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."

Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Christmas' Nativity Scenes: Using Images to Cross the Language Barrier

 

A Nativity Scene ("presepe") near Florence this year. This way of celebrating Christmas never went out of fashion in Southern Europe, and perhaps never will (but you may never know). It is part of the effort of making communication possible between people who don't speak the same language. The Catholic Church tried this method with some success, maybe we can learn something useful from this experience. 

This is another non-catastrophistic post on the "Seneca Effect" blog, but don't worry. We'll return to doom and gloom next year. 


The "Nativity Scene" is a traditional way to celebrate Christmas in Catholic countries, especially in Southern Europe. In Italy, it is known as the "presepe," a term that originally meant the "manger" where the baby Jesus was placed. If you have been a child in a country where this use is common, you cannot escape the fascination and the magic of these scenes. And, indeed, they make for a much more creative effort than the more recent tradition of the Christmas tree. Making a presepe may involve collecting moss from the garden to simulate the grass, making lakes using aluminum foil, creating trees with toothpicks and green-painted sponge chunks, a starry sky using blue paper with holes and, finally, the star of Bethlehem made, again, from aluminum foil. 

As usual, for everything that exists, there is a reason for it to exist. And that holds also for Nativity Scenes. In the end, these scenes are forms of non-verbal communication.  The fundamental point of religions such as Islam and Christianity is their universality. They accept all races, languages, regions, and cultures. That brings a problem of communication: how can an imam or a priest communicate with the faithful if they don't have a common language? 

In the case of Islam, God spoke to the prophet Muhammad in Arabic, and that remains the sacred language of the faithful. Of course, modern Arabs do not easily understand the language spoken at the time of Muhammad and not all Muslims are native speakers of Arabic. But Islam focuses on the Quran, encouraging the faithful to study and understand its language. Islam is a text-based religion expressed mainly by the human voice of the mu'azzin. It sees images with diffidence, 

For Christianity, the problem was much more difficult. God spoke to the prophets in Hebrew, the language of the Bible. Then, Jesus Christ spoke most likely Aramaic, whereas the Gospels were written in Greek. Then, when the center of Christianity moved to Rome, the holy texts were translated into Latin, which came to be seen as one of the main languages of Christianity. In addition, Christianity diffused rapidly into regions, such as Western Europe, which had emerged from the collapse of the Roman Empire as a hodgepodge of very different languages with different roots. 

So, it made sense for the Christian Church to use visual imagery to carry the message to everybody. That was an early characteristic of Christianity, for instance, the sentence in Greek ("Iēsous Christos, Theou Yios, Sōtēr") (Jesus Christ Son of God, Savior) was turned into an acronym that could be read as "ichthys," which means "fish" and therefore could be expressed as the image of a fish. Not every Christian understood Greek, but everyone could recognize a fish.  

The idea of using images to represent sections of the holy texts accelerated during the late Middle Ages and early Modern Times when there was an evident attempt of the Christian Church to maintain the universality of their religion (the term "Catholic" means "universal") while facing the dissemination of texts translated into national languages. It led to the creation of pilgrimage sites that we would define today as "theme parks," where the stories of the gospels were represented as 3D imagery. Some of these "parks" still exist today. Below, you see an example from the San Vivaldo monastery that goes back to the 16th century. Visiting that place is an eerie experience.


 
In parallel, small scales versions of the Nativity story became popular. The first version similar to the modern one goes back to 1291, and it was created by Arnolfo di Cambio. From then on, many different and elaborate versions were produced. It was an original idea that has parallels with our use of "emoticons." Our times are strongly image-based in terms of communication, and the vitality of Nativity Scenes is not in discussion. There are many examples of weird, funny, or outrageous versions, such as this one from 2016, with Donald Trump and other characters of the time. 


There are versions with zombies, others inspired by Star Wars characters, Disney characters, fuzzy bears, cats, dogs, and, of course, the queer version with two Marys or two Josephs. 

Our civilization is probably the most visually-oriented one in history, and, at the same time, the most language-fragmented in history. So, it is not surprising that we are trying to develop visual methods of communication that go beyond the limits of national languages. It is necessary to do that if we want to overcome the parochialism of nation-states and find an agreement on how to manage the planetary commons. 

But will it ever be possible to develop a completely image-based language? It is one of a few conceivable alternatives.

1. A dominant language, such as Latin was during the Middle Ages in Europe, and English is today. 
2. A creole or a koiné language, such as Greek was during late antiquity. Esperanto could play this role nowadays. 
3. A purely gestural language, such as the one that the Native Americans had developed before coming into contact with the Europeans. It might have a parallel with the modern "emoticons"
4. Automated, real-time translations -- these were not possible in the past, but in modern times Artificial Intelligence offers possibilities unthinkable in the past. 

The future will tell how civilization will face this challenge. Maybe it is unsolvable (and surely it is possible to worsen the problem). It is also possible that there will be no civilization surviving to address it. But, as usual, the future always surprises us. Why not return to cuneiform written on clay tablets? It would be, at least, more durable than any method that was devised in later times!

 

Sumerian cuneiform characters for "Ama-gi," that can be translated as "freedom" (literally, "return to the mother")



Sunday, December 25, 2022

A Christmas Post: The Miracle of Renewables



The "Seneca Effect" has been a little gloomy, recently. So, for a change of pace, here is the translation in English of a post that I wrote for the Italian newspaper "Il Fatto Quotidiano," also reproduced in my blog "The Sunflower Society". Because it was published in a newspaper, it is simplified and short, yet it says what's needed to understand the revolution we are going through that will change the world in the coming years. If you are interested in the source of the data,  you can find them on Lazard.comSo, Merry Christmas, and never despair. Sometimes, miracles happen! 

“And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” (Luke 2:9-10)


Miracles are not so frequent and, if one has serious health problems, it is not probable that a swim in the Lourdes pool will solve them. However, it is also true that sometimes things change quickly, opening up new possibilities. That's what's happening with renewable energy. Talking about a "miracle" is a bit much, I know, but recent technological developments have made available to us a tool that until a few years ago we didn't even dream of having. And this could solve problems that once seemed unsolvable.

For years, I've been lecturing about climate change and other looming worries, such as oil depletion. Usually, the people who came to listen to me were prepared for a message that was not exactly reassuring, but the question was what to do about it. At the end of the conference, a debate normally ensued in which the same things were said: ride a bicycle, turn down the thermostat in the house, install double glazing panes on the windows, use low energy light bulbs, things like that.

It was a little soothing ritual but, in reality, everyone knew that these weren't real solutions. Not that they're useless, but they're just a light layer of green on a system that continues to depend on fossil fuels to function. We have been talking about double glazing and bicycles for at least twenty years, but CO2 emissions continue to increase as before. Actually, faster than before. If we don't go to the heart of the problem, which is to eliminate fossil fuels, we will get nowhere. But how to do it? Until a few years ago, there seemed to be no way except to go back to tilling the fields by hand, as our ancestors did during the Middle Ages.

But today things have changed radically. You probably didn't notice it, caught up in the debate on politics. But it doesn't matter whether the right or the left wins. Change, the real one, is coming with renewable technologies. Wind and photovoltaic plants have been optimized and scaling factors have generated massive savings in production costs. Today, a kilowatt-hour produced by a photovoltaic panel costs perhaps a factor of 5-10 less than a kilowatt-hour from natural gas (and maybe a factor of 5 less than a nuclear kilowatt-hour) (source). We used to call renewables "alternative energy," but today all others are "alternative."

Furthermore, producing energy with modern renewable technologies does not pollute, does not require non-recyclable materials, does not generate greenhouse gases, does not generate local pollution, and nobody can bomb the sun to leave us without energy. Now, don't make me say that renewables have automatically solved all the problems we have. It is true that today they are cheap, but it is also true that they are not free. Then, investments are needed to adapt energy infrastructure throughout the country, to create energy storage systems, and much more. These are not things that can be done in a month, or even in a few years. There is talk of a decade, at least, to arrive at an energy system based mainly on renewables.

But it is also true that every journey begins with the first step. And now we see ahead of us a road ahead. A road that leads us to a cleaner, more prosperous, and hopefully less violent world. I haven't stopped going around giving conferences but, now, I can propose real solutions. And it's not just me who noticed the change. In the debate, today you can feel the enthusiasm of being able to do something concrete. Many people ask if they can install solar panels at home. Others say they've already done it. Some mad (and rightfully so) at the bureaucracy that prevents them from installing panels on their roof or in their garden. You also see the changing trend on social media.

There is always someone who speaks out against renewables by reasoning like the medieval flagellants who went around shouting "remember that you must die". But there are also those who respond in kind, "good riddance, and live happily together with the other cavemen." If you have a south-facing balcony (and if your municipality doesn't sabotage your idea), you can already install photovoltaic panels hanging from the railing that will help you reduce your electricity bill. No paperwork is needed! (another small miracle). One step at a time, we will succeed!


For a general assessment of the performance of renewables compared to fossil fuels, see this recent article by Murphy et al.

Sunday, December 18, 2022

The European Non-Union after the Qatargate: Was it Designed to Fail?

 

The European Parliament building in Strasbourg, France. I don't know if they consciously designed it to look like the Babel Tower, but it may follow the same destiny: collapse. It is a typical "non-place" inhabited by tribes of people who don't care about each other, don't talk to each other, and don't even understand each other. In these conditions, it is not surprising that crime and corruption prosper, as we learned in the case of the "Qatargate." Was the Union designed from the beginning so that it would fail? 


You probably know the concept of "non-places." The hall of a hotel is a good example. It looks like the living room of a home, but it is not the same thing. It is a place where people stay for brief periods of time, but do not interact with each other. They don't know each other, they don't even understand each other's language. The Babel Tower was a good example of a non-place, but nowadays non-places are common. In addition to hotels, you have airports, train stations, shopping malls, waiting rooms, and many more examples. 


Non-places are the ideal kind of places to engage in illegal or hidden operations. For instance, hotels are the typical place where you can meet your secret sexual partner, discuss illegal deals, or give or receive a bribe in cash. That doesn't mean, of course, that all the customers of a hotel are criminals. It just means that non-places provide the anonymity you need for certain kinds of transactions. Anonymity makes you also vulnerable to attacks that can take the form of "character assassination," as it happened to Dominique Strauss-Kahn in 2011.   

The European Parliament provides a special kind of anonymity owing to its multinational organization. Each national delegation is jealous of its national language and its members would feel offended if they were asked to speak in English (*), and many of them would be unable to do that, anyway. That's why the Union has 24 official languages and, consequently, the "Alcide De Gasperi" room in the palace of the European Parliament in Brussels has 24 translation boots, each one with at least two official interpreters. (theoretically, each boot should have 23 translators, but they would not fit inside, and I suppose that the translations are made first into English and then translated into the other languages). 

Given this organization, you understand the fragmentation of the European Parliament. A few years ago, I was there, and I noted how it looks mostly like the hall of a large hotel, a typical non-place. Throngs of people moving up and down, but very little interaction among those who don't speak the same language. Even outside the parliament building, I found that the Italian delegation had a coffee shop that served Italian coffee, where everyone spoke Italian, and where you would feel like being in Italy. I had the impression, and some Spanish friends confirmed it, that the whole central area of Brussels is a non-place: each national delegation had its coffee shops, restaurants, etcetera. Maybe the whole European Union is a non-place. A Non-Union.

It is not difficult to understand how easy it must be for lobbyists to engage in shady deals with national representatives in the European Parliament. Imagine an Italian company that wants to obtain a favorable contract from the EU. It will lobby an Italian MP who will probably feel that it is his/her duty to support an Italian company. If that involves a little personal gain, well, it may be deserved. In other words, in the best mafia style, each delegation jealously controls its own turf. Then, no surprise that the European Parliament has become a business network, losing all interest in promoting the interests of Europe as a whole -- for instance in terms of defense. It shows: Europe is the only example of a large state organization that doesn't have an independent military force.  

So, it is not surprising that lobbying (that some call simply "corruption") is rampant in Brussels. That doesn't mean we should take the current "Qatargate" scandal as an excuse to criminalize any or all the European MPs. I can tell you that I personally know some of them who refused to be corrupted and always acted for the good of the community. And we should not exclude the possibility that the Qatargate is a case of psyop-based character assassination (**).  Nor we should think that national parliaments are much better -- even there, representatives have their turf to defend. Yet, it is clear that there is a corruption problem in Brussels. A serious one, at all levels. 

Of course, there are ways to fight corruption by tighter controls, more severe regulations, and the like. But the problem is that no organization can function if it uses 24 different languages and gives equal status to all of them. Even worse, no organization can exist for long if its members have the only purpose of getting a larger slice of the pie for themselves. That's the business of diplomacy, but politics is a different story. 

You surely heard that the art of diplomacy consists in convincing everyone that they got the largest share of the pie. Instead, the art of politics consists of an equitable distribution of the pie. Without such a purpose, without an understanding that the organization exists to promote the common good, we don't have politics, we only have the law of the jungle. And everyone acts according to the fundamental principle of plundering mobs that states, "grab what you can, when you can." The European Union never was one. 

From "The Secret of Nimh" (1982)

So, the question is, was the European Union designed from the beginning with the idea that it should fail? The founders were surely people with lofty ideals of peace and collaboration, but as the organization grow, it soon became a modern version of the Babel tower. Maybe it was unavoidable, or maybe some external forces pushed it to become what it has become. It doesn't matter. Like the Babel tower, at this point, the EU has no other destiny in sight than to crumble. Perhaps we'll be able to build something better on the ruins, but it will not be soon. 



The collapse of the Tower of Babel" by Cornelisz Anthonisz, Etching, 1547

(*) One Union, One Language

The multilingual structure of the European Union raises the question of whether it would have been possible to design it differently. We may wonder what could have happened if the founding fathers Adenauer, Monnet, De Gasperi, and others, had stamped their feet on the ground and insisted on the principle of "one union, one language.

One possibility could have been English -- why not? It is the most diffuse international language in the world, and it is the common language used in India, even though the Indians have reasons to be unhappy about having been invaded and dominated for a long time by the British. Of course, different countries speak (and mangle) Ingliss in various ways, but the important thing is that these versions are mutually understandable. More or less. 


It would also have been perhaps the last chance to select and diffuse one of the "synthetic" languages, like Esperanto, that could be defined as modern Creoles. It would have had the advantage that Esperanto is a language close to several modern European languages. Esperanto never reached a wide diffusion but, who knows? Estus ankaŭ eble la lasta ŝanco elekti kaj disvastigi unu el la" sintezaj " lingvoj, kiel Esperanto,

Another possibility was to resurrect an extinct language and make it the official European Language. Latin could have been a good choice since it is still used in some scientific fields, and it had been "the" language of European intellectuals up to the 19th century. Greek could have been another interesting choice, without the "Fascist" ring that Latin had gained with the Italian Fascist regime. It was the solution chosen by the founders of the modern state of Israel when they decided they would resurrect ancient Hebrew and make it their national language (before, Jews would speak at least six mutually not understandable languages). Alia possibilitas fuit linguam exstinctam resuscitare et facere officialem Linguae Europaeae. Latine bene electio fieri potuit quia adhuc in quibusdam campis scientificis usus est et "lingua" intellectualium Europaearum usque ad XIX saeculum fuerat. 

Unfortunately, what was not done then, can't be done now. It was a lost chance, possibly lost forever. Maybe "Googlish" will come to the rescue or, maybe, we'll all speak in a new hieroglyph-based language that uses emoticons (Yandex offers translation of any text into "Emoji"). Or, maybe, we'll follow the majority rule and decide to speak Mandarin Chinese. Who knows? 🔣 🤔 👫 👫 👤 🚫 🤔 🔠 🎏

(**) The "Qatargate" scandal may have a political meaning that escapes those who are not insiders to the complicated power balance of the European Commission. Was it a character assassination? It may be related, as usual, to the energy supply to Europe as argued in a recent article by Michele Marsiglia, president of the Italian Federpetroli.


Monday, December 12, 2022

The End of Europe: The Conclusion of a Long Historical Cycle.



The failure of the European Union may have started with the choice of the flag. Not that national flags are supposed to be works of art, but at least they can be inspiring. But this flag is flat, unoriginal, and depressing. It looks like a blue cheese pizza gone bad. And that's just one of the many things gone bad with the European Union. (attempts to make it more appealing failed utterly). It is the conclusion of a thousand-year cycle that's coming to an end. It was probably unavoidable, but that doesn't make it less painful. 


Europe has a long history that goes back to when the ice sheets retreated at the end of the last ice age, some 10,000 years ago. At that time, our remote ancestors moved into a pristine land, cultivated it, built villages, roads, and cities. They traveled, migrated, fought each other, created cultures, built temples, fortresses, and palaces. On the Southern coast of Europe, a lively network of commercial exchanges emerged, made possible by maritime transportation over the Mediterranean Sea. Out of this network, the Greek civilization was born, and then the Roman Empire appeared around the end of the first millennium BCE. It included most of Western Europe. (image from ESA)


As all empires do, the Roman Empire went through its cycle of glory and decline. In the 5th century AD, as Europe entered the Middle Ages, the Empire had disappeared except as a memory of past greatness. In the following centuries, the population of Western Europe declined to a historical minimum, maybe less than 20 million people. Europe became a land of thick forests, portentous ruins, small villages, and petty warlords fighting each other. No one could have imagined that, centuries later, Europeans would become the dominators of the world.

Sometimes, collapses bring with them the seed of recovery. It is what I called the "Seneca Rebound." For some reason, we moderns disparage the Middle Ages, calling the era the "Dark Ages." But there was nothing dark during the European Middle Ages. Europe was poor in material terms, but Europeans managed to create a culture of refined literature, splendid cathedrals, sophisticated music, advanced technologies, and much more. One reason for the prospering of the European culture was the presence of tools that other regions of the world lacked. One was the Latin language, used to keep alive the ancient Classical Culture and its achievements. It also helped trade and created strong cultural bonds all over the continent. Europeans also inherited the bulk of Roman law and culture, and Roman technologies in fields such as metallurgy and weapon making.  

With Europe recovering from the 5th-century collapse, new precious metal mines in Eastern Europe started pumping wealth into the continent. The result was explosive. Already in 800 AD, Charlemagne, King of the Franks, could assemble an army powerful enough to create a new Europe-wide Empire, the "Sacred Roman Empire." With the turn of the millennium, the European population was rapidly growing, and it needed space to expand. Europe was a coiled spring, ready to snap. In 1095, a burst of armies emerged out of Europe, crashing into the Near East. It was the time of the Crusades. 

Initially, the invasion of the Middle East was a spectacular success: the Christian armies defeated the local rulers, established new kingdoms, and recreated a direct commercial connection with East Asia, along the Silk Road. But the task was too huge for a still young Europe. After two centuries of struggle, the European armies were forced to abandon the Holy Land, defeated and in disarray. At this point, Europe faced again the problem it had tried to solve with the Crusades: overpopulation. The problem solved itself by means of a quick population collapse, first with the great famine (1315–1317), then the black plague. The Europe of the 13th century was so weakened that it seriously risked being overcome by the Mongol armies coming from Asia. Fortunately for the Europeans, the Mongols couldn't sustain a full-scale attack so far from the center of their Empire.    


A schematic view of the European population during about one millennium. Note the two collapses: both have the typical "Seneca-Shape," that is, decline is faster than growth. The first collapse was caused by famine and by the black plague, the second by the 30-year war, and the associated plagues and famines. 

Despite the ravages of the Black Plague, Europe re-emerged with its culture, social structure, and technological knowledge still intact. Europe didn't just recover, but it rebounded in a spectacular way. Shipbuilding technologies were improved, allowing Europeans to sail across the oceans. During their internecine quarrels, the Europeans had also turned firearms into terribly effective weapons. During the 16th and 17th centuries, they rebuffed the attempts of the Ottoman Empire to expand into Europe. The Ottomans were dealt a crushing blow on the sea at Lepanto, in 1571. Then, they were decisively defeated on land at the siege of Vienna, in 1683. With their Eastern Borders now safe, Europeans had a free hand to expand overseas. 

The 16th century saw the birth of a pattern that would persist for several centuries. European armies would invade foreign kingdoms, crush all military resistance, and replace the native leaders with European ones. Sometimes they used the local inhabitants as slaves, sometimes they wiped them out and replaced them with European colonists. The new lands were an incredible source of wealth. Europe imported precious metals, timber, spice, and even food in the form of sugar produced from sugarcane. The inflow of gold and silver from overseas stimulated the European economy, and timber allowed Europeans to build more ships. And the imports of food allowed the European population to grow and to field new armies that could conquer new lands that produced even more food.  

Nevertheless, Europe's expansion started to slow down in the 17th century. The 30 years' war, 1618 to 1648, was a terrible disaster that may have exterminated 10% of the European population. Then, as usual with wars, another outburst of plague followed. Europe seemed to have reached a new limit to its expansion. Sugar coming from overseas colonies was not enough, by itself, to sustain the need for materials to keep and further expand the European empire. Wood was needed to produce ships and, at the same time, to be turned into the charcoal needed to smelt metals. But trees were depleted in Europe and importing timber from overseas was expensive. Most of the Southern European countries saw their forests decline and their growth stall.

(image from Foquet and Bradberry). (France is not shown in the figure, but it shows a pattern similar to that of England). 

Despite the troubles, the Northern European economies, (especially England) rapidly restarted to grow after the 17th-century crisis. The trick was a new technological development: coal. Coal had already been used as a fuel in Roman times, but nobody in history had used it on such a large scale. With coal, Europeans didn't need anymore to destroy their forests to make iron. That was the start of a new, successful rebound. By the early 20th century, Europe dominated the whole world, directly or indirectly.  

Europe's population according to Zinkina et al. (2017). The two drops of the 14th and the 17th century are clearly visible, although less dramatic on this scale than in the earlier work of Langer

As typical of empires, with the conquests completed, there came a time of consolidation. No more risky adventures of individual states, but a central government to manage the empire and keep it together. For the ancient Romans, it had been the task of Julius Caesar to create a strong, centralized state. For modern Europe, it was a much more difficult story: how to tame a group of quarrelsome states that seemed to spend most of their time fighting each other? 

The Holy Roman Emperor, Charles 5th (1500-1558), was among the first to try, without success. His successor, Philip 2nd of Spain (1527- 1598), tried to subdue Britain with his "invincible armada" in 1588, but he failed, too. The decline of Spain left space for other European powers to try again. Napoleon Bonaparte (1769 -1821) almost succeeded, but his imperial dreams sank at Trafalgar and then froze to death in the Russian plains. Then, it was the turn of Germany. The attempt started in 1914, and again in 1939. In both cases, it was a tragic failure. Even the weak Italy had imperial dreams. In the 1940s, Benito Mussolini attempted to recreate a new version of the ancient Roman Empire in the Mediterranean Sea. Utter failure, again. 

Over and over, the would-be European Imperial powers found themselves facing an impossible challenge. In the West, Britain had no interest in seeing a European Empire arising just on the other side of the Channel. The same was true for the East, with Russia not keen to see a major power near its borders. The result was that the European armies often found themselves fighting on two sides at the same time. Then, the Mediterranean Sea was in the iron grip of the British Navy -- no way for continental powers to expand South. With the end of WW2, Europe emerged out of the struggle destroyed, impoverished, and humiliated. 

The latest (and perhaps the last) attempt to unify Europe was the European Union. The creators of the Union understood that it was impossible to unify Europe by military means, so they tried to do it in the form of an economic free zone and an elected parliament. It was a bold attempt, but it didn't work. It could not have worked. The Union faced enormous hostile forces, both internal and external. Britain and France were supposed to be balancing the German power, but when Britain left, in 2020, the Union suffered an economic defeat equivalent to the military one suffered by Germany in the Battle of Britain, in 1940. In both cases, they had tried to absorb Britain into the economic system of continental Europe, and they had failed.

The defection of Britain left the European Union with Germany dominating it. Just like during WW2, the German government never understood that throwing its weight around was not the way to endear itself with the neighboring states. The result was the growth of anti-European forces all over the continent. It was the movement called "sovereignty" that aimed to restore the power of nation-states and get rid of the EU bureaucrats. So far, this movement has played only a marginal role in politics, but it has succeeded in making the EU deeply hated by everyone who is not getting their salaries from Brussels. 

Just as it had happened in 1941, Europe is now engaged in a desperate battle on two different fronts, but the struggle is now mainly economic and cultural, not military: it is a "full spectrum dominance" war. The struggle is still ongoing, but it seems already clear that Europe is being defeated. Just like Germany had destroyed itself with a military attack on Russia in 1941, the European Union is destroying itself with its economic sanctions against Russia. Effectively, Europe is committing a slow and painful suicide. But that's how full spectrum dominance works: it destroys enemies from the inside. 

And now? It was unavoidable that Europe would cease to be an Empire. The human and material resources that had made European dominance possible are not there any longer. But it was not unavoidable that Europe would destroy itself. Europe could have survived and maintained its independence by remaining on good terms with the other Eurasiatic powers, China, Russia, and India, But, choosing to break the commercial, cultural, and human relations with the rest of Eurasia was not just an economic suicide. It was a cultural and moral suicide. 

So, what's going to happen to poor Europe? History, as usual, rhymes: do not forget that in 1945 the official US plan was to destroy the German economy and exterminate most of the German population. Fortunately, the plan was shelved, but could that idea become fashionable again? We cannot exclude this possibility. In any case, an impoverished Europe could go back to something not unlike what it was during the early Middle Ages: depopulated, poor, primitive, a mere appendage of the great Eurasian Continent. 

And, yet, Europe has rebounded more than once from terrible disasters. It may happen again. Not soon, though.


As inspiring as a blue cheese pizza gone bad


Friday, December 9, 2022

Before the Collapse: a Review

 

My book, "Before the Collapse," was recently translated into Spanish and published in Spain by Catarata. Here is a recently appeared review by Manuel Garcia Dominguez, Eleonora Arca, Guillermo Aragon Perez and Maria Teresa Lopez Franco that appeared on Nov 24, 2022 on "15-15-15." The English version is available from Springer. Translated from Spanish by Ugo Bardi. 


Why do societies, ecosystems, companies, and friendships collapse? How do we deal with a phenomenon, such as collapse, that is in itself sudden and unexpected? Can collapse be avoided? The recently published book by the chemist and professor at the University of Florence, Ugo Bardi (born in the same city in 1952), revolves around this concern: how to think about collapses and, above all, how to deal with them. The fundamental idea, which will function as the backbone of the book, will be what Seneca said about collapse in one of his letters to Lucilius: "It would be a consolation for our weakness if things could be restored as soon as they are destroyed; but the opposite happens: development is slow and ruin comes quickly" (we give the translation of Francisco Navarro, Epístolas morales de Séneca, Madrid 1884, p. 370).

First, Professor Bardi introduces a way that human beings have of knowing the world and avoiding the collapse of which Seneca speaks: the construction of models that allow us to hypothesize about future scenarios and act accordingly. These models can be relatively accurate, especially when tested empirically; but it is also quite easy for them to be misleading (as in the case of climate change denialism, for example). According to classical research, there are two ways of constructing these models: top-down and bottom-up. The first consists of observing the behavior of a system and building a model on it; while the second involves separating the system into subsystems to study their behavior and, subsequently, building a comprehensive model. Both strategies are fallible, which makes it advisable not to ask more of them than they can provide.

It is clear that models have limitations when it comes to suggesting explanations about the future, but this does not imply that they do not fulfill their function; in fact, we need models that are just good enough to provide us with a basis on which to act; there is no need to look for perfect models.

However, a crucial characteristic of complex systems pointed out by Professor Bardi is their passing through tipping points; in these, systems undergo rapid alterations that are not predictable by our knowledge of their past. Some of the most disturbing tipping points with which we are currently confronted concern climate change ("methane burp" due to thawing permafrost, for example). Public discourse has often ignored these issues, so we have no general clues as to how governments around the globe plan to deal with these phenomena. At play here are a number of cognitive errors and biases that arise when we humans are faced with the uncertainty that the future brings: (1) a representational bias that leads us to judge on the basis of stereotypes, (2) the availability of limited experience, and (3) the anchoring of our judgments to limited data regardless of their significance. In addition, groupthink plays an important role, and often makes people more fallible in their beliefs than they would be individually, by changing their behavior to conform to the group.


The result of this attitude toward climate change and other current problems is the propensity to be overly optimistic and to recklessly dismiss models that would be useful to us. The Florentine chemist develops the basic ideas of the science of complex systems, an approach that brings us closer to understanding their collapse, which will come sooner or later. Indeed, Bardi insists that "collapse is not an error, it is a characteristic feature" of complex systems in the Universe we inhabit (p. 40; the translations we will give from the English original are ours).

Complex systems are entities made up of subsystems that interact with each other in ways that cannot be captured through a single equation, but require more complex models. The essential feature of complex systems is that they are dominated by feedback relationships: in reaction to an external perturbation, complex systems tend to amplify their effects (positive feedback) or mitigate them by stabilizing the system (negative feedback). This phenomenon is inseparable from complex systems as it refers to the "tendency of the elements of a system to influence each other (...). Changes in one element generated by a perturbation will affect the other elements of the system" ( p. 35). This complexity implies the inability to predict the behavior of complex systems in the manner of classical physics, which predicts the motion of its objects with simple equations (think for example of Newtonian gravity). Complex systems "never stand still, they are constantly changing" (p. 33) "because they are alive, in the sense that they are brimming with energy" (p. 34).

Complex systems have attractor states: a particular set of their parameters to which they always tend, a tendency called homeostasis. However, as a result of external perturbations and feedback phenomena, a complex system may reach a tipping point and begin to "shift," and then stabilize in a different attractor. In some cases, this will correspond to a much lower complexity than the previous attractor, in which case we would be faced with a collapse. In fact, Bardi defines the phenomenon of collapse precisely as "a phase transition leading to a state of reduced complexity, typically rapid and abrupt" (p. 34).

This tendency to rapid and abrupt collapse is related to the principle of maximum entropy production (MEP): energy tends to dissipate very quickly, which leads to collapse. This is the result of the networked structure of systems: "in a collapse, each element that starts to move in a certain direction drags other elements with it, and the result is a cascade of effects all going in the same direction" (p. 39). In this way, there seems to be a collusion between the different elements of these systems to produce, in a precipitation of events, the collapse of the interconnected network that constitutes the system. Here we must insist on one of the fundamental ideas of Professor Bardi's book: collapse is not a failure but an intrinsic characteristic of complex systems. Interconnectedness can lead to the collapse of the entire network as a result of the impact of a disturbance on one or some of its nodes. Thus, the development of complex systems often responds to what Professor Bardi calls the Seneca mode (the author has been developing his ideas for years in a fascinating blog called The Seneca Effect): it is an asymmetric process, where growth is slow and decline is very accentuated.

But what if a system actually collapses - is all hope lost? Collapse implies the passage to a state of lower complexity, but not necessarily the absolute destruction of the system in question. Thus, there may still be "life after the cliff": a new growth process after collapse, or what the author calls "the Seneca payback" reflected in the Lokta-Volterra model. This model was designed to explore the relationships between prey and predator populations, but, as Bardi tells us, it can be useful for thinking about the existence of successive cycles of growth and collapse in different types of systems. In fact, this mode of behavior tends to occur more in complex systems such as economic systems, but not so much in natural systems; one of the difficulties for a new growth is the fact that the collapse is often produced by the exhaustion of the resources that had allowed the original growth. What this mode teaches us is that collapse is not final: it may not be an end point.

The rudiments of complex systems science that Bardi develops can help us to think of the state and destiny of our civilization as that of one complex system among many others that may therefore collapse. Clearly, there is a state of affairs that points to this outcome, more serious and continuous in time than natural disasters: climate change and the crisis of energy resources. With regard to the energy crisis, as Bardi says, in the short term "the problem is how to find the necessary financial resources to keep energy production at least as stable (in energy terms) as in the past decade" (p. 128), due, on the one hand, to the lack of demand and, on the other, to the depletion of oil. This type of crisis presents the ideal conditions for wars and concomitant violence, as well as famine, epidemics and depopulation, triggering what Bardi calls a Seneca Crunch: the sum of negative factors that lead to the collapse of a system. This fact highlights the fragility of the playing field on which we move: the availability of resources or the effects of climate change can exert sufficient pressure on the complex systems that are our societies to precipitate us over a Seneca cliff.


ASCII infographic included in the first edition of 'The Limits to Growth' (Standard Scenario).

Is there any doubt that we are currently facing a Seneca-type collapse? According to Orlov, there are five stages of civilizational collapse: (1) financial collapse; (2) commercial collapse; (3) political collapse; (4) social collapse; and (5) cultural collapse. Today, phenomena typical of the financial and commercial collapse of 2008 are evident and we observe some symptoms of the political collapse, such as distrust in the political class or the polarization of society. Thus, with hope as an indispensable tool, the fundamental question we must ask ourselves may be: how do we manage the collapse?

A quick answer to this question is the instinctive solution of many politicians and businessmen to any eco-social problem: "we must fund more research" (p. 178), the paradigm of which is the possibility of generating virtually infinite cheap energy. Although at present such projects, such as nuclear fusion reactors, are still at a very early stage of research, the Florentine author allows himself a certain degree of speculation, considering the possibility of a universal mining machine or of sending pollution into space (with infinite energy no proposal seems too far-fetched). However, Bardi recalls that already in 1972 the classic study The Limits to Growth showed that, even with infinite energy available, the collapse of the world industrial system would eventually happen due to a combination of factors such as overpopulation, resource depletion, and pollution. In short: the problem is not energy, but the presence of unavoidable limits to human development.

To adequately manage collapses in a world with limits, it is necessary to develop a deep understanding of complex systems and also to have achieved a certain balance of power among the relevant actors that guarantees peace. We need, to put it in the words of Donella Meadows, to think systemically (we should congratulate ourselves on the recent publication in Spanish of Meadows' book Thinking in Systems, Captain Swing 2022): the fall off the nearest Seneca cliff and the subsequent impact, which seems to be that of the imminent ecosocial crisis, can only be mitigated by global thinking (and local action) that understands the position of individuals in the earth's ecosystem and allows us to draw up a collective action plan that ensures massive cooperation and puts us at risk.

In short, the homeostasis of the system should not be taken for granted, and only joint action, the fruit of systemic thinking, will serve to mitigate the threatening fall off the Seneca cliff. For Bardi, according to certain historical examples, this action has three requirements: (1) use only abundant resources, (2) use as little as possible, and (3) recycle compulsively (p. 204). Moreover, this strategy also favors the so-called "Seneca rebound," which implies an opportunity to imagine a different structure for the system such as, as Bardi proposes, a circular economy model that revitalizes sustainable agriculture and craftsmanship, rejecting military purposes.

In any case, if Bardi teaches us anything, it is that the future cannot be predicted and that, while we cannot avoid collapse, we can at least try to collapse better. Before the Collapse (a title that suggests a double meaning: before the collapse, yes, but also before the collapse) is a good guide for that journey, and the frequent touches of humor with which the author de-dramatizes his subject of study, in itself - it is not necessary to insist on it - very dramatic, are appreciated.

Sunday, December 4, 2022

What is the Next Thing that Will hit us? Brace for it, Because it may be Huge

 

Despite having ancient seers (the "haruspices") as ancestors, I don't claim to be able to predict the future. But I think I can propose scenarios for the future. So, what could be the next big thing that will hit us? I suggest it will be the disruption of the oil market caused by the recent measure of a price cap on  Russian oil.


Do you remember how many things changed during the past 2-3 years, and changed so unbelievably fast? There was a pattern in these changes: one element was that we were told they were just temporary, another was that they were done for our sake. We were told that we needed "Two weeks to flatten the curve," and that "the sanctions will cause the Russian economy to collapse in two weeks," and many more things. Then, our problems will be solved and the world will return to normal. But that didn't happen. Instead, the result was a "new normal," not at all like the old one. 

Now, the obvious question is "what next?" More exactly, "what are they going to hit us with, next time?" There is this idea that there may be a new pandemic, a new virus, or the old one returning. But, no. They are smarter than that -- so far they have always been one step, maybe two, ahead of us. They are masters of propaganda, they know that propaganda is all based on memes and that memes have a finite lifetime. Old memes are like old newspapers, they are not interesting anymore. A particular bugaboo can't scare people for too long, and the idea of scaring us with a pandemic virus is past its usefulness stage. They may have probed us with the "monkeypox" pandemic, and they saw that it didn't work. It was obvious anyway. So, now what?

Let me suggest one possible new way to hit us. You may have heard of it but, so far, it was supposed to be something marginal, not designed to create another "new normal." But it may. It is huge, it is gigantic, it is arriving. It is the price cap on Russian oil. The idea is that a cartel of countries, mainly Western ones, will agree on prohibiting the import of Russian oil unless it is priced at less than $60 per barrel. It will also make it more difficult for Russia to export oil abroad, even to countries that do not subscribe to the agreement. 

This idea is, as usual, promoted as a way to help us. Not only it will harm the evil Putin, but it will reduce oil prices, so everyone in the West should be happy. But will it actually work? Unlikely, to say the least, and it is probable that the promoters know that very well. 

Think about that: it never happened during the past hundred years that a cartel of countries had intervened to force a certain oil price worldwide. Even during the "Oil Crisis" of the 1970s, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) never did what it is often accused of having done, fixing a high oil price. OPEC can only set production quotas or sanction certain countries, but it has no power, and never had power, on prices, which are set by the international market. 

When governments meddle with prices, the results are always bad. Typically, prices of goods are set too low, and that has two effects: the rising of a black market and the disappearance of the goods from the official market. It was a typical feature of the Soviet economy, where prices were often set at low levels to give the impression that certain goods were affordable to everyone. But it wasn't so: theoretically, most Soviet citizens could afford caviar sold at government-established prices. In practice, this caviar almost never existed in shops. But, of course, it was possible to find it in the black market if one could pay exorbitant prices for it.

Today, intervening to set a price for Russian oil is equivalent to throwing a wrench into the gears of a huge machine. Nobody knows exactly how the global oil market is going to react. The only sure thing is that the Russians are refusing to sell their oil to countries subscribing to the agreement. The overall result of having removed a major producer from the market can only be one: increasing oil prices. Exactly the opposite of what the price cap is supposed to do. But this is the very minimum that can happen: the effects of the cap are unpredictable on a market that's already unstable and subject to wild price oscillations. Europe might lose access to oil completely, and go dark. Famines have been a staple event in European history, they could come again. Things like that -- not small changes, huge changes. 

Why did the Western countries engage in this apparently counterproductive idea? Well, there may be some method in this madness. I can think of a few possible explanations: 

1. Western Governments are in the hands of idiots who act according to the principle known as "I ran naked into a cactus. Why? Because it looked like a good idea." They put into practice ideas that look good ("harming Putin"), without worrying about the consequences (destroying the European economy). 

2. The price cap has the specific purpose of raising oil prices. It will force consumer countries to switch from the relatively cheap Russian oil to the more expensive American oil, which will become even more expensive in a near-monopoly regime. This will bring huge profits to American producers. Don't forget that the American elites are convinced that the US oil resources are infinite, or nearly so. 

3. The price cap is thought of as a way to save the US tight oil industry. So far, tight oil has been almost a miracle, bringing back the US to a position of dominance among oil producers. But it is now facing difficulties with oil prices declining in the world market. With higher oil prices, Europe will finance a new round of tight oil extraction in the US, while the profits will remain in the US. It sounds diabolical, and maybe it is. Let me add that there may be a reason why the tight oil industry was recently declared "dead" in the mainstream media. Call me a conspiracy theorist, but this article on "Oilprice.com" may have had the purpose of scaring the US producers and making them accept the risky measure of forbidding Russian oil from entering the Western market. 

4. There may exist a "hidden force," somewhere, that's acting with a plan at the global level. The plan involves a forced reduction of fossil fuel production and consumption to mitigate the damage generated by global warming or, perhaps more likely, to leave energy for the elites while taking it away from commoners. The recent events, the Covid crisis, and the Russian crisis, both have the effect of impoverishing some of the major consumers of fossil fuels, Western middle-class citizens, and so reducing overall consumption. The price cap on Russian oil may be just the first step of a new plan that will force Westerners to abandon for good their addiction to fossil fuels, whether they like it or not. This may not be a bad idea for several reason, but it is a kind of global medicine equivalent to lobotomy or radical mastectomy for single humans. Let's say, a bit heavy-handed. 

It may be that all four of these factors are at work. In any case, it is a powerful convergence of interests that is materializing, likely to be successful in pushing the cap on Russian oil to worldwide acceptance. Considering how easily European citizens have been led to believe the most absurd things during the past two years, it is unlikely that they will understand what's being done to them (and let me not use the appropriate words for the concept). Not that the American citizens will fare much better: the huge transfer of wealth from Europe to the US will go all into the pockets of the American oligarchs. As for the European governments, they are the structures that should oppose this giant wealth transfer, but they are staffed by traitors, idiots, or both; so they will enthusiastically adhere to the idea. 

Is this what the crystal ball shows? Not necessarily. Let's just say that there are reasons to think that what I just described is a likely scenario. Then, the best-laid schemes of mice and men gang aft agley. There is a limit to how hard you can push something before it goes to pieces or bites you back. Will European citizens continue forever to be happy to be economically raped by the US? The future is always full of surprises, but the crystal ball always shows the same thing: the world goes where the money is. 


 

Friday, December 2, 2022

The Dreary Machine: What we are Becoming

 

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


The lawful, the obligatory, and the prohibited

28 novembre 2022
by Giorgio Agamben

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

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

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

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