats had been penetrating more and more into the organization of research. They were the administrators, but also colleagues who gradually transmogrified themselves from researchers into paper-shufflers. As a result, we were asked to list our "products" (the name that bureaucrats give to scientific papers), to declare our bibliometric indices, and to fill out plenty of forms reporting on our performance. Also, bureaucrats saw the university as a cash cow and they made sure to take a larger and larger toll on the university budget. The number of administrative employees kept increasing and the salary of a top bureaucrat became higher than that of a senior faculty member. Eventually, the administrative director could fire the rector (not officially, but it happened in Florence). All that is not just a problem with the University of Florence, it is the same in all the universities of the world. 

The final nail in the coffin was the pandemic. It gave bureaucrats the possibility of scoring an epochal victory on faculty members. Truly, it was not just a victory, it was the complete annihilation of the enemy. Before the pandemic, the university was still a relatively open institution, where I was free to go anywhere on our campus and to receive anyone in my room. I could invite anyone to give a talk, from Italy or abroad. I could invite researchers from anywhere to work in my group. My students could visit me at any time, and the door of my office was always open. 

All that was vaporized by the regulations: a garden of delights for bureaucrats. The new rules were typically not based on verifiable data, but they were always strict, detailed, and rigid. Social distancing, face masks, sanitizing everything, even delicate and expensive instruments that didn't benefit from being sprayed with solvents. If I wanted to receive someone in my office, I had to ask permission from the director of the department at least 24 hours in advance, and explain who was the person I wanted to meet, why I wanted to meet him/her, and for how long. To enter our department, we were tested, sanitized, masked, QR-ed, and our body temperature measured. You see in the picture one of the infernal machines that appeared at the entrances of all the university buildings. It was correctly referred to as a "totem" -- an offering to evil deities. And no more socializing with your colleagues and students. No more than two persons per room, eating or drinking on the premises was strictly forbidden. Even the coffee machines in the corridors disappeared. (recently, they reappeared, but the surrounding conviviality didn't return: you have to keep at a certain distance, stay in line, follow the arrows painted on the floor). 

But that was nothing in comparison to what happened to teaching. For most people, a chemistry class is like a session with a dentist: you don't expect it to be pleasant, and you want it to be over as soon as possible. Yet, before the pandemic, lessons could be interactive, lively, and -- as much as possible -- interesting. You dealt with real human beings sitting in front of you, and you could discuss matters even not strictly related to the subject of your class. I had my students doing hands-on experiments, playing operational games, I had them learn how to make fire with a flint and once I had them sing a piece of polyphonic music. Maybe it was not chemistry, but they enjoyed that. 

All that disappeared in a whooshing sound with the pandemic. Suddenly, the students were turned from human beings into stamp-size images on a screen. And that was when they agreed to show their faces, you couldn't force them to. You had no idea if they were listening to you or playing games, or watching movies on their screens (If they were there at all). Even worse was the "mixed" mode that appeared in 2021. A few masked students could reserve seats in the classroom, and each occupied seat was spaced from the next one by two unoccupied ones (a rule surely based on solid data). The majority of the students would remain in remote mode, and you had exactly zero interaction with them -- you had no idea of who was listening to you if any did. A colleague of mine in another Italian university was suspended for six months from teaching as a punishment for having told her students on a hot day that they could lower their masks if they wanted. 

What was most shocking is how my colleagues took this bureaucratic storm. No protests, no questions, no discussions. I mean, we are supposed to be scientists: someone could have asked questions about the rules: what proof do you have that washing one's hands with solvents has any useful effect? On which basis were we forbidden to touch a piece of paper previously handed by a student? What proof do you have that staying at 1 meter from each other prevents infection? 

But no rule was criticized, no matter how quixotic. Administrators, and even many faculty members, were enthusiastic about the new rules. As in the Milgram experiment, they were given a chance to abuse their colleagues by taking formal or informal roles of guardians of the heavenly palace, and they took it gleefully. Before the pandemic, the lady at the reception desk was always smiling and kind. Afterward, she became something like a prison guard, even though she wasn't wearing a uniform. I can tell you that I have been a guest researcher at the Academy of Sciences in Moscow, shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, and the guards at the entrance were more friendly. 

I don't remember what exactly was the last straw, but at some moment I found myself packing. Books, papers, pictures, equipment, and various stuff accumulated in forty years. Of my books, I donated some 350 of them to our library. The librarians were moderately happy to receive that gift, but they (and I) are perfectly aware that our students are becoming unable to understand English, so most of these books will just collect dust until they will be consumed in some fire at the end of our civilization. But so is life. In the picture, you can see me in the inner caverns of the library, with the books I laboriously carried there. 

And now what? Initially, I was a little afraid. Mandatory retirement in Europe is a terrible experience for the people who are forced to retire while still active and perfectly able to do their job. But, in my case, I have to thank the small peduncled creature that made me hate my job. I can tell you that I am not feeling anything like the "retirement shock" that killed some of my colleagues. No kidding: they fell sick and died shortly after retiring. And they were in perfect health before. 

So, right now, I am in perfect shape, and perfectly happy. It is over with boring classes, filling forms, attending meetings, be part of committees, and more useless ways to spend one's time. God, you really love me!!! I can spend all my time doing the things I love to do. Like spending an inordinate amount of time writing posts on the "Seneca Effect" blog. But not just that. Science can be a lot of fun when you are not pressured by review committees and funding agencies (see below). And I am also working on some weird things I won't tell you anything about. 

Hard times seem to be coming, but we have to accept what the universe has prepared for us. And so, the future is waiting for us. Who knows what expects us once we'll be there?

_________________________________

Fun with science

Science used to be something done just for the sake of learning new things, and I think it can still be done in this spirit. Check our paper (with Ilaria Perissi) on the "6th law of stupidity" and you'll see what I mean. Of course, the reviewers were horrified by a paper that was not boring. But, eventually, we overcame their criticism with good arguments and persistence. We (with Ilaria and others) also published a paper on dragonology (not exactly the science of dragons, but the dragons of science). 
Another paper written with Ilaria was inspired by Herman Melville's "Moby Dick" novel. We described how the cycle of whaling of 19th century is an example of the overexploitation of natural resources. It is a dynamical cycle that we simulated using a boardgame for educational purposes. The paper is under review, for the time being, you can take a look at an earlier version called the "Oil Game."  

We are now (again, with Ilaria) world-renown experts on mousetraps as related to nuclear explosions (the paper is on Arxiv, we have a full paper under review). In the picture, you see a mouse I captured recently. Don't worry, the little fella was not mistreated. It was released, alive and well, in a place where I am sure it can find food. 

You think all this is not serious science? Well, if you want serious science, here is serious science, at least in terms of words full of sound and fury: "The Role of Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROI) in Complex Adaptive Systems" (Perissi, Lavacchi, and Bardi). Serious stuff, but it was fun to study this subject, even though we wrote the paper in a rather boring form, full of mathematical formulas. 


By the way, if you dabble with EROI-related things, you know that the "Hubbert Curve" is the result of the declining EROI of oil extraction. And you may have asked yourself (but never dared to ask) what is the value of the EROI at "peak oil"? Well, you won't find that datum anywhere, but we (again, I and Ilaria) know! The paper is being prepared, and the mystery will be revealed soon. And there is more in the pipeline, including a long paper on the concept of "social holobionts" -- halfway through it, right now. Onward, fellow holobionts!

Ah.... I forgot: I also edited and published a new book! "Limits and Beyond

Friday, June 10, 2022

Does anyone still care about climate science?


The logo of my old blog, Cassandra's Legacy. I am a little nostalgic about my old friend, the Trojan prophetess who had been an active blogger for ten years. But she had attracted the ire of the powers that be, so I had to move to a new blog, this one under the auspices of the ancient Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca. Poor Cassandra still seems to be a target, as I report in this post. 


You know that the Prophetess Cassandra was cursed so that she would never be believed and, at the same time, being always right. So, recently I noted that a post written in 2018 on my old blog, Cassandra's Legacy, had as title "Why, in a Few Years, Nobody Will be Talking about Climate Change Anymore."  And, as usual, Lady Cassandra, was right. Nowadays, nobody seems to care anymore about Climate Science -- zero, zilch, nada, null -- no interest. It is gone beyond the horizon of the events as if sucked into a black hole. Greta Thunberg? Who is she?

Strangely, though, a couple of weeks ago, I was surprised to see that the Powers that Be targeted again the Trojan Prophetess for an old post on Climate Change. 

It is common on Facebook and Twitter that you see your posts removed because they "violated the community guidelines," whatever that may mean. But, on the Blogger platform, it was new for me. And yet, it happened. They removed a post on Climate Change that went back to 2014. Puzzled, I asked them to reinstate it, and they did, after just a couple of days. What Google takes away, Google may give back. 

With the best of goodwill, I could not find anything in that post that could have awakened the censors. Sure, it was "catastrophistic" but it didn't mention the current bugaboos (you know what I mean). They mentioned "malware" as the cause for deletion, but there was nothing of that sort in the post (and, after all, they reinstated it exactly as it was). I tend to think that someone got offended by this post and complained to them. So, maybe someone still cares about Climate Science! But we'll have to wait to see Troy on fire before admitting that the Prophetess was right.

I am reproposing the post here, on the "Seneca Effect" blog. 

 

Cli-fi: ten assorted doomsday scenarios

From "Cassandra's Legacy" 2014.


Image created by Robert A. Rohde / Global Warming Art.


In fiction, it is possible to extrapolate the consequences of normal phenomena to their extreme forms and to examine events that could happen, no matter how they are perceived as unlikely. Hence, the interest in "climate fiction" ("cli-fi") as a way to explore the possible consequences of climate change in situations much more extreme than those of the usually sanitized scenarios presented by scientists.

It seems that, so far, only a few of the many possible climate related catastrophes have been explored in detail in movies and novels. So, I have prepared here a list of ten apocalyptic scenarios, all related to climate change (of course, many more can be conceived). "Scenarios" and "fiction" are closely related concepts, except that the latter doesn't necessarily have to follow the laws of physics. In this case, none of these scenarios is physically impossible; but they are stretched a bit (a lot) for increased fictional dramatic effects. The list may serve as a source of inspiration for those of us who are trying their hand at writing cli-fi novels. The scenarios are arranged in an approximate order of increasingly catastrophic events. 


1.  "The Great Coal Flame" (or "Saddam squared"). A giant coal fire which can't be extinguished. We all know how, in 1991, the Iraqi troops retreating from Kuwait dynamited some 700 oil wells, generating giant fires. The damage generated was not terribly catastrophic, and the fires could be extinguished in less than one year, choking them at the mouth of the wells. However, we can think of something more difficult to stop if we imagine that the fire could affect a large coal deposit. There already exist underground coal fires which have burned for centuries and seem to be impossible to extinguish. Let's imagine something much bigger, maybe as the result of a tactical nuke landing by mistake (or purposefully) on a major coal mine. The result would be a giant fire covering an enormous area; it would be probably much more difficult to  extinguish than the localized oil well fires of Kuwait in 1991. Maybe this would not be a global disaster but, already now, uncontrolled coal fires account for about 3% of the world's CO2 emissions; if a major coal mine were to catch fire, the resulting disaster could considerably accelerate the process of climate change. To say nothing of the damage generated in terms of ashes, sulfur oxides, mercury, and other poisonous chemicals.

2."Super-Calving." or "Heinrich's return". The rapid collapse into the sea of large amounts of ice. "Calving" is a well known phenomenon in which large masses of ice detach themselves from ice shelves and create icebergs. Normally, the process causes no damage to humans (except for special cases, such as for the "Titanic"). But imagine that very large chunks of ice were released at a much faster rate than the present one. It has happened in the remote past in episodes known as "Heinrich's events" described as "Armadas of icebergs crossing the North Atlantic". The process could disrupt navigation in areas near large ice sheets, such as near Greenland and it could also generate giant waves - not tsunamis, but large enough to cause damage at considerable distances. Then, the presence of large amounts of ice floating in the ocean would have significant effects on climate and on the oceanic thermohaline circulation. The combination of these phenomena would disrupt commerce and transportation in a vital area for the world's economy. Not really a worldwide disaster, but a big disaster anyway.

3."HyperstormsGiant storms wreaking disasters. An increase in the frequency and the size of hurricanes is expected to be a consequence of climate change. In some conditions, hurricanes could become truly enormous and in this case they would take the name of "hypercanes", continent-size super-storms which reach the stratosphere, with side effects such as destroying the protective ozone layer. Because of this effect, it has been speculated that some of the past mega-extinctions were due thypercanes. It is believed that sea surface temperatures high enough to create hypercanes can be generated onlby exceptional circumstances, such as by asteroidal impacts. However, it is not impossible that a combination of factors related to global warming could generate larger and larger storms. Now, already in the present conditions, hurricanes are a major destructive force on human-built structures, imagine something much bigger and even more destructive..... The damage would be mostly local, unless we manage to unchain a true hypercane which would create worldwide havoc by destroying the world's ozone layer.

4. "The great ring of ice disaster". The melting of the Northern ice sheets generates earthquakes and tsunamis. The "ring of ice" is a region which encompasses a number of geological faults in the Northern Hemisphere. This is already a volcanic active region, but the melting and the Greenland ice sheet would generate further instabilities. Greenland "floats" over the underlying semi-fluid mantle and would rise up when freed of the mass of ice that covers it (this is called "isostatic rebound"). The result would be the destabilization of the geological faults in the area: an increase in volcanism, earthquakes, large coastal landslides, and perhaps the sudden release of large amounts of methane from frozen hydrates. The most disastrous results would be Atlantic tsunamis, a phenomenon which so far has been very rare, but that would be enhanced and made more common by climate change. Tsunamis originating in Greenland could hit especially hard Scotland, Norway, and Ireland, but also the Northwestern continental European coast (Holland, in particular) disrupting or destroying an industrial and commercial hub fundamental for the whole Europe. That would surely have worldwide repercussions.

5. "The Big Freeze" (or: "the Younger Dryas reloaded")A rapid cooling, something of the order of −5 °C (23 °F) of the Northern Hemisphere. The tumbling into the ocean of the Greenland ice sheet could shut down the North-Atlantic thermohaline circulation. As we have seen in the movie "The day after tomorrow," that would generate a rapid cooling of the Northern Hemisphere. It is believed that something similar has already occurred during the period called the "Younger Dryas", around 12,000 years ago; probably  caused by the sudden release into the Atlantiof the cold water of a lake ("Lake Agassiz") when the ice dam that kept it locked in place gave way. (yes, it is the plot of the second film of "the ice age" series, the one titled "The Meltdown"). In the case of the Younger Dryas, the freeze appears to have taken place in a few years. Imagine if something similar were to happen today: the consequences would be, well, unimaginable, even if we were to assume they would affect only the Northern Hemisphere.

6. "The great sea onrush" The sea rise generated by the rapid melting of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets wipes out most of the coastal cities and infrastructures. The disappearance of the ice sheets of Greenland and of Antarctica is not so much a hypothesis as a virtual certainty, given the present trends. That would lead to a sea level rise of some 7 meters (24 feet) from Greenland alone, plus about 3 meters from West Antarctica, and further contribution from the slower melting of other ice sheets. However, it is normally believed that this event would unfold in centuries or millennia and that humans would have time to adapt (perhaps). After all, as it is often said, what is affected by the sea rise "is only real estate". But let's imagine that the process were much, much faster - taking place in a few decades or even less, at least for one of the two most unstable ice sheets in the world: Greenland and West Antarctica. You would not see the onrush of giant waves submerging coastal cities, as in the "2012" movie, but the sea rise would still be so fast that there would be no time to build levees or to relocate buildings and facilities inland. The result would be a frantic rush inland, while vital industrial and transportation infrastructure would have to be abandoned. A true global disaster.

7. "Tickling the tail of the dragon" (or: "Shooting yourself with the clathrate gun"). A giant, human caused methane release and the consequent rapid rise in temperature. Let's imagine that some well intentioned people try to solve the energy crisis by extracting methane from buried hydrates (or clathrates) at the bottom of the ocean. Now, imagine that by drilling inside these clathrate reservoirs triggers a self-reinforcing release phenomenon. Just like BP didn't know how to stop the Macondo well leakage, the companies drilling - say - in the Arctic Ocean, would discover that they don't know how to plug the hole they have drilled and that, even if they could, more and more holes are appearing by themselves. The result is a massive release of methane in the atmosphere, a greenhouse gas much more powerful than carbon dioxide. As a consequence, the "worst case" IPCC scenarios unfold in a few years instead of a century. The results? Well, possibly all the four previous scenarios: collapse of the ice sheets, oceanic thermohaline shutdown and all the dire consequences. But also extensive climate disruption and the desertification of temperate region. You wouldn't speak anymore of "drought in California" for the same reasons why you don't normally speak of "drought in the Sahara desert." California would become like the Sahara desert (and not just California). Totally global disaster.

8. "Goldilock's disasters" or "The great climate rebound"Geoengineering can backfire. We can imagine multiple disasters arising from well-intentioned but ill-conceived efforts to reduce global warming. Spraying particulate in the upper atmosphere, or maybe putting giant mirrors in orbit, would cool the earth, but we don't know how it would affect the weather patterns. For instance, it could weaken the Indian Ocean monsoon and condemn at least a billion of people to starvation. Or, one could go too far in the opposite direction and cool the planet too much, (too much of a good thing) with effects similar to those of a nuclear winter. Maybe we can also imagine that a major economic crisis defunds the geoengineering effort. Or, imagine that a major spin campaign convinces people that it was a hoax or useless (that's possibly the most realistic element of this scenario). Then, as the sunscreens fall, the earth returns to warming with a vengeance, as it would do after a nuclear winter and temperatures shot up so fast that, before screening can be resumed, it is too late. And that's truly global!

9. "The world as a giant gas chamber". What if CO2 turns out to be not as harmless as it is commonly believed? CO2 is often defined as "plant food" and it is believed that it cannot negatively affect human health until it reaches concentrations over at least 10 times the present values. However, it is also true that our species evolved in conditions of CO2 atmospheric concentrations below 300 ppm and that the present concentrations of 400 ppm have never been experienced by our ancestors. As the concentration of atmospheric CO2 keeps building up, we could reach concentrations four of five times larger than those which have been the rule for the past million years or so. CO2 is a reactive molecule which, among other things, would affect the blood pH and it has been argued that concentrations over 425 ppm would already have negative effects on human health; to say nothing of much higher values. So, if we discover that we have transformed the planet into a giant gas chamber, what would we do? 

10 "Venus, the ultimate disaster."  Temperatures could go up high enough to kill everything. The "Venus Scenario" is an extreme version of the "runaway greenhouse" effect. As temperatures go up, more and more water vapor is pumped into the atmosphere. Since water vapor is a greenhouse gas, it causes further warming of the atmosphere. At its extreme limit, the process could self-reinforce to the point that the oceans would completely evaporate. Temperatures could become so high that carbonates in the crust would be decomposed and that would create a dense atmosphere saturated with CO2. Add some sulfuric acid generated by volcanoes and you have transformed Earth into something very similar to Venus. Temperatures would reach several hundred degrees C at the surface; no liquid water, no life. Right now, the solar radiation arriving on the earth is believed to be not high enough to generate the kind of feedback that would transform earth into a twin of Venus. But there are always uncertainties in these calculations and the "Venus scenario" cannot be completely ruled out. The only escape from the Venus catastrophe would be leaving Earth for another planet, supposing that humans were able to build spaceships early enough. This is, clearly, the ultimate catastrophe: the sterilization of the whole planet.


It is fiction, it is only fiction, but........





See also another list of climate disasters. Also the source of the above image