Sunday, August 28, 2022

The Age of Exterminations - IX: How to Create Your own State

 


The Japanese "Chushingura" (忠臣蔵) is a fictionalized version of the story of the 47 ronin who chose to avenge the death of their master, even at the cost of their lives. The real event took place in 1701 in Edo (above, an interpretation by Utagawa Hiroshige). Much of the emotional value of the Chushingura derives from the contrast between the ronin, who saw the world, in terms of personal honor, and the government, which saw only laws and their rigid enforcement. Would it be possible to contrast the dominance of the state by creating new types of social structures, maybe different kinds of states, that replicate some of the characteristics of the ancient, honor-based associations? Not an easy task, of course, but things always change, and the future could bring big surprises.    


States are the most ruthless killing machines ever created in the history of humankind. They are managed by evil entities called "governments" that claim the right to seize your property, force you to speak a specific language, bomb entire populations to smithereens, send you to die in a humid trench in the mountains, and much more. Of course, you can always tell them that you are displeased with what they are doing and that, one day, you'll punish them by marking a cross on a certain symbol on a piece of paper called a ballot. And that will serve them well. Sure. 

Once, there was the possibility to quit. Motivated groups of people could flee from the band of psychopathic murderers who claimed to be their masters and settle somewhere else to create a new state. In the past, the Pilgrim Fathers did that, and later the Mormons. It didn't always work so well, but at least they had a chance. But now, of course, where in the world could you run? The only places theoretically free from governments are micro-islands or abandoned oil drilling platforms. There would seem to be no hope. And yet, there could be ways if we think out of the box. 

First, what is a state, exactly? In the modern version, a state is defined by the land it controls: it has rigid boundaries called "borders." But what really keeps the state together is its control of money. The state issues money (actually, central banks do that, also empowering ordinary banks to do the same. But it is all under state control, anyway). Then, the state takes back the money it has issued in the form of tax, fines, and other forms of extortion. It is this circular loop that keeps citizens bound to the state in a relationship that we can only define as a soft version of slavery (maybe not even so soft). You need money to survive, and the only way to get money is to obey the state. In recent times, we have seen states moving directly to seize the bank accounts of those citizens who were deemed guilty of dissent. It was a way to remark that citizens don't really own the money they think they own. All the money belongs to the state. (*)

Because of the enormous power of money, everything inside the borders of a state is absolutely, completely, and irreversibly under the control of the state. Outside, there is another state, just as absolutist, suspicious, paranoid, and ruled by the same kind of murderous psychopaths. If you are the offspring of citizens of a certain state, you are by definition a slave to the government of that state. It is called "ius sanguinis." Some states apply the ius soli, which states that citizens are those people born inside the border of the state. It changes nothing to the fact that you have no choice. 

But it was not always like this. In ancient times, your place in society was not defined by physical boundaries and not even by money, but by your allegiance to a liege lord to whom you pledged fealty. A pledge of fealty was no joke. It involved a deep bond of reciprocal obligations based on personal honor. To realize how deep that bond could be, you just have to think of the story of the forty-seven Japanese ronin, who took as a mission to avenge the death of their lord. Their action was a direct challenge to the power of the Japanese state, which reacted by sentencing all of them to death.

Unlike modern citizenship in a state, fealty was, within some limits, a choice. Your "state" was where your lord was, independently of fixed borders. You can see an echo of these ancient uses in the "Dune" novel by Frank Herbert. It is when the Emperor orders the house of Atreids to leave their possession on planet Caledon and move to Arrakis. The followers of the Atreids are not bound to Caledon, they all move with their lords to Arrakis.

For some reason, most likely because of the pervasive corruption brought by money, the idea of pledging fealty to a noble house is completely out of fashion, nowadays. But things constantly change. States have become such monstrosities that many people are reasoning about replacing them with something else or, at least, making them a little more flexible and less violent and bloodthirsty. And here comes a possibility: the Metaverse.   

I know that, for many of us, the term "Metaverse" is nearly the same thing as enslavement by a totalitarian state. But when a new technology appears, you never know how it may evolve and what it may lead to. On this subject, I had a flash of understanding when I read the article "Virtual Reality and the Network State" by Ryan Matters, which just appeared on "Off Guardian." Absolutely worth reading. Let me report here some of the points that Matters makes, citing from his post. 

The term “metaverse” was first used by futurist and Science fiction writer, Neal Stephenson in his 1992 book Snow Crash to describe a “theoretical” 3D virtual reality that ordinary people could occupy. ....

A deeper look at Stephenson’s work reveals some interesting themes, for the list of topics explored in his books reads like the meeting agenda from a closed session at Davos; climate change, global pandemics, biological warfare, nanotechnology, geo-engineering, robotics, cryptography, virtual reality, the list goes on.
In fact, not only has Stephenson written about the “metaverse” before it became a thing, but some people even credit his 1999 book Cryptonomicon with sketching the basis for the concept of cryptocurrency!

Like certain science fiction writers before him, Stephenson is clearly privy to more than he lets on. And his close relationships with billionaire technocrats like Bezos and Gates only fuel my suspicions that he’s not merely a novelist with a good imagination and an uncanny knack for predicting the future.

But alas, we must return to the topic at hand – the metaverse, a virtual world where
you can go about many of your everyday life’s day-to-day interactions and occurrences – in your avatar form. This form can be a human, animal, or something more abstract with its customizable appearance.
Yes, that’s right. You can be whatever you want to be. Your avatar (a word popularised by Stephenson!) could be a boy, girl, dog, buffalo, toaster – anything you like!

You can then interact with other people’s avatars in this virtual world. In the Metaverse, you can buy and sell land, attend concerts and go to museums, build a house, and more.

As the work of Neal Stephenson shows, the “metaverse” is not a new idea. The concept has been gradually leaked into mainstream culture over the last twenty plus years. Just think of video games like Second Life and movies like The Matrix or Ready Player One.

It was only last year (2021) that Facebook rebranded as “meta”, positioning itself for a future in which it will play a leading role in developing the infrastructure to realise the metaverse.
Still not sure how this all fits together? Simple: With a virtual world like the “metaverse” comes virtual money and virtual goods, i.e., cryptocurrency and NFTs. Without cryptocurrency, the metaverse would not be possible. (...)
Apart from the concerning philosophical and psychological implications of living life in a VR, web3 brings with it all kinds of new possible futures, some of which may actually be an improvement to the way society currently functions, with its reliance upon corrupt central banks and infiltrated governments.

Futurist and former CTO of Coinbase, Balaji Srinivasan, envisions a world in which the blockchain has allowed online communities to “materialise” into the real world as independent, sovereign states. He calls this concept the “network state” and he defines it as follows:
The Network State is a digital nation launched first as an online community before materialising physically on land after reaching critical mass.
In other words, the “network state”, according to Srinivasan, will be the next version of the nation state. He maintains that, due to the decentralised nature of the blockchain, network states will begin as geographically decentralised communities, connected via the internet.

This community will be made up of regular people who believe in a common cause; it will be a group that is capable of collective action. Eventually, the community will begin to build up its own, internal economy using cryptocurrency.

This will allow them to start holding in-person meet-ups in the real world and eventually crowd-fund apartments, houses and even towns to establish co-living facilities and bring digital community members into the real world.

The final step of the process is for the new community to negotiate diplomatic recognition from pre-existing governments, increasing sovereignty and becoming a true network state.

This leads us to Srinivasan’s more complex definition of the concept:
A network state is a social network with a moral innovation, a sense of national consciousness, a recognized founder, a capacity for collective action, an in-person level of civility, an integrated cryptocurrency, a consensual government limited by a social smart contract, an archipelago of crowdfunded physical territories, a virtual capital, and an on-chain census that proves a large enough population, income, and real-estate footprint to attain a measure of diplomatic recognition.
Srinivasan’s philosophy is an interesting one, and despite being a self-proclaimed transhumanist, he just may have outlined a realistic route to gaining independence from the centrally-controlled, ever-more-authoritarian, world state.
Is it really possible? At the very least, it is an interesting possibility. If you think about that, all states are virtual. The same is true for money: it is a purely virtual entity.  Now, the key point of a metaverse state would be an integrated cryptocurrency based on blockchain technology. There is an interesting parallel between the concept of "honor" and of "blockchain."  Your honor is determined mainly by what you did in the past. As Maximus Decimus Meridius noted, "what you do in life, echoes in eternity." It is just like a blockchain that cannot be altered once it is established.

Of course, like the real state, the metastate would not be just virtual: it would extend into the real world with real entities. It could have a police, laws, real real estate, and more. It could even have a real-world army and engage in diplomatic treaties with other meta- or real states. The main difference is that virtual states would have no borders. They would co-exist in the same areas, although their citizens may tend to live in specific regions. 

It is not as farfetched as it may seem at first sight: the idea is floating in the memesphere. For instance, Neil Degrassse Tyson proposed in 2016 a virtual state that he called "#Rationalia" whose constitution would consist of a single line " All policy shall be based on the weight of evidence." The reactions were overwhelmingly negative for several good reasons, mainly because Tyson's idea lacked the fundamental element of a metastate, the integrated cryptocurrency. But metastates already exist in an embryonic form: they are called "corporations." More specifically, they are "multinational corporations." What they need to become full-fledged metastates is their own currency. That would be a small step for a corporation, but a big step for humankind. Companies are not alien from issuing their own currency: do you remember the song by Merle Travis, "16 tons"? The protagonist of the song says he "owes his soul to the company store." It means that the company was implementing a closed currency circuit in which the salaries of the workers could only be spent at the company store. In a sense, it issued its own currency. 

If we survive the global collapse, and if traditional states keep in their evil ways, one day we might really choose to become citizens of a virtual state. Would that free us from the paranoid monsters that now rule the world? Who knows? The future always surprises you!


h/t Allan Stromfeldt Christensen

(*) The 2022 decision of the Canadian government to freeze the personal accounts of anyone linked with the anti-vaccine mandate protests, was special because it had rarely happened before that a government would seize citizens' assets for purely ideological reasons. On the other hand, once you decide that the government is the law, and the law is the government, then it is the same thing as a fine. You are fined because you behave in ways the government doesn't want you to behave, and that's the way of the state. As for the state taking money directly from citizens' bank accounts, the first case was probably in Italy in 1992.

______________________________________________________________

A list of the posts on "Seneca Effects" of the series "The Age of Exterminations














Friday, August 26, 2022

The Limits to Growth 50 years later: an Indispensable Book

 

A Comment by Bernard Paquito on the New Report of the club of Rome, "Limits and Beyond" 
Reproduced with the kind permission of the author


Bardi & Pereira did a great job with this collective book: Limits and Beyond. Authors have different backgrounds, cultures, point of views about the Limits to Growth consequences and perspectives.

For instance, the first chapter is absolutely necessaryBardi presents a brief history of this report, and most importantly a history of critics and misinterpretations (e.g., market vs physical factors in economy).

Other authors highlighted that the original messages of the LtG book were misunderstood: “the message of overshoot caused by decision delays was not picked up by the Limits to Growth readership”. They remind us that the most important variable of Limits to Growth was the well-being of people and not the gross domestic product.

Dennis Meadow’s chapter presents a short answer for the most frequent questions about the Limits to Growth, e.g., How can the world’s population be reduced ? Does World3 take wars into account ?

Also, a chapter (written by Gianfranco Bologna) presents the links between Limits to Growth readership, understanding and the current model of Planetary Boundaries, Safe Operating Space and Doughnut Economics.

Other chapters introduce the authors' personal experience and reception of Limits to Growth in South Africa, Asian countries or soviet bloc.

According to the Conway’s law, Pezeshki explains the roles of empathy (at different levels in a system) to provoke social changes.

Finally, Gaya Herrington summarize his work about the checking of Limits to Growth with current data and presents a nuanced vision of tested scenarios. She performed an updated World3 modelization with following variables: population, fertility, mortality, pollution, industrial output, food, services, non-renewable natural resources, human welfare and ecological footprint. Her discussion is brilliant.

If we do not change the framing through which we formulate the questions and their responses there is a little chance that the general orientation of our relationships (among humans, with life, with time) could change.” Carlos Alvarez Pereira p259

Monday, August 22, 2022

Pixie Dust and Overpopulation: What are the Origins of the "One Child" China's Population Policy?

 

Often, I have the sensation that we live in a world of pure magic. That everything we think we know is the result of a fairy who spread some pixie dust on the real world, transforming it into an alternate reality where people can fly. Yet, it is so incredibly easy to convince people of more or less anything without bothering to bring any proof. A good example is the story that the Chinese government developed its "one-child" population policy as a result of the influence of the Club of Rome and their evil book "The Limits to Growth." It is so common on the Web that it seems to be an ascertained fact. But, is it? Or is it just a legend? For more details on the influence of the "Limits to Growth" report on world policies, you can read the recent review of the whole story titled "Limits and Beyond"


When it comes to the Chinese "One-Child" policy, two statements seem to be commonly repeated on the Web. One is that it was an abject failure, the other is that it was inspired -- or even driven -- by the evil think tank called "The Club of Rome" and by their even more evil book titled "The Limits to Growth" (1972). They are followers of the arch-evil enemy of the people, Thomas Malthus, the first would-be exterminator of humankind. 

If nothing else, this story shows how easy it is to transform facts into narratives. With a sprinkle of pixie dust, everything can be transformed into the archetypal fight between good and evil, which seems to be the current way of seeing the world in the West. It would be a long story to examine this attitude of Westerners (Simon Sheridan has some good hints, I think). In any case, the legend of an evil cabal that led the Chinese government to adopt the one-child policy  -- and that it failed -- is appealing because it provides us with a comfortable image of bad guys who are both evil and hapless. 

It is easy to find various versions of this story on the Web. A recent one was written in 2021 by Dominic Pino for the "National Review." It shows how easy it is to use pixie dust to build a story that's nearly completely fact-free. So, according to Pino, 

China’s population policy is one of the best examples of the weakness and failure of central planning. Based on the best information available at the time and the opinions of experts around the world, China instituted strict population-control measures to limit most families to have only one child. The policy then stuck around for much too long and now presents a serious threat to Chinese society.

Then, 

Naturally, there were unintended consequences. Now that China needs to increase its birthrate, the Chinese government is having a hard time persuading its people to have more children. The government lifted the one-child policy in 2015, allowing any married couple to have up to two children. Despite raising the limit, the 2020 census showed that the number of births fell again — for the fourth straight year.

And therefore: 

The failure of the one-child policy has been conclusively demonstrated.

There is so much that's wrong with these statements that you don't know where to start criticizing them. The main point, I think, is how self-contradictory Pino's evaluation is. If the objective of the one-child policy was to reduce the birth rate to stop population growth, then it worked: the Chinese population DID stop growing and now is declining -- so much that China now needs to increase its birth rate. Then, how can a policy that was lifted in 2015 be still "a threat to Chinese society"? Do the Chinese tend to follow non-existing laws? That is, do they still bind the feet of their young girls to make them smaller? Do they still beat drums on eclipses to chase away the invisible dragon that's eating the sun? These contradictions are just buried by the pixie dust liberally sprinkled on the story. 

Then, is there any truth in the idea that the policy was based on "the opinions of experts around the world"? Did the Chinese really seek advice from Western scientists? Pino refers to the work of "The Club of Rome" and its "The Limits to Growth" report, published in 1972, saying that, 

In 1978, Song Jian, a missile scientist who had gained the trust of the governing elites, went to Helsinki for the Seventh Triennial World Congress of the International Federation of Automatic Control. That completely normal-sounding group was composed of Western scientists who had bought the Club of Rome’s arguments about the need for population control

This sentence is lifted almost verbatim from an article written earlier on by Susan Grenhalgh (2005), who also stated that: "....the Congress was infused with the spirit of scientific certainty, progress and messianic fervour about the potential of control science to solve the world’s problems,” and that it was "tied to the well-known work of the Club of Rome," including "a global systems model in which population growth was destroying the environment and required strong, even drastic, control."

There is a lot of pixie dust, here. There was indeed a congress of the IFAC in Helsinki in 1978. It was a normal congress that lasted for 4 days and you can still peruse its proceedings. You'll see that 294 papers were presented and discussed. Only a few of these papers are available online, so it is not impossible that some of them mentioned or discussed "The Limits to Growth" study. But there was no presentation dedicated to population growth, nor there were members of the Club of Rome among the speakers or the participants (I checked with the original authors of "The Limits to Growth," they didn't even know that such a meeting had been held). So, there is no support at all for Pino having transformed the congress into a "group" that "was composed of Western scientists who had bought the Club of Rome’s arguments about the need for population control." Of course, in the 1970s, control engineering was a new field, and it had sparked enthusiasm among scientists. But the "messianic fervour" that Susan Greenhalgh mentions seems to exist only in her mind. There is no trace of anything like that in the proceedings.

But, as usual, once you blow off the pixie dust, some shreds of truth start appearing.  In an earlier paper, Susan Greenhalgh describes how a top-level Chinese scientist, named Song Jian, traveled to Europe in the late 1970s. Did he attend the 1978 Helsinki congress? His name does not appear in the proceedings, but he may well have been there. Then, it is not clear whether he was directly exposed to the work of the Club of Rome, although he might have been. In a citation reported by Greenhalgh, Song only refers to the book titled "Blueprint for Survival," published in 1972. It was a study that followed lines similar to those of the slightly later "The Limits to Growth" but that didn't use world models and had nothing to do with the Club of Rome

Greenhalgh proposes that, after getting back to China, Song Jian developed a model of the Chinese economy equivalent to "The Limits to Growth." It is not impossible, but there is no evidence for that. It is clear from what she writes, that Greenhalgh has no training in the kind of modeling used for control engineering. All she shows as proof is this diagram from a 1981 paper. 


But this is not necessarily the output of a world model. It seems to be a much simpler extrapolation of population trends. Correctly, the diagram shows that for birth rates lower than about 2, the population tends to decline. The reverse occurs for higher birth rates. For birthrates remaining at around 3 per woman, the Chinese population could have reached 3 billion before the end of the 21st century. But to arrive to these conclusions, paper and pencil calculations would have been sufficient. 

In practice, it is likely that, during his trip to Europe, Song had been exposed to a general view of the Western way of thinking in the 1970s and 1980s that saw overpopulation as a major problem. The Chinese may have been even more sensitive to the issue: surely they still remember how the famines of 1951 and 1961 had killed tens of millions of people in China (note: the commonly reported number of deaths may have been greatly exaggerated as a result of Western propaganda. Nevertheless, famines were endemic in agrarian China). So, when Song developed some simple models to extrapolate population trends in China, the government decided that they had to do something to avoid that the Chinese population could reach levels that would have been impossible to feed. So, they decided that they had to push the Chinese families toward lower birth rates. And that's what they did. 

The Chinese were probably those who took the most radical approach to curb population growth, but other countries reacted to the problem, too. In South America, the Mexican President, Luis Echeverría (1970-1976) implemented some policies to reduce the number of children, at the time of the order of 8/10 per woman. Apparently, that was done as a direct result of the work by Victor Urquidi, a member of the Club of Rome. So, in this case (and probably only in this case) the Club of Rome had a direct influence on the population policies of a major country. 

Other countries, instead, ignored the problem. In the Soviet Union, scientists knew about the "Limits to Growth" study and created their own versions of it. But the Soviet Union was a vast and scarcely populated country so, not surprisingly, the Soviet government didn't see an overpopulation problem and paid no attention to them. In the West, instead, governments preferred to react in the way they knew best: they buried "The Limits to Growth" under a thick layer of pixie dust (aka "propaganda") and then they ignored it. 

The interesting part of the story, though, is that, no matter what governments did or didn't do, the results were the same. You can see in the graph (data from the World Bank) how countries close to China had lower birth rates, despite not having implemented birth control policies (Taiwan is not listed in the World Bank data, but it shows the same behavior). 



During the past 50 years or so, the birth rate declined rapidly all over the areas that were called the "first world" (the West) and the "Second World" (The Soviet bloc and China). This trend was called the "demographic transition" and didn't need draconian measures by governments to occur. All the countries of the world are facing the same transition. "Third world" countries are just arriving a little later. 

So, you see? The story is rather simple: things went the way they had to go. No need for evil guys plotting to destroy humankind. That's just pixie dust liberally spread over everything, as usual. 


h/t Susana Chacón, Li X, Dennis Meadows, and Jorgen Randers

To know more about the origins of world models, and their relevance for us, nowadays, you can read the recent report to the Club of Rome titled "Limits and Beyond"






Friday, August 19, 2022

Drowning in Magic. How our Leaders are Possessed by the Same Demons they have Unleashed on us

 


Yesterday, for some reason, I was rethinking to Einstein's E=mc2 iconic formula. It is fascinating how popular it has become, and how everyone believes it, even people who are fully convinced that the lunar landings never took place. But what it does actually mean, well, it is another story, and not a simple one. For a curious coincidence, today I saw it shown in Simon Sheridan's blog with the caption "Dude, it’s totally magic." Perfectly correct. Sheridan is producing a series of extremely interesting posts on the magical foundations of our society. This one is correctly titled "Drowning on Magic"


Simon Sheridan at his best. Are our leaders possessed by the same demons they are unleashing against us? An excerpt from his post at 

"A key point to bear in mind is that the elites have been practising a form of Magic that had been accidentally discovered through Freudian psychology. But they don’t call it Magic. They call it marketing or public relations or spin or nudge units or whatever. The typical conspiracy theorist explanation is that they are all psychopaths who are using manipulative tactics to confuse and deceive the public. No doubt some of them are psychopaths. But if we think about this in Magical terms and we assume none of them know what they are doing when it comes to Magic, then another possibility opens up: they are possessed by their own Magic.
The robotic hypnosis of a Justin Trudeau with his ever-perfect, so serious, speech intonation or a Jacinda Ardern with her automatic “smile” or here in Victoria with our very own political terminator, Dictator Dan Andrews, betray all the hallmarks of Magical possession. Modern politics has become based almost entirely on Magic to the exclusion of reason and logic. Why else would politicians continually back projects that have no chance of working (like stopping a respiratory virus with an experimental vaccine). This would make them not just psychopaths, but imbeciles too.
Politics is now nothing more than a power game and Magic is power. But when you practice politics as nothing more than a power game, when you are willing to say anything, absolutely anything, to hold onto power, you must give up any last vestige of the Mental Consciousness, which is to say any last grasp you might have on reason, logic and law. That seems to me to be a pretty good description of where the leaders of most western nations are right now."

Sunday, August 14, 2022

Europe: the Empire that wasn't

 


Napoleon Bonaparte in full imperial regalia. He got close to creating a European Empire, but he failed in the end. He faced the same strategic problem that other would-be European Emperors faced: having to fight on two opposite fronts at the same time, against Russia and against Britain. At present, the European Union (another form of European Empire) is facing the same strategic problems And it is being defeated, although in an economic war rather than in a conventional military one.


One of the fascinating things about history is how people tend to repeat the same mistakes over and over. A couple of generations are more than sufficient for leaders to forget everything their predecessors did, and run straight into a new -- but similar -- catastrophe. It is also called "history never repeats itself, but it does rhyme."

Then, among the fascinating sections of history, there is how people tend to get together to form those entities that we call "states" or, if they are large, "empires." They grow, they decline, they collapse, in a dance that lasts for centuries and that normally implies war, exterminations, and great suffering for large numbers of people. But most people seem to think that these purely virtual entities are important enough that human lives can be sacrificed to them. On this, history has been rhyming for a long time. 

Europe was often on the verge of becoming an empire, a single state with a centralized government. But that never happened. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Charlemagne was perhaps the first to have a go at a European Empire, during the 8th century AD. His "Holy Roman Empire" survived for nearly a millennium, but never included all of Western Europe. Then it was the turn of Napoleon Bonaparte, then the German Kaiser, then the German Nazis, and, recently, the European Union that, for the first time, didn't rely on military might. They were all failures, including the European Union -- an entity that nobody seems to want any longer. 

How should we see these events? A failure or a blessing? Of course, empires are not benevolent entities, and sometimes they do great damage. But a central European government might have avoided at least some of the bloodiest episodes of internecine European wars. It might also have injected some rules into the otherwise lawless worldwide expansion of the European states. The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500-1558) enacted laws designed to stop the enslavement and the extermination of the Native Americans by the European colonists. Charles V ruled only part of Europe and these laws were ineffective. But we may imagine that, if they had been backed by a strong central authority, they could have helped the Native Americans to survive the European onslaught. 

So, why couldn't Western European states create a central government? After all, when it was a question of making some money by military conquest, they didn't find that it was so difficult to fight together. It happened during the crusades (12th-4th century), the attack on Russia by Napoleon in 1812, the Crimean war (1853-1856), the attack on China during the Boxer rebellion (1899 -1901), and a few more cases. But, normally, the European states preferred to carve their own empires and destroy each other in internecine wars. 

One major problem for a European government is simply geographical. Europe is a peninsula of Eurasia that ends with the Urals, but that's just a convention. Are the Russians Europeans? In many ways, yes, except when their Western neighbors decide that they are barbarians to be exterminated (as during WW2) or, at least, people whose culture is to be rejected or annihilated (as it is happening nowadays). So, where is the Eastern border of Europe? Nobody knows, and that's a sure recipe for war. 

Then, on the Western side, is Britain part of Europe? Geography says that it is, but do the British consider themselves Europeans? The best that can be said is that they normally do, but only when it is convenient for them. During WW2, there was a common saying in Italy that went as "che Dio stramaledica gli inglesi" (may God heavily curse the British). A bit nasty, sure, but it highlights a certain feeling that continental Europeans have for Britain.

Geography dominates politics, and the result is that all the attempts to create a stable coalition of European states faced, and still faces, an unsolvable strategic problem. At Europe's borders, on the East and the West, there are two powerful states, Great Britain (now largely replaced by the US Empire) and Russia (for a period, in the form of the Soviet Union). Neither has an interest in seeing a strong Europe arising, and they normally consider avoiding that as one of their strategic priorities. Neither Russia nor Britain ever were interested in invading Europe. The case is slightly different for the US Empire, which does keep its military stationed in Europe. But, even so, the US occupation is more a question of political, rather than military, control. In any case, during the past few centuries, emergent European Empires usually found themselves fighting on two opposite fronts, on the East, and on the West. An impossible strategic situation that always ended with not just defeat, but catastrophe. 

It was Napoleon who inaugurated the challenge of fighting Britain and Russia at the same time. The resulting disaster led to the disappearance of France from the list of the world's "great powers." Then, it was the turn of the German government to do the same mistake. As a remarkable example of the stupidity of government leaders, they managed to do it twice, in 1914, and in 1939. Note, incidentally, that Adolf Hitler himself, wrote in his Mein Kampf (1933) that Germany should never find itself fighting on two fronts. And then, he led Germany exactly into that! The mind of the "great leaders" is often imperscrutable, but you may be justified in thinking that they are not as smart as their followers think they are. 

After the catastrophe of World War 2, Europeans seemed to realize that the attempt to unify Europe by military means was hopeless. So, they tried a combination of diplomatic and economic actions. It was not a bad idea in itself, but it failed utterly as the result of several factors. Mainly, it was because the leaders never really believed in the idea of a United Europe and consistently tried to manage the European Union in such a way as to gather the most they could for their countries, without much regard for the collective good. In time, the higher layers of the EU fell into the hands of traitors bought by foreign powers. As a result, the attempts to create a European military force were sabotaged. During the past few decades, Europe was effectively defanged and declawed, and, to use an appropriate euphemism, "neutered" in military terms. (image below from "The Economist"). 
 



In the end, the EU went through the same sequence of failures that had doomed the previous attempts at unification. The "Brexit," the exit of the UK from the Union in 2020, was the economic equivalent of the military defeat of Napoleon at Trafalgar (1805), and of Hitler at the battle of Britain (1940). But the true disaster came with the current attempt of bankrupting Russia with economic sanctions. That was the equivalent of the disastrous dash to Moscow of Napoleon's army (1812) and of Hitler's "Operation Barbarossa" (1941). History does rhyme!

The economic war is still ongoing, but we can already say that Russia is surviving the sanctions while Europe has been badly damaging itself. No matter what the outcome of the war in Ukraine will be, Europeans now face a cold winter without a sufficient supply of fuel, and a probable economic disaster. The same outcome of Napoleon's and Hitler's campaigns -- even though not in military terms.  

And now? Disasters beget disasters, it is one more rule of history. The European relentless rejection of everything that has to do with Russian culture and traditions is a human disaster that cannot be measured in economic terms. The last thing Europeans needed was an enemy on their Eastern border. Now they have created it, and they will have to live with it, just as they will have to live with the climate disaster that they lost the capability to fight. And, most likely, the idea of a United Europe is now buried forever. 


Monday, August 8, 2022

Which is the most dangerous animal in the world? A story on how to mismanage the environment


The story of how a hummingbird tried to put out a giant forest fire is not common in the English-speaking world, but it is well known in France and Italy. If you can understand French, do watch this clip that tells not only the story of the virtuous hummingbird, but how badly it ends. The moral of the story is "do not reason with a hummingbird brain." (the hummingbird story is discussed more in detail in my book "Before the Collapse" (2019),


Sometimes, when I give a public talk, I try to stimulate the audience by asking them questions. One is, "which animal do you think is the most dangerous in the world?" Typically, the answer may be lions, snakes, hornets, or the like. But I tell them that the answer is the hummingbird, and then I tell them a story. 

It goes like this: there is a gigantic fire raging in the forest. All the animals run away for their lives, except for a hummingbird that heads towards the flames with some water in its beak. The lion sees the hummingbird flying by and asks, "Little bird, what do you think you are doing with that drop of water against that huge fire?" And the hummingbird replies, "I am doing my part".

Some people seem to think that there is wisdom in the story of the hummingbird. Personally, though, I think it is more akin to the stuff that comes out of the back end of the male of the bovine species. More than admirable, the hummingbird seems to me a very dangerous animal. 

If you studied philosophy in high school, you may remember enough to categorize the hummingbird as a follower of Immanuel Kant and of his categorical imperative principle. But, apart from Kant's philosophy, the story is often interpreted in terms of environmental virtues. That is, everyone should engage individually in good practices for the sake of the environment. Even small efforts, it is said, help and should be appreciated. Things like turning off the light before leaving the house, turning off the tap while brushing one's teeth, taking short showers to save water, riding a bicycle instead of a car, carefully separating waste, and all the other virtuous actions that make a good environmentalist. These actions are just as useless as the drop of water that the hummingbird carries in its beak against the fire. But if everyone does their part, we will achieve something. But are we sure?

Let me tell you another story. Some time ago, I found myself immersed in a cloud of smoke while walking along the street, not far from my home. Not pleasant nor healthy, of course. Someone had thought that it was a good moment to burn a pile of clippings from their garden, generating the bad-smelling cloud, apparently without worrying too much about the people walking in the street or their neighbors.

Is it legal to burn stuff and smoke one's neighbors in the middle of an urban area? Back home, I searched the Web and I found that, in Italy, you can do that, but only in small quantities and according to rather strict rules. The law seemed to me way too permissive but, at least, there was a law. Having ascertained the matter, it seemed to me appropriate to write a small post for a local discussion group, inviting people to be a little more careful with burning leaves in their gardens.

My gosh! What had I done! In return, I received insults of all kinds, even threats of a lawsuit. Of course, it is normal to be insulted for just about anything you say on social media. But the curious thing was that the insults all arrived in the name of good ecological practice. Burning the cuttings, I was told, is a natural thing, the smell they make is good, the old farmers did it and so those people who were doing that are true ecologists, whereas I had no title to bother anyone with my "legalistic" considerations. Someone even wrote to me, "If you say this, you must be a very unhappy person!" 

The people who took this position seemed to believe that their commitment to good environmental practices, caring for their gardens or whatever, put them in a position of moral superiority over those unfortunates who do not do the same. Consequently, they felt that they could afford to ignore certain laws, for example, those that forbid them to smoke out their neighbors.

We could call this attitude the " hummingbird syndrome." The fact of being virtuous in certain things gives you the right to be a sinner in another. (I think it is also a problem of Kant's categorical imperative, but I am not a philosopher so I stick to hummingbirds). In short, many people think they can behave like the hummingbird of the story, clearing their conscience by dropping a little water over a giant forest fire. And having done that, they can happily continue burning the forest, polluting in other ways.

Once I got into this order of ideas, I found that I am not the first to think about these things. Among others, Jean Baptiste Comby did in his book " La question climatique. Genèse et dépolitisation d'un problème public"(Raisons d'agir, 2015). He does not use the term "hummingbird syndrome," but he basically agrees with what I am saying. The idea is that the climate issue, and in general the ecological issue, has been" depoliticized ", that is, transferred entirely to the private domain of good individual practices. 

What happens, according to Comby, is that the members of the middle class build for themselves an image of personal innocence by taking care of some detail when, on the other hand, they are the ones who do the most damage to the ecosystem. A petty bourgeois morality that Cyprien Tasset rightly calls " green phariseeism ." 

Here is an excerpt from Tasset's review of the book by Comby

The fifth chapter deals with the "social paradox according to which the prescriptions of eco-citizenship symbolically benefit those who are, in practice, the least respectful of the atmosphere and ecosystems" (p. 16). Indeed, existing data on the social distribution of greenhouse gas emissions show that "the more material resources increase, the greater the propensity to deteriorate the planet" (p. 185). The cultural capital, here is inclined to "show itself to be benevolent towards ecology" and allows for symbolic profits, usually going hand in hand with economic capital, is "without real effect" positive in terms of limiting emissions (p. 186). Jean-Baptiste Comby has the merit of posing this paradox without resorting, as other sociologists sometimes allow themselves to do, to the ideologically overloaded category of "bobos" (fake ecologists) (*).


In short, in my humble opinion the hummingbird of the story is a son of a bitch: flies over the forest, throws his droplet of water, then leaves, happy to have done its duty. And all the animals that can't fly die roasted.

And that could happen to us too if we continue like this.

(h / t Nicolas Casaux)


(*) In French, the term " bobos " indicates the "Bourgeois-Bohemes" - members of the upper middle class who like to paint themselves as caring for the environment but who pollute and consume resources much more than the average citizen.

 



Monday, August 1, 2022

My Career in Science: the First Months of Freedom!

 


After retiring from my university, I am now involved a lot with the Club of Rome. In the photo, you see me wearing a t-shirt that reproduces the "Base Case" scenario of the 1972 report "The Limits to Growth." On the 50th anniversary of that publication, we published a new report, titled "Limits and Beyond," that summarizes the story and discussed its relevance for us and for our future. 
 

A few months ago I decided to retire. Actually, I ran away screaming from my university, and I never set foot again in my department afterward. And I do not plan to set foot in it again, ever. 

So, how is the life of a retiree scientist? It is a dream. Freedom from bureaucracy, paperwork, research reports, grant writing, attending meetings, being part of committees, all that. I don't have to spend the 1h 30' of commuting time that I used to spend every day to go to my office and back. To say nothing about not having to torture those catatonia-suffering creatures that go under the name of "students." I feel like a retiree executioner! 

More than all, I feel as if I had returned to when I was a postdoc at Berkeley, in the 1980s. At that time, I didn't have paperwork to do, no teaching, no committees, and no performance reports. I could spend 100% of my time on research. It was wonderful: I remember that the libraries of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory were open all night for researchers. And I did spend entire nights browsing the shelves. To say nothing about the bookstores in town: it was there that I discovered the concept of "peak oil." 

Today, university libraries have become fortresses where you can enter only if you are fully masked and if you reserve a seat in advance. But they have become useless: the Internet gives us possibilities that we wouldn't have dreamed of in the 1980s. It is a dream if you are trained in science, if you like science, if you love science, (I still do, despite the sad state of science, nowadays). 

The whole scientific knowledge of the world is at your fingertips. You can jump from paleontology to cosmology, to thermodynamics, to microbiology, or anything you fancy to learn. True, some of this knowledge is hidden behind the hideous paywalls that publishers use to make obscene profits, but I daresay that the relevant knowledge is mostly available for free. Nobody wants to publish behind a paywall anymore, except for papers they don't care much about because it is the cheap way to publish, and it gives them academic "points." But the relevant work, no, everyone wants it to be read!  

That leaves a problem: how do you wade through so much information? The mass of data that you can summon onto your screen is enormous, the problem is that you risk losing yourself in a galaxy of irrelevance. In my case, I rely a lot on blogs. Blogs often provide high-quality information, sometimes truly excellent information written by scientists or by experts in their fields. Nothing like the chaotic environment of social media (to say nothing about the censorship). And nothing like the boring platitude of scientific journals. 

But how do you organize your information flux from blogs? It is easy: you use a feed reader. I am always surprised at discovering how few people use feed readers to organize their information. It is simple, costs nothing, and it insures that you never miss the sources you think are relevant. And you decide what you want to read: you are not a slave to the search algorithms of whatever search engine or social media you use. I use "theoldreader.com," but there are many similar ones. Try one, your views of the world will change. You may also want to try "substack.com" -- it is the same idea: it allows you to select the subjects you are interested in. But it works only with substack blogs, whereas a generic feed reader will cover practically all the available Web sites.

There remains the problem of the sheer limits of time and the capability to absorb so much information. There is the risk to become an Internet larva, spending all the time available surfing this and that. 

I am trying to cope with this problem. For one thing, I am dropping certain activities that I think are too time-consuming, and scarcely productive. For one thing, I am considering whether to resign from my position as editor at the "Biophysical Economics and Sustainability" journal. It is an interesting journal in terms of its theme, but it is still steeped in the old and obsolete scientific publishing paradigm of hiding papers behind paywalls. 

Then, I think I'll drop Twitter, too. Too much noise and too little content. It is not the same for Facebook, which still allows one to present reasonably structured information -- you just have to be careful to avoid censorship, which you can do if you phrase your statements carefully. About Metaverse..... well, I still don't know what it is, but I think that you won't be able to force me into it, not even threatening me with a shotgun.

So, with all this information coming in, what is coming out? A list of what I am doing would be boring for you, but let me just tell you that I am in a burst of activities -- I don't think I've ever been so productive as a scientist as now!

Quickly, I am publishing articles in scientific journals, and I am able to publish articles that I see as relevant (and also sometimes fun. That's the way science should be, I think). Among the latest articles, one is a co-authored study on the concept of a 100% renewable-powered society (spearheaded by Christian Breyer). Another (together with Ilaria Perissi) is a re-examination of the "Mousetrap Experiment" that simulates a chain reaction, shown first in Walt Disney's movie "Our friend the atom." Another paper (still with Ilaria) is about transforming the story of "Moby Dick" into a boardgame. The reviewers seem to be a little perplexed, but I think we'll be able to publish it. And there are more papers in the pipeline. 

Then, books. The main one is "Limits and Beyond," a new report to the Club of Rome that reassesses the story of the famous 1972 book, "The Limits to Growth." Then, my previous book, "The Empty Sea" (together with Ilaria Perissi),  is being published in Chinese. It will appear in September. More books are in the pipeline, one is titled "The Age of Exterminations." I think that it will not be easy to find a good publisher for this one -- a little gloomy, to say the least! Anyone among readers has suggestions? 

And then there are blogs and discussion groups. Let me just say that I am fascinated by the concept of "holobiont" and I am dedicating a lot of time to it. I have a blog on holobionts, that I think I will transfer soon to Substack. Right now, the way I see the concept is in terms of the "extended holobiont" synthesis. It will be published (I hope) as a chapter in a new book edited by Jean Pierre Imbrogiano and David Skribna.

The holobiont is, I think, a new paradigm that can help us frame many of the things that are causing us so much trouble nowadays. Holobionts are the building blocks of the ecosystem, and also of human-made social and economic systems.  The whole idea of holobionts is to emphasize collaboration and avoid competition. Holobionts mean sharing, creating, and living. It is the way of all the creatures of the ecosystem. Gaia herself is a giant holobiont -- the master of them all! Then, of course, we are all holobionts ourselves. 

And so, onward, fellow holobionts!