Friday, July 29, 2022

Limits and Beyond: Data Check on World3

 

I have been posting a series of review of the recent report to the Club of Rome "Limits and Beyond." Here is a recent post by Ian Sutton on his blog, "Netzero205."  Many people still think that the original work of 1972, "The Limits to Growth" was "wrong." They'll have to change their minds, sooner or later. Here is a comment on how Gaya Herrington examined how the base case scenario of the 1972 book fared in 50 years. Judge by yourself! 

Chapter 18: Better Windmills

The book Limits and Beyondedited by Ugo Bardi and Carlos Alvarez 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?

The book consists of 19 chapters, each written by a different author, two of whom — Dennis Meadows and Jorgen Randers — were part of the team that wrote the report.


This post is the seventh in a series that reviews chapters of the book Limits and Beyond. We look at Chapter 18: I did a data check on World3 - Here’s what I found. (Previous reviews are summarized here.)

Four Scenarios

Gaya Herrington Limits to Growth
Gaya Herrington

The author of Chapter 18, Gaya Herrington, compares four scenarios from the 2004 edition of Limits to Growth with empirical data. The scenarios are:

  • Business as Usual (BAU).

  • Business as Usual 2 (BAU2). This is BAU with double the natural resources.

  • Comprehensive Technology (CT).

  • Stabilized World (SW).

She summarizes her analysis in the following four charts.

Limits to Growth BAU

A typical example of the comparison of the LTG scenarios and Herrington's data on the real world is shown below. The complete set can be found in her thesis


I was reminded of Ms. Herrington’s work by a short conversation with a fellow church member this week. This person understood that the climate is changing (who could not given the events of recent days). He maintained that technology — in the form of windmills — could help save us. But he also realized that windmills have their limitations. For example, they are big and ugly. So, he asked, “Why don’t they make windmills with smaller blades?” In other words, this person accepted the ‘Comprehensive Technology’ approach. (I was restrained enough not to ask that person not look out of the window where he would have seen that the wind was not blowing.)

Currently, we are on the first track: Business as Usual track (BAU). In other words, in spite of the seemingly endless number of reports warning us of our predicament, society has not acted.

Since LtG was published additional resources, such as tight oil, have been made available, and technology has advanced. So BAU2 and CT need to be evaluated since they may represent our future direction.

Regarding BAU2, Herrington says,

More abundant resources do not avoid collapse in World3 scenarios; its cause merely changes from a resource scarcity crisis to a pollution one . . .  BAU2 essentially tells the story of ecosystem breakdown from accumulated pollutions, including greenhouse gases.

With respect to CT she says,

It assumes unprecedented technological innovation in a world that does not otherwise does not change priorities much. The new technologies do in fact help avoid an outright collapse. However, CT sill results in some declines because technology costs become so high that not enough resources are left for agricultural production, health, and education.

She does, however, point out that many of the assumptions that lie behind CT are highly optimistic, and are not validated by empirical data.

Humanity can innovate itself out of one limit, like to some extent it has with resource constraint. But in a system like our global society, creating a solution to one limit inevitably causes interactions with other parts of the system, sooner or later giving rise to a new limit which then becomes the new binding constraint on growth. This new constraint today is pollution from greenhouses gases.

The conclusion is straightforward. We should drive toward the Stabilized World (SW) scenario. Doing so will not only avoid collapse, it will maximize human welfare overall. In fact, we are heading toward either BAU2 or CT.

Need for Legislation

This post, like all the others in this series, repeats the conclusions that we have heard so often.

  1. Climate science tells us that we are heading toward a calamity within the lifetime of most people reading this post.

  2. The climate is linked with many other factors in ways that are difficult to understand or even identify. (Maybe Ms. Herrington’s most important point is that the first word in the phrase Limits to Growth is plural.)

  3. Communication between the climate community and the world at large has been futile.

  4. We are doing nothing effective about these looming calamities.

  5. Therefore, we need to . . .

The many reports, books, web sites and blog posts to do with climate change generally stop at this point, or else they make sweeping statements about changing the structure of society.

I suggest that we actually need legislation to take us in the right direction. Voluntarily constraints have not worked — we need enforceable rules.

This is why the proposed Climate-disclosure rule from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission is so important. (Similar rules being promulgated in many other nations.) Rules may actually be welcomed by business and industry. They provide a badly needed framework and structure for designing and implementing climate programs. In other words, the rules are not designed to lock people up. They are are designed to help business and industry develop a path forward while still making a profit.

This conclusion is based partly on my experience with the development of process safety standards thirty years ago. The analogy between what happened then and what is (not) going on now in the climate world is striking.

Sunday, July 24, 2022

"That house is white, on this side" -- Fair Witnesses in Science

 




"Stranger in a Strange Land" is one of the masterpieces by Robert Anson Heinlein (1907- 1988). Written in 1961, the novel inverts one of the typical tropes of science fiction: instead of humans exploring alien planets, we have a Martian exploring Earth. The story teems with incredibly interesting ideas, intuitions, and observations. One of its legacies is the concept of "grokking" -- understanding something by somehow "drinking" it. Another is that of the "Fair Witnesses," a corporation of individuals trained to observe and report without ever being influenced by personal preferences or emotions. And you know how desperately we would need to have people like them in a world where lies are the rule. Above, an artificial intelligence system, that may behave as a fair witness.




From "Stranger in a Strange land" -- Robert A. Heinlein, 1961


"You know how Fair Witnesses behave." "Well ... no, I don't. I've never had any dealings with Fair Witnesses." "So? Perhaps you weren't aware of it. Anne!" Anne was seated on the springboard; she turned her head. Jubal called out, "That new house on the far hilltop-can you see what color they've painted it?" Anne looked in the direction in which Jubal was pointing and answered, "It's white on this side." She did not inquire why Jubal had asked, nor make any comment. Jubal went onto Jill in normal tones, "You see? Anne is so thoroughly indoctrinated that it doesn't even occur to her to infer that the other side is probably white, too. All the King's horses and all the King's men couldn't force her to commit herself as to the far side - . . unless she herself went around to the other side and looked-and even then she wouldn't assume that it stayed whatever color it might be after she left because they might repaint it as soon as she turned her back,"


Heinlein's brilliance as a writer appears in many forms. Here, he had probably thought of the "Fair Witnesses" as the human equivalent of sophisticated surveillance cameras but, eventually, he described them as master epistemologists. People dedicated to truth, nothing but the truth, all the truth. 

Fair Witnesses could be seen as scientists, but freed of the encrustations of corruption, cronyism, hubris, and mere incompetence that plague modern science. They are followers of the scientific method in its pure form: truth is based on data, scrupulously collected and intelligently interpreted, and purged from interpretations based on personal pride or feelings. The result is the real reality. It is the exact opposite of Karl Rove's concept that "we can build our own reality" (maybe it was said by someone else, but that changes little to the idea). Where a Fair Witness would say that a house is "white on this side," Rove's followers would say, "it is the color I want you to believe it is." Which is as evil as evil can be,

If we had Fair Witnesses in our world, we could ask them questions about the problems that affect us nowadays. Climate change, pandemics, vaccines, mineral resources, pollution, etcetera We cannot trust scientists to give us reliable answers. They are too easily corrupted by money, driven by their personal pride, and swayed by their tendency to groupthink and their political beliefs. 

But could Fair Witnesses really exist? Clearly, it would not be easy to establish a corporation of truly incorruptible people, but it is a problem that has occurred many times in history. There have been several attempts to solve it, none was ever completely successful, but at least they went in the right direction. The tradition that may refer to is that of various forms of religious monasticism (note that Heinlein describes Fair Witnesses in his novels as wearing capes, as ancient monks did). Monks and Nuns are normally supposed to renounce worldly pursuits to devote themselves fully to spiritual work. Several traits of Western monasticism were clearly devised to avoid the corruption that plagued the Christian Church during medieval times. For instance, Franciscan friars were (and still are) prohibited from using money. 

A modern corporation of Fair Witnesses would not need to go to the extremes that some monastic orders force on their members and that, likely, create more problems than they solve. They would not have to live in material poverty although, clearly, they could not be allowed to manage money at the individual level -- otherwise, they would be too easy to corrupt. Nor they would have to be chaste, although they would have to follow some rules, maybe strict monogamy, to avoid that they could be bought with sex. Just like ancient monks, Fair Witnesses would be strictly linked to a monastery that would provide food, clothing, shelter, and all they need. Then, they would need to maintain strict equality among the members of their order. No Fair Witness should be considered better, wiser, or smarter than another Fair Witness. That would be the opposite of the obsession of modern scientists with their internal pecking order, measured on the basis of abstruse and arbitrary "indexes". 

If a corporation like this could be created, then we would have teams of "fair scientists" dedicated to knowledge, but not engaged in power games, or to amassing monetary wealth. They would engage mainly in the activity that we call "reviewing" to validate and make accessible to the public the work of ordinary scientists. They would be trustworthy, at least as much as human beings can be. 

Could it be done for real? Not impossible. After all, the existence of monks and monasteries was never planned. It just happened that in some historical period there was a need for monks, and they appeared. Often, their job was that of conserving and developing knowledge in an age when the secular organization had become unable to do that. Ancient monks were engaged in copying ancient manuscripts, but also in keeping and upgrading practical knowledge in various fields, from food preparation to manufacturing. It is the same job that modern Fair Witnesses would engage in. 

We know that ancient monks were not always up to the standards they were supposed to uphold. If you read, for instance, Boccaccio's "Decameron" you will notice how, during the 14th century, monks and priests were widely considered ignorant boors and sexual predators. Nevertheless, much of what has survived of the Classical Civilization to our times is due to the work of monks. Clearly, they were effective at their job, and we may imagine that Fair Witnesses could continue that tradition. 

Although there are no "formal" Fair Witnesses nowadays, not all scientists are evil wizards, either, nor they were in the past. I recently wrote a post on Albert Einstein and Alfred Wegener, showing how they remained faithful to their commitment to truth and science. As for modern scientists, there are many. Let me just cite one: Sara Gandini, Italian Researcher in Medical Statistics, true embodiment of the truth-seeker, a competent and trustworthy Fair Witness. I could also cite the much-maligned group of scientists whose private emails were stolen and disseminated in the story called "Climategate" in 2009. You may be critical of their sometimes elitist attitude but, definitely, in the whole corpus of thousands of emails, nowhere you could find even a hint of politically motivated manipulation of the data, or corruption. So, it is not impossible to return science to its original aim of a search for truth. 

We may also think that the Fair Witnesses would not necessarily be human beings -- especially considering that we are asking them to behave in ways that most humans find difficult. Artificial Intelligence could provide us with ways to analyze the world around us and separate the truth from legends. One such AI entity is called Leonardo, created by Domenico Rutigliano. It is still in the development stage, but you may enjoy trying it to see what it can do. At least, Leonardo can't be corrupted by money or by sex! And, here, you have Leonardo proclaiming its own worth, in an AI version of the Gospels' sentence,  "ego sum via veritas et vita"




  

Monday, July 18, 2022

From Limits to Growth to Regeneration 2030. An Article by Jeffrey Sachs


The 50th anniversary of the publication of "The Limits to Growth," in 1972, continues to generate interest. This is the original English version of the article by Jeffrey Sachs published in Italian on "Il Sole 24 Ore" -- courtesy of Susana Chacon. Above, the cover of the recent report to the Club of Rome, "Limits and Beyond", that re-examines the 1972 study and discusses its relevance for us


From Limits to Growth to Regeneration 2030

Jeffrey D. Sachs   |   May 26, 2022   |   Il Sole 24 Ore

Fifty years ago, Italian business leaders in the Club of Rome gave a jolt to the world in their path-breaking report Limits to Growth.  That thought leadership continues today as Italian business leaders launch Regeneration 2030, a powerful call for more holistic, ethical, and sustainable business practices to help the world achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Climate Agreement.  The 50-year journey from Limits of Growth to Regeneration 2030 shows how far we have come in understanding the critical challenges facing humanity, but also how far we still have to go to meet those challenges.
 
The half-century since Limits to Growth also defines my own intellectual journey, since I began university studies at Harvard University exactly 50 years ago as well.  One of the first books that I was assigned in my introductory economics course was Limits to Growth.  The book made a deep and lasting impression on me.  Here for the first time was a mathematical simulation of the world economy and nature viewed holistically, and using new systems dynamics modeling then underway at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). 
 
Limits to Growth warned that compound economic growth was on a path to overshoot the Earth’s finite resources, leading to a potential catastrophe in the 21st century.  My professor huffily dismissed the book and its dire warning.  The book, the professor told us, had three marks against it.  First, it was written by engineers rather than economists.  Second, it did understand the wonders of a self-correcting market system.  Third, it was written at MIT, not at Harvard!  Even at the time, I was not so sure about this easy dismissal of the book’s crucial warning.   
 
Fifty years later, and after countless international meetings, conferences, treaties, thousands of weighty research studies, and most importantly, after another half-century of our actual experience on the planet, we can say the following.  First, the growing world economy is indeed overshooting the Earth’s finite resources.  Scientists now speak of the global economy exceeding the Earth’s “planetary boundaries.”  Second, the violation of these planetary boundaries threatens the Earth’s physical systems and therefore humanity itself.  Specifically, humanity is warming the climate; destroying the habitat of millions of other species; and polluting the air, freshwater systems, soils, and oceans. Third, the market economy by itself will not stop this destruction.  Many of the most dangerous actions – such as emitting climate-changing greenhouse gases, destroying native forests, and adding chemical nutrients to the rivers and estuaries – do not come with market signals attached.  Earth is currently treated as a free dumping ground for many horrendously destructive practices. 

Twenty years after Limits to Growth, in 1992, the world’s governments assembled at the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit to adopt several environmental treaties, including the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Convention on Biological Diversity.  Twenty years later, in 2012, the same governments re-assembled in Rio to discuss the fact that the environmental treaties were not working properly.  Earth, they acknowledged, was in growing danger.  At that 2012 summit they committed to establish Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to guide humanity to safety.  In 2015, all 193 UN member states adopted the SDGs and a few weeks later signed the Paris Climate Agreement to implement the 1992 climate treaty.
 
In short, we have gone a half-century from the first warnings to today.  We have adopted many treaties and many global goals, but in practice, have still not changed course.  The Earth continues to warm, indeed at an accelerating rate.  The Earth’s average temperature is now 1.2°C warmer than in the pre-industrial period (dated as 1880-1920), and is higher than at any time during the past 10,000 years of civilization.  Warming has accelerated to more than 0.3°C per decade, meaning that in the next decade we will very possibly overshoot the 1.5°C warming limit that the world agreed to in Paris.    
 
A key insight for our future is that we now understand the difference between mere “economic growth” and real economic progress.  Economic growth focuses on raising traditional measures of national income, and is merely doing more of what we are already doing: more pollution, more greenhouse gas emissions, more destruction of the forests.  True economic progress aims to raise the wellbeing of humanity, by ending poverty, achieving a fairer and more just economy, ensuring the quality education for all children, preventing new disease outbreaks, and increasing living standards through sustainable technologies and business practices.  True economic progress aims to transform our societies and technologies to raise human wellbeing.  

Regeneration 2030 is a powerful business initiative led by Italian business leaders committed to real transformation.  Regeneration aims to learn from nature itself, by creating a more circular economy that eliminates wastes and pollution by recycling, reusing, and regenerating natural resources.  Of course, an economy can’t be entirely circular – it needs energy from the outside (otherwise violating the laws of thermodynamics).  But rather than the energy coming from digging up and burning fossil fuels, the energy of the future should come from the sun (including solar power, wind, hydroelectric, and sustainable bioenergy) and from other safe technologies.  Even safe man-made fusion energy may be within technical and economical reach in a few decades.   
 
On my part, I am trying as well to help regenerate economics, to become a new and more holistic academic discipline of sustainable development.  Just as business needs to be more holistic and aligned with the SDGs, economics as an intellectual discipline needs to recognize that the market economy must be embedded within an ethical framework, and that politics must aim for the common good.  Scientific disciplines must work together, joining forces across the natural sciences, policy sciences, human sciences, and the arts.  Pope Francis has spurred the call for such a new and holistic economics by encouraging young people to adopt a new “Economy of Francesco,” inspired by the love of nature and humanity of St. Francis of Assisi. 
 
Sustainable Development, Regenerative Economy, and the Economy of Francesco are, at the core, a new way of harnessing our know-how, 21st century technologies, and ethics, to promote human wellbeing.  The first principle is the common good – and that means that we must start with peace and cooperation.  Ending the war in Ukraine at the negotiating table without further delay, and finding global common purpose between the West and East, is a good place for us to begin anew. 

Published in Il Sole 24 Ore for the Trento Festival of Economics, June 4, 2022

Monday, July 11, 2022

The Mystery of the Mousetrap: Of Chain Reactions and Complex Systems




The "mousetrap chain reaction" from Disney's 1957 movie "Our friend, the Atom." A fascinating experiment that brings a curious question: Why is the mousetrap the only thing you can buy at a hardware store that can create a chain reaction? Another mousetrap-related mystery is why, with so many experiments done, so far nobody had tried to make measurements to quantify the results? Eventually, two Italian researchers, Ilaria Perissi and Ugo Bardi re-examined this old experiment, showing how it can be seen as much more than a representation of a nuclear reaction, but a paradigm of the behavior of complex systems. 


Walt Disney's 1957 movie, "Our Friend the Atom," was an absolute masterpiece in terms of the dissemination of scientific knowledge. It was, of course, sponsored by the US government. It was supposed to promote their energy policy which, at the time, was based on the concept of "atoms for peace." So, the movie was propaganda but, at the same time, it is stunning to think that in the 1950s, the US government was making an effort to obtain an informed consent from its citizens, instead of just scaring them into submission! Things change, indeed. But we can still learn a lot from this old movie. 

So, "Our Friend, the Atom" is a romp through what was known about atomic physics at the time. The images are stunning, the explanations clear, and the story is fascinating with a mix of hard science and fantasy, such as the story of the genie and the fisherman. I went through my studies in chemistry having in mind the images from the movie. Still today, I tend to see in my mind protons as red, neutrons as white, and electrons as green, as they were shown in the book. 

One of the fascinating elements of the story was the chain reaction made with mousetraps. I was so impressed by that experiment that I always had in mind to redo it and, finally, last year, my colleague Ilaria Perissi agreed to give me a hand. Together, we built our wonderful, new, improved, mousetrap machine! We braved the risks of flying balls and we managed to make our experiments with only minor damage to our knuckles. And we were the first, it seems, to make quantitative measurements of this old experiment. 

I will tell you about our results below but, first, a bit of history. The idea of the mousetrap chain reaction was proposed for the first time in 1947 by Richard Sutton (1900-1966). He was a physicist working at Haverford College, in Pennsylvania: a maverick physics teacher who loved to create demonstrations of scientific phenomena. And, no doubt, the idea to use mousetraps to simulate a nuclear chain reaction was nothing less than a stroke of genius. Too bad that Sutton is not mentioned at all in Disney's movie. 
 
Here is how Sutton proposed the experiment: 



Sutton seems to have actually performed his demonstration in front of his students, although we have no pictures or records of it. We tried to use the same setup, but we found that the corks are too light to trigger the traps, and the reaction dies out immediately. It works only if the traps are not fixed to the table and are left free to fly around, Indeed, Sutton doesn't mention that he fixed the traps to the table. The "flying trap problem" plagues most of the experimental setups of this experiment. But if the chain reaction is generated by flying traps, it is not anymore a simulation of an atomic chain reaction. 

After that Sutton published his idea, performing the mousetrap experiment in public seems to have become fashionable.  You can find another illustration of the setup in the 1955 book by Margaret Hyde: "Atoms today and Tomorrow.


Note how the experiment has changed, probably because of the problems to make it work with corks. Now there are no corks, but a marble is used to trigger one trap, which is linked to other mousetraps by a "heavy thread." Maybe it works, but it is not what Sutton had proposed, and it is hard to present it as a simulation of anything. 

So, in 1956, the filmmakers at Disney were probably scratching their heads and thinking of how they could make the mousetrap experiment work. Eventually, they decided to use ping-pong balls and a large number of mousetraps. You can see the results in the movie: traps are flying all over. Same problem: this is not what the experiment was supposed to do. And there is a reason: also, in this case, we tried to use the same setup, and we found that ping pong balls are too light to cause traps to snap. If the traps are fixed to the table, the experiment just fizzles out after triggering one or two traps at most. 

Strangely, so few people noted the problem: an exception was the nuclear physicist Ivan Oelrich, but that was in 2010! Most of the mousetrap experiments you can find on the Web (and there are many) are of the "flying-traps" type. It is a problem with science for the public: it is often flashy and spectacular, and signifying nothing. 

We found only two experiments on the Web where the traps were fixed to the supporting plate, as they should have been. But, even in these two cases, no quantitative measurements were performed. Strange, but there is this curse with popular science to be often despised and, sometimes, carry a negative mark on a physicist's career. 

But never mind that. Your dream team, Ilaria and Ugo, engaged in making the experiment in the correct way, with fixed traps, and at the same time measuring the parameters of the experiment. Our trick was to use relatively heavy wooden balls that could nicely trigger the traps. We also enlarged the area of the metal triggers using cardboard disks. Then, we used commercial cell phone cameras to record the results. 


It took a lot of patience: it is not easy to load 50 traps with 100 wooden balls, avoiding that they start going off when you don't want them to go off. To say nothing about the gate snapping directly onto the experimenter's fingers. Painful, but not a cause of permanent damage. We did that in the name of science, and it worked! Of course, some reviewers were horrified by a paper that was not using expensive equipment and complicated and mysterious calculations. But, with patience, we succeeded in seeing it published in a serious scientific journal. 

Excuse me for being proud of our brainchild, but I truly found it elegant how we could fit our data with a simple mathematical model. And how the trap setup mirrors not only the chain reaction in a nuclear explosion, but also several other phenomena that flare up and then subside. For instance, the trap array may be seen as a mechanical simulator of the Hubbert curve, with the traps as oil wells and the balls as extracted oil. It can also simulate whaling, various cases of overexploitation of natural resources, the diffusion of memes in cyberspace, and more. Not bad for an object, the mousetrap, that had been developed with just one purpose: killing mice. 


We conclude our paper on "Systems" with the following paragraph: 
Mousetraps seem to be the only simple mechanical device that can be bought at a hardware store that can be used to create a chain reaction. We do not know why this phenomenon is so rare in hardware stores, but chain reactions are surely common in complex adaptive systems. We believe that the results we reported in this paper can be helpful to understanding such systems and, if nothing else, to illustrate how chain reactions can easily go out of control, not only in a critical mass of fissile uranium but also in similar dynamics occurring in the ecosystem that go under the name of “overshoot” and “overexploitation”.
Yes, really, why are mousetraps so exceptional? Who would have thought?
 
Here is the post that I published a few months ago on this subject. 

The Mousetrap Experiment: Modeling the Memesphere

 Reposted from "The Seneca Effect" Nov 22, 2021

 Ilaria Perissi with our mousetrap-based mechanical model of a fully connected network. You can find a detailed description of our experiment on ArXiv


You may have seen the "mousetrap experiment" performed as a way to demonstrate the mechanism of the chain reaction that takes place in nuclear explosions. One of its earliest versions appeared in the Walt Disney movie "Our Friend, the Atom" in 1957. 


We (myself and Ilaria Perissi) recently redid the experiment with 50 mousetraps and 100 wooden balls. And here it is.

But why bother redoing this old experiment (proposed for the first time in1947)? One reason was that nobody had ever tried a quantitative measurement. That is, measuring the number of triggered traps and flying balls as a function of time. So, we did exactly that. We used cell phone slow-motion cameras to measure the parameters of the experiment and we used a system dynamics model to fit the data. It worked beautifully. You can find a pre-print of the article that we are going to publish on ArXiv. As you can see in the figure, below, the experimental data and the model go reasonably well together. It is not a sophisticated experiment, but it is the first time that it was attempted.



But the main reason why we engaged in this experiment is that it is not just about nuclear reactions. It is much more general and it describes a kind of network that's called "fully connected," that is where all nodes are connected to all other nodes. In the set-up, the traps are nodes of the network, the balls are elements that trigger the connection between nodes. It is a kind of communication based on "enhanced" or "positive" feedback.

This experiment can describe a variety of systems. Imagine that the traps are oil wells. Then, the balls are the energy created by extracting the oil. And you can use that energy to dig and exploit more wells. The result is the "bell-shaped" Hubbert curve, nothing less!  You can see it in the figure above: it is the number of flying balls "produced" by the traps.

We found this kind of curve for a variety of socioeconomic systems, from mineral extraction to fisheries (for the latter, you can see our (mine and Ilaria's) book "The Empty Sea." So, the mousetraps can describe also the behavior of fisheries and have something to do with the story of Moby Dick as told by Melville.

You could also say the mousetrap network is a holobiont because holobionts are non-hierarchical networks of entities that communicate with each other. It is a kind of holobiont that exists in nature, but it is not common. Think of a flock of birds foraging in a field. One bird sees something suspicious, it flies up, and in a moment all the birds are flying away. We didn't have birds to try this experiment, but we found a clip on the Web that shows exactly this phenomenon.

It is a chain reaction. The flock is endowed with a certain degree of intelligence. It can process a signal and act on it. You can see in the figure our measurement of the number of flying birds. It is a logistic function, the integral of the bell-shaped curve that describes the flying balls in the mousetrap experiments



In Nature, holobionts are not normally fully connected. Their connections are short-range, and signals travel more slowly through the network. It is often called "swarm intelligence" and it can be used to optimize systems. Swarm intelligence does transmit a signal, but it doesn't amplify it out of control, as a fully connected network does, at least normally. It is a good control system: bacterial and ant colonies use it. Our brains are much more complicated: they have short-range connections but also long-range ones and probably also collective electromagnetic connections. 

One system that is nearly fully connected is the world wide web. Imagine that traps are people while the balls are memes. Then what you are seeing with the mousetrap experiment is a model of a meme going viral on the Web. Ideas (also called memes) flare-up on the Web when they are stimulated it is the power of propaganda that affects everybody.

It is an intelligent system because it can amplify a signal. That is that's the way it reacts to an external perturbation. You could see the mousetraps as an elaborate detection system for stray balls. But it can only flare up and then decline. It can't be controlled. 

That's the problem with our modern propaganda system: it is dominated by memes flaring up out of control. The main actors in this flaring are those "supernodes" (the Media) that have a huge number of long-range connections. That can do a lot of damage: if the meme that goes out of control is an evil meme and it implies, say, going to war against someone, or exterminating someone. It happened and keeps happening again as long as the memesphere is organized the way it is, as a fully connected network. Memes just go out of control.

All that means we are stuck with a memesphere that's completely unable to manage complex systems. And yet, that's the way the system works. It depends on these waves of out-of-control signals that sweep the web and then become accepted truths. Those who manage the propaganda system are very good at pushing the system to develop this kind of memetic waves, usually for the benefit of their employers. 

Can the memesphere be re-arranged more effectively -- turning it into a good holobiont? Probably yes. Holobionts are evolutionary entities that nobody ever designed. They have been designed by trial and error as a result of the disappearance of the unfit. Holobionts do not strive for the best, they strive for the less bad. It may happen that the same evolutionary pressure will act on the human memesphere. 

The trick should consist in isolating the supernodes (the media) in such a way as to reduce their evil influence on the Web. And, lo and behold, it may be happening: the great memesphere may be rearranging itself in the form of a more efficient, locally connected holobiont.  Haven't you heard how many people say they don't watch TV anymore? Nor do they open the links to the media on the Web. That's exactly the idea. Do that, and maybe you will start a chain reaction in which everyone will get rid of their TV. And the world will be much better.