The Seneca Effect

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."

Thursday, March 23, 2023

Fighting Shadow-Banning. The Seneca Blog Lands on Substack


The new face of the "Seneca Effect" blog on Substack. It is an attempt to circumvent the shadow ban imposed on the blog by the powers that be. Maybe it will do better on Substack than on the Google blogger platform, where it is now, although I am not sure: never underestimate the power of the PTBs. In any case, for some time, the two platforms, Google Blogger and Substack, will go in parallel and publish the same posts.

"Shadow Banning" (also "soft banning", or "ghost banning") is a clever way to make someone disappear from the Web, without giving the impression that he or she has been censored (*). It simply consists in making one's website disappear from the first pages of the search engines. It works: you get lost in the vast prairies of the Internet and your readers can't find you anymore. It happened even to Donald Trump when he was still president. 

The "Seneca Effect" blog underwent the same treatment. You can see it on this record from "Google Analytics.

You see that the blog was gaining popularity at the end of 2022, especially when I set up a new domain called "" Then, something happened in late December. The trend went through a reversal, going down and plateauing at about half of the level they had one year before. And it keeps going down. 

For a while, I thought that it was due to the catastrophists leaving the blog in droves when I published an optimistic post on renewable energy. That made some of them not just disagree but whipped them into a positive frenzy of personal insults against my modest person. Catastrophists are a curious bunch of people, always reminding me of Groucho Marx's quip about not wanting to belong to a group that accepts people like you as members. But, after a few months, the effect of a single post should have disappeared. But no... the blog continues to decline in terms of audience. 

Of course, the PTBs will never admit that they are shadow-banning someone. But the symptoms are clear. Just use your search engine, and you'll see that the "Seneca Effect" blog comes way back in the list of the results, preceded by other sites dealing with Seneca matters, and even by my old site, "Cassandra's Legacy," which I had to abandon more than one year ago because it had been banned (not so softly) by Facebook. Even Wikipedia does not cite the Seneca blog on its page on the "Seneca Effect," only the old, and not updated anymore, Cassandra blog. Not surprising, since they are notoriously in the hands of alien monsters from outer space. 

Only Bing, miraculously, shows the blog on the first page when you search for "Seneca Effect." I would never have imagined becoming a fan of Bill Gates!

So, life is hard for shadow-banned bloggers, and it is little comfort to be in a group that includes Donald Trump and many others (and, again, about not wanting to belong to a certain group....). Shadow banning is like one of those curses of fantasy novels that plague people forever unless they go through special rituals or difficult tests, say, slaying a dragon. But slaying the Google dragon is surely much more difficult than getting rid of Tolkien's Smaug. 

So, the only possibility to circumvent soft banning is to change the name of your site, or change platform. For the time being, I am trying a move to Substack, which seems to be less subjected to Google power and, for now, not practicing censorship. You can find the Seneca version on Substack at this link. (**)

Will it work? I don't know. For the time being, the two platforms, Google Blogger and Substack, will go in parallel, mirroring each other. And we'll see. 


One point on which I am not sure is how Substack's popularity relies heavily on monetary support for authors from readers. Maybe it is a good idea and I don't despise a little compensation for the work I am doing: after all, I take royalties on the books I sell. Also, on Blogger, I have a small advertising banner that brings me about $25 per month (!!). I keep it there mainly as a way to get a feeling of the number of people who stay on the page long enough to notice the banner. In that case, though, the advertisers pay, not the readers. But I feel a bit queasy about asking readers to pay to read my posts. If I activate paid subscriptions on Substack, I would do that only as an option for readers to show their support, but not as a requisite to read the posts. But what do you think? 

(*) Shadow banning doesn't need the Internet to exist. It is a much older story. Just as a quick note, I would like to mention the treatment inflicted on the great mathematician Vito Volterra in the 1930s, as a result of his opposition to the Fascist government in Italy. He was not physically harmed, jailed, or his movement restricted. He was just ignored: gradually marginalized, fired from his position as president of the Italian Research Council, and later even from his position as university professor. None of his colleagues dared to defy the ban, and up to the 1960s, it remained politically incorrect to mention him and his work in Italy (see this article by Giovanni Paoloni)

(**) I have another blog on Substack, "The Proud Holobionts," dedicated to the ecosystem, climate, biology, and the like. It is also a mirror of the same blog on Google's blogger. 

Monday, March 20, 2023

Putin Must Die! How to make sure that the war will not end soon

As a comment to the recent decision of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague to issue an arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin, I propose here an excerpt from the chapter titled "The Evil Side of Collapse" of my book, "Before Collapse," (2019). In the book, I argue that there is a way to reduce the impact of systemic collapse that I call the "Seneca Strategy," which consists in accepting an unavoidable decline in order to soften a later crash. Conversely, there exists also an "anti-Seneca" strategy that consists in forcing the system to resist decline at all costs. The result is that the collapse is postponed but, when it comes, it is rapid and disastrous. It may be applied in a military conflict when the objective is the utter and total destruction of one's enemy. It consists in making it clear to enemy leaders that they will be treated as criminals if they surrender so that they will keep fighting to the bitter end. It was applied by the Allies during WWII, as I briefly discuss here. 

From "Before Collapse,"  di Ugo Bardi, Springer 2019 (*)

In military matters, there exists an “anti-Seneca” strategy that consists in disregarding Sun Tzu’s principle of minimum effort, aiming instead at continuing the war all the way to the complete military defeat, or even the annihilation, of the enemy. Such a plan could be based on ideological, political, or religious considerations leading one or both sides to believe that the very existence of the other is a deadly threat that must be removed using force. In ancient times, religious hatred led to the extermination of entire populations, and there is a rather well-known statement that may have been pronounced after the fall of the Albigensian city of B├ęziers, in Southern France, in 1209. It is said that the Papal legate who was with the attacking Catholic troops was asked what to do with the citizens, which surely included both Catholics and Albigensian heretics. The answer was, "Kill them all; God will know His own." 

That war, just like most modern wars, was an “identity war” where the enemy is seen as not just an adversary, but an evil entity to be destroyed. These wars tend to be brutal and carried on all the way to the total extermination of the losing side. In some cases, though, wars may be prolonged simply because they are good business for some people and companies on both sides.

A possible case of this kind of “anti-Seneca” strategy may be found in the campaign that was started in the US in 1914 to provide food for Belgium during the First World War. The campaign is normally described as a great humanitarian success, but in the recent book Prolonging the Agony (2018),  the authors, Docherty and Macgregor, suggest that the relief effort was just the facade for the real task of the operation: supplying food to Germany so that the German army could continue fighting until it was completely destroyed. This interpretation appears to be mainly speculation, but we can't ignore that Belgium was occupied by the German army at that time, and so it could be expected that at least part of the food sent there would end up in German hands. 

Something more ominous took place during the Second World War. By September 1943, after the surrender of Italy, it must have been clear to everybody on both sides that the Allies had won the war; it was only a question of time for them to finish the job. So, what could have prevented the German government from following the example of Italy and deciding to surrender, maybe ousting Hitler, as the Italian government had done with Mussolini? We do not know whether some members of the German leadership considered this strategy, but it seems clear that the Allies did not encourage them. One month after Italy surrendered, in October 1943, Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin, signed a document known as the “Moscow Declaration.” Among other things, it stated that:

At the time of granting of any armistice to any government which may be set up in Germany, those German officers and men and members of the Nazi party who have been responsible for or have taken a consenting part in the above atrocities, massacres and executions will be sent back to the countries in which their abominable deeds were done … and judged on the spot by the peoples whom they have outraged.

… most assuredly the three Allied powers will pursue them to the uttermost ends of the earth and will deliver them to their accusors in order that justice may be done. … <else> they will be punished by joint decision of the government of the Allies.

What was the purpose of broadcasting this document that threatened the extermination of the German leadership, knowing that it would have been read by the Germans, too? The Allies seemed to want to make sure that the German leaders understood that there was no space to negotiate an armistice. The only way out left to the German military was to take the situation into their own hands to get rid of the leaders that the Allied had vowed to punish. That was probably the reason for the assassination attempt carried out against Adolf Hitler on June 20th, 1944. It failed, and we will never know if it would have shortened the war.

Perhaps as a reaction to the coup against Hitler in Germany, a few months later, on September 21, 1944, the Allies publicly diffused a plan for post-war Germany that had been approved at the Quebec Conference by the British and American governments. The plan, known as the “Morgenthau Plan,” was proposed by Henry Morgenthau Jr. secretary of the Treasury of the United States. Among other things, it called for the complete destruction of Germany’s industrial infrastructure and the transformation of Germany into a purely agricultural society at a nearly Medieval technology level. If carried out as stated, the plan would have killed millions of Germans since German agriculture, alone, would have been unable to sustain the German population. The plan was initially approved by the US president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. 

Unlike the Moscow declaration that aimed at punishing German leaders, the Morgenthau plan called for the punishment of the whole German population. Again, the proponents could not have been unaware that their plan was visible to the Germans and that the German government would have used it as a propaganda tool. President Roosevelt's son-in-law, Lt. Colonel John Boettiger, stated that the Morgenthau Plan was "worth thirty divisions to the Germans." The general upheaval against the plan among the US leadership led President Roosevelt to disavow it. But it may have been one of the reasons that led the Germans to fight like cornered rats to the bitter end.

So, what was the idea behind the Morgenthau plan? As you may imagine, the story generated a number of conspiracy theories. One of these theories proposes that the plan was not conceived by Morgenthau himself, but by his assistant secretary, Harry Dexter White⁠. After the war, White was accused of being a Soviet spy by the Venona investigation, a US counterintelligence effort started during WW2 that was the prelude to the well-known “Witch Hunts” carried out by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. According to a later interpretation⁠, White had acted under instructions from Stalin himself, who wanted the Germans to suffer under the Allied occupation so much that they would welcome a Soviet intervention. It goes without saying that this is just speculation, but, since this chapter deals with the evil side of collapse, this story fits very well with it.

There is no evidence that the Morgenthau plan was conceived by evil people gathering in secret in a smoke-filled room. Rather, it has certain logic if examined from the point of view of the people engaged in the war effort against Germany in the 1940s. They had seen Germany rebuilding its army and restarting its war effort to conquer Europe just 20 years after it had been defeated in a way that seemed to be final, in 1918. It is not surprising that they wanted to make sure that it could not happen again. But, according to their experience, it was not sufficient to defeat Germany to obtain that result: no peace treaty, no matter how harsh on the losers, could obtain that. The only way to put to rest the German ambitions of conquest forever was by means of the complete destruction of the German armed forces and the occupation of all of Germany. For this, the German forces had to fight like cornered rats. And it seems reasonable that if you want a rat to fight in that way, you have to corner it first. The Morgenthau plan left no hope for the Germans except in terms of a desperate fight to the last man.

We do not know whether the people who conceived the plan saw it in these terms. The documents we have seem to indicate that there was a strong feeling among the people of the American government during the war about the need to punish Germany and the Germans, as described, for instance, in Beschloss’s book The Conquerors. Whatever the case, fortunately, the Morgenthau plan was never officially adopted, and, in 1947, the US changed its focus from destroying Germany to rebuilding it by means of the Marshall plan.

There have been other cases of wars where there was no attempt to apply the wise strategy proposed by Sun-Tzu, who suggests always leaving the enemy a way to escape. Nowadays, wars seem to be becoming more and more polarized and destructive, just like the political debate. Once a war has started, the only way to conclude it seems to be the complete collapse of the enemy and the extermination of its leaders. The laughter of the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, at the news of the murder of the leader of Libya, Muammar Gaddafi, in 2011 is a case in point of how brutal these confrontations have become. It is hard to see how the trend in this direction could be reversed until the current international system of interaction among states that created it collapses. At least, it should be clear that the anti-Seneca strategy is an especially inefficient way to win wars.

(*) This is a lightly edited text from an early version of the book. 

Friday, March 17, 2023

How Forests Create Rain: a New Study on the Effect of Evapotranspiration

From the "Proud Holobionts" blog
Image created by Dall-E

The idea that forests create rain has been known by peasants for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. The first scientific studies go back to Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859), but the subject remains controversial. Nevertheless, we are starting to understand the deep and complex interactions between the atmosphere and the biosphere. They form a true "holobiont," a system of connected elements that affect each other in non-linear ways. A recent paper published by a research group led by Anastassia Makarieva shows how evapotranspiration, the evaporation of water by trees, modifies the water vapor dynamics and may generate high moisture content regimes that provide the rain needed by the land ecosystem. There is still much that we need to understand about these mechanisms, but one point is clear: forests are a crucial element of the stability of Earth's climate, and they must be preserved as much as possible (U.B.)

Press Release, 14/03/2023

As water scarcity globally grows, and deforestation threatens the remaining natural forests, understanding how vegetation impacts the water cycle becomes increasingly important.  In their new paper, “The role of ecosystem transpiration in creating alternate moisture regimes by influencing atmospheric moisture convergence” published in Global Change Biology (, an international and interdisciplinary team led by TUM demonstrated the existence of two potential moisture regimes – one drier, with additional moisture decreasing atmospheric moisture import, and one wetter, with additional moisture enhancing atmospheric moisture import. In the drier regime, water vapor behaves as a passive tracer following the air flow. In the wetter regime, it modifies atmospheric dynamics.

The team based their analysis on the previously established non-linear dependence of precipitation on atmospheric moisture content – increasing absolute humidity leads to a negligible precipitation increment if the atmosphere is dry, but to a large increment when the atmosphere is sufficiently wet. Combining this dependence with a full consideration of the water budget, the researchers showed that an increase in precipitation in humid conditions facilitated by increased evapotranspiration, should lead to enhanced moisture import. They illustrated these patterns with the data from the Amazon basin and the Loess Plateau in China.

Dr. Anja Rammig (TUM School of Life Sciences and study author) considers these results as having profound implications for the ongoing studies of the resilience of the Amazon forest in the face of the danger of deforestation and climate change. Dr. Scott Saleska (University of Arizona, study author) believes that the new results are in agreement with the profound role of leaf phenology in the Amazon forest for water cycle regulation. By forcing a decline in forest evapotranspiration, deforestation can dehumidify the atmosphere and thus drive the forest into the drier regime where transpiration of the re-growing vegetation would further aggravate aridity by decreasing moisture import. Getting out of this landscape trap could be impossible. Dr. Ruben Molina (University of Antioquia, Colombia, study author) hopes that the study findings will raise the awareness of the importance of tropical forest conservation.

Dr. Andrei Nefiodov (Petersburg Nuclear Physics Institute, Russia) participating in the study says that the new results corroborate the concept of the biotic pump of atmospheric moisture that emphasizes the dominant role of natural forests in transporting moisture inland. Dr. Antonio Nobre (INPE, Brazil, study author) compares this biotic moisture pumping to a beating heart, and highlights the good news: even in arid lands, by restoring the vegetation one should be able to enhance the atmospheric moisture convergence and streamflow. To achieve that, the ecological restoration strategy should be carefully designed to guide the ecosystem transition from the dry to wet regimes.

“I suspect that natural vegetation will be best for maintaining a moist and productive environment as these systems kept the world green and productive long before people got involved” – emphasizes Dr. Douglas Sheil (Wageningen University, author), collaborating on the research. “We do need to take into account the holobiontic relationships among all ecosystem elements that allow for an efficient regulation of the water cycle,” adds another author Dr. Ugo Bardi (Club of Rome, University of Florence).

Anastassia Makarieva (Institute for Advanced Study, TUM, lead author) emphasizes the need for a broad international cooperation in the studies of the ecology of the water cycle: “We have shown that the non-linear precipitation dependence on atmospheric moisture content, first noted by our co-author Dr. Mara Baudena (CNR-ISAC, Italy) and her colleagues, has widely ranging implications. The atmospheric water flows do not recognize international borders, thus deforestation disrupting evapotranspiration in one region could trigger a transition to the drier regime in another. Our results indicate that natural forests of the Earth, in both high and low latitudes, are our common legacy of pivotal global importance as they support the terrestrial water cycle. Their preservation should become a widely recognized priority for our civilization to solve the global water crisis.”

Makarieva, A. M.,  Nefiodov, A. V.,  Nobre, A. D.,  Baudena, M.,  Bardi, U.,  Sheil, D.,  Saleska, S. R.,  Molina, R. D., &  Rammig, A. (2023).  The role of ecosystem transpiration in creating alternate moisture regimes by influencing atmospheric moisture convergence. Global Change Biology,  00,  1– 21.

Sunday, March 12, 2023

Are the Evil Gods Returning? Or is Evil is Inside us?


Benito Mussolini in 1922: is this the face of evil? Maybe, but Mussolini was not worshiping evil deities, he was not eating babies, he was not making human sacrifices. He wasn't even indulging in bouts of satanic laughter, as evil characters are supposed to do. There was nothing behind the mask. Mussolini was just a victim of his own propaganda.  

As a devoted reader of H.P. Lovecraft's stories, I have always found the idea of evil deities fascinating. The existence of supernatural entities that somehow control people's minds could explain a lot of things that otherwise would seem impossible to understand. But Lovecraft's horror stories are so over the top that they are not really scary. His evil Gods are comic book characters, clumsy creatures haunting dark and desolate places. Not even the mighty Cthulhu and his minions ever directly intervened in human political decisions. 

Yet, sometimes you have the sensation that something truly evil is moving in the world. Naomi Wolf expressed the idea most clearly in a recent post of hers.   

I could not explain the way the Western world simply switched from being based at least overtly on values of human rights and decency, to values of death, exclusion and hatred, overnight, en masse — without reference to some metaphysical evil that goes above and beyond fallible, blundering human agency. ...

What we have lived through since 2020 is so sophisticated, so massive, so evil, and executed in such inhumane unison, that it cannot be accounted for without venturing into metaphysics. Something else, something metaphysical, must have done that. And I speak as a devoted rationalist.

Lately, I've been thinking along similar lines. I even argued that worshiping the evil deity Baphomet could be a good idea for really nasty people who want to dominate the world. Overall, though, I think it is not the right explanation. No matter how inexplicable the rise of evil can look, it is still something that comes from inside us, not from the outside. Evil is us, eventually.

The recent release of the "Lockdown Files" in Britain supports this idea. These files contain the messages sent and received by Matt Hancock, the British Secretary of State for Health and Social Care during the lockdown period in Britain. In these messages, Hancock doesn't sound evil. He just writes as if he cared only about himself and his personal prestige. He wanted to "own the exit," and he didn't care about the British people, whom he evidently considered a band of morons. We were mistreated by dumb bureaucrats, not by the minions of evil deities.

Now, I have a stated policy that I call the "Grokking Strategy" that consists in listening to everyone and trusting no one. So, I am perfectly willing to consider the hypothesis that the Hancock files are a psyop designed to divert the public's attention away from the hidden forces that governed the reaction to the pandemic. On the whole, though, I think these files are genuine. They make sense, and they also match other examples of the same kind. For instance, we recently saw similar leaks of messages sent and received by the Italian equivalent of Hancock, Mr. Roberto Speranza, Minister of Health of the Italian government during the lockdown period. We can't swear on the authenticity of these leaked messages, but they fit with the personality of Mr. Speranza. Like Hancock, he was clearly trying to "own the exit." In late 2020, he published an autobiographical book designed to show how he had been valiantly fighting the virus and eventually had succeeded in squashing it. The book was quietly removed from the market when it turned out that the pandemic was not over. Now a printed copy is a rare collector's item.

Speranza and Hancock are just examples of the attitude of many people who reach the top. They are psychopaths, caring only about themselves, unable to feel anything for other people. They have zero or nearly zero empathy. Hannah Arendt describes this attitude for Adolf Eichmann, the German war criminal executed in 1962. 

What he said was always the same, expressed in the same words. The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else. No communication was possible with him, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the words and the presence of others, and hence against reality as such.”

We find another example of this attitude with Benito Mussolini, who ruled Italy from 1922 to 1943, and part of it up to 1945. For him, we have the equivalent of the leaked messages by Hancock and Speranza in the diary kept by his son-in-law, Galeazzo Ciano, who acted as foreign minister up to 1943. In a post of mine I described how the diary tells us of a man who had lost all contact with reality. Mussolini had no friends, just lackeys. He wasn't listening to anyone; he was giving orders. He was not asking questions; he had all the answers. He was not learning from his mistakes; they were always someone else's fault. Worst of all, he had no respect for the life of the people he was supposed to rule. Just as an example, during a cold wave in winter, he was rejoicing because "the weak die, and the race becomes stronger." In 1943, Mussolini ordered the execution of his son-in-law. He didn't care even about the members of his own family. 

Was Mussolini pursuing an evil plan of his own creation? No, he never had structured ideas or plans. You may have some hints of his thoughts from his 1911 novel: "The Lover of the Cardinal." About it. I wrote:

.... I was curious about the possibility of gathering some hints about Mussolini's personality. Maybe his dreams, his goals as a young man, his ideals, this kind of things. But there is nothing like that in the novel. The author comes out of it as shallow as his characters. Which I think is what Mussolini probably was. A shallow character, of modest culture, with no real ideals, and with just a few ideas, but confused. 

Yet, a whole nation followed this man into doing whatever he thought was to be done. Let's skip the many disastrous strategic mistakes he made, and let's just focus on one that was pure evil: the persecution of the Italian Jews. It started in the mid-1930s, and it was a crescendo of harassment and mistreatment. The "racial laws" were enacted in 1938, and the Jews saw themselves fired from their jobs, forbidden to work, and, in many cases, forced to exile. Jews could not be administrators or doorkeepers of houses inhabited by Aryans, dealers in valuables, photographers, sellers of books, children's items, playing cards, and stationery. Jews were also forbidden to be licensed as amateur fishermen, to publish mortuary announcements, to include their names in telephone directories, to own and sell radios, and to join sports or recreational societies. They were forbidden to play chess in chess clubs. Even the Italian "Science" was compact in condemning Jews as an inferior race based on what was presented as a certain and undisputable set of data. See in the image the front cover of a 1938 Italian magazine: it is self-explanatory ("La difesa della razza" means "the defense of the race").

Now, picture yourself in Italy in the 1930s. Why this avalanche of hate against a group of Italian citizens? Many of them had fought for Italy during the Great War, and many were intellectuals, professionals, industrialists, and active elements of the Italian economy. They were indistinguishable from the "normal" Italians, except for their religious beliefs, But even that was not the point, because even those Jews who had converted to Christianity were targeted by the racial laws. You were just subjected to a wave of hate against Jews that pervaded the media of the time: mainly radio and the press.

Who exactly was masterminding this campaign? Obviously, it was created and controlled by members of the Fascist party or by government officials (the two things had mostly merged into a single entity in the 1930s). And, of course, once the story started, there were people or groups of people who directly benefitted from the persecution. Non-Jews took over the positions left free by Jews. For instance, university professors seem to have been more than happy to see their Jewish colleagues fired. At least, no non-Jewish professors protested against the mistreatment of their Jewish colleagues. Others profited from the confiscation of Jews' goods and property. Then, the military industry had everything to gain from a wave of hate that was clearly leading to war. But the surprising point is how the hate percolated through all sectors of society when most Italians had nothing to gain from the persecution. Mussolini himself had no obvious interest in taking an anti-semitic stance. He had taken over the Italian Government in 1922 without the need to demonize Jews, and in 1938 he was safe and secure in his position after the success of the Ethiopian campaign (*). I would surmise that he was a victim of his own propaganda.

Wouldn't you think that some evil deities were at work in causing this disaster? But the Italian Fascists were not the minions of an evil cult. And we don't have evidence that Mussolini himself was a puppet of supernatural entities or of human lobbies. The British secret services may have pushed him to make some of his many strategic mistakes, but there is no evidence that they had a role in the anti-semitic campaign. Evil didn't originate from Mussolini, nor from evil deities behind him. It was generated by ordinary people, just like you and me, who fell into the trap of propaganda. It is easy: you know that the road to Hell is smooth and easy. 

I think there the persecution of Jews in Italy is one of the best examples in history of the phenomenon that Mattias Desmet calls "Mass Formation." It was a self-reinforcing phenomenon: the Italian press started telling people that Jews were evil, people were believing what they were told, and that led the press to step up their accusations, convincing people even more.  And that went on, unchecked: a spiral of evil growing on itself. Soon, nobody, not even the Catholic Church, dared to say a word to defend their fellow Italian citizens so unfairly discriminated against. All the self-reinforcing phenomena tend to grow rapidly, even exponentially. And that was what happened with the anti-semitic campaign in Italy. It grew to the point when concentration camps started being built for the Jews, then these camps became extermination camps. Fortunately, the whole thing crashed with the defeat of Italy in WWII before it could reach the level of the parallel German extermination program. It was a perfect example of a Seneca Cliff -- even evil is subjected to slow growth and fast collapse. 

During the past three years, the whole world has been walking along a dangerous and slippery road toward Hell. In Italy, the Covid policies didn't arrive at the creation of concentration camps, but we got very close to that. They were actually created in Australia. Then, miraculously, something happened that defused the whole thing. Now the story seems to be over, and most people just want to forget about that, just like Italians want to forget the mistreatment that their grandparents and great-grandparents inflicted on Jews. But the elements that created these waves of hate are all in place, and we are all subjected to being affected by a propaganda campaign designed to demonize someone. Who will be the next victims?

(*) I have an idea about what could have been going on in Mussolini's head. It goes like this. First, there is no evidence that Mussolini had anti-semitic ideas for most of his political career. He never wrote anything about Jews, and even in his 1911 novel, the Cardinal's lover, there is no trace of anti-semitism. Mussolini even had a Jewish mistress, Margherita Sarfatti (1880-1961), an intellectual, artist, and writer, from when they met in Milano in 1911. But, in 1933, Mussolini took a younger woman as mistress, unceremoniously dumping the older Sarfatti. From then on, Mussolini started to encourage anti-semitism, becoming a rabid anti-semite himself. Was the whole idea of persecuting the Jews a result of Mussolini's personal dislike of his former Jewish lover? Who can say? If a butterfly can start a hurricane by flapping its wings, some of the mass murders of WWII might have started from a bedroom quarrel. But we will never know. 

Sunday, March 5, 2023

Those Pesky Savanna Monkeys and Their Dreams of Golden Hydrogen


Here we sit in a branchy row,
     Thinking of beautiful things we know;
     Dreaming of deeds that we mean to do,
     All complete, in a minute or two--
     Something noble and wise and good,
     Done by merely wishing we could.
         We've forgotten, but--never mind,
         Brother, thy tail hangs down behind!
Rudyard Kipling -- the Jungle Book

By now, you probably heard the story of "Natural Hydrogen," (or "Gold Hydrogen"), the new source of clean energy that should come for free to us, outgassed from the depths of Earth. In 2020, the idea had been reviewed by Zgonnnik (see also an earlier paper), but the concept is becoming popular after it was described in a lengthy article on "Science" of Feb 17, 2022, and then taken up in an enthusiastic article in the NY times on Feb 27, where Peter Coy defines natural hydrogen as a "Gold Mine of Clean Energy Hiding Under our Feet." 

Citing from the "Times" article, "....from an economic point of view, it doesn’t make any sense” to use electricity to produce hydrogen, transport the gas and then extract the energy through combustion or a fuel cell. But if hydrogen is available in gaseous form in the ground, the economics suddenly work."  So, the energy problem is solved. Move on, folks, now we can restart economic growth. 

What's wrong with this idea? Nothing. And everything. There is nothing wrong with finding hydrogen seeping out from the ground. Earth is a huge ball of rock, and it may well be that, somewhere, it contains free hydrogen, maybe even large amounts in comparison with human needs. Unfortunately, everything is wrong with the idea of exploiting that hydrogen as an economic resource. Here, we always stumble on the same problem: most people don't understand the difference between amount, and concentration. A resource is not a resource if it is not concentrated enough. Actually, it has to be concentrated a lot if extracting it has to make sense in economic terms. 

Think of the two resources that made our modern world: oil and gas. By a miracle of geology, you can find them concentrated and nearly pure in the structures we call "wells." Drill a hole into one of these wells, and often oil will flow out by itself in huge gushes. Sometimes you have to pump it out, but it still remains a miracle that you can have so much of it, and so concentrated. That's how we could create an entire civilization based on it.  

It is not always so easy: concentrated mineral resources are very rare in Earth's crust. The problem is best explained by the example of gold. There are large amounts of it dissolved in seawater: tens of millions of tons. It is a lot of gold, but that's because there is a lot of seawater. If you look at the concentration, we are talking of something around 0.005 parts per billion (ppb) or, if you prefer, a few parts per trillion. That's way too low to make extraction feasible, as it was discovered by the German chemist Fritz Haber in the 1920s when he tried to extract gold from the sea to replenish the coffers of the German state, depleted by the Great War. Actually, he had been experimenting with the idea even before the war, but he failed anyway; it was simply impossible. If it is not concentrated enough, it is not a resource. 

So, could there exist underground deposits of natural hydrogen concentrated enough to be usable in practice? We can't say; we only have several reports of hydrogen seeping out of the ground in places scattered all over the planet. There is only one case where one of that seeps is actually used as an energy source. It is in Mali, at Bourakebougou, where natural hydrogen is said to be powering an electricity generator. What is clear, anyway, is that hydrogen will NOT accumulate in the same structures that nicely keep oil and gas safe and concentrated for us -- at least not for a long time. It is such a small molecule that it tends to seep through more or less anything. 

We can all be happy for the inhabitants of Bourakebougou who can have electric power for free. Maybe there are other places where the flow of natural hydrogen can be profitably exploited. But don't forget that we have been drilling holes in the ground for almost two centuries. We found a lot of oil and gas, but no hydrogen wells. Granted, the analytical equipment needed to detect hydrogen was not available in the early times of the oil age. And it is also true that geologists soon honed their drills on the geological features they knew could contain hydrocarbons. But if there were amounts of exploitable hydrogen comparable to those of oil and gas, it is hard to think that they would have been missed for so long. 

I could also list for you a host of further good reasons that make hydrogen extraction problematic, if not impossible. Not the least important one is that we are starting from scratch for a resource of which we know little or nothing, noting that for known mineral resources, it takes an average of 17 years from discovery to the start of production. And consider that hydrogen cannot use the same infrastructure of pipelines used for natural gas. To transport pure hydrogen, the whole system needs to be rebuilt from scratch. But let me not go into the details. The question is: what are we thinking of doing, exactly? What justifies this sudden burst of enthusiasm? 

Peter Coy, in the NY Times, doesn't find a better argument to promote natural hydrogen than citing how the British navy introduced citrus fruit in the diet of sailors to prevent scurvy in 1753. Yes, citrus was a small medical miracle, but miracles are rare and don't come on demand. Rather, "natural hydrogen" looks like a small propaganda operation: a pie in the sky conceived to let us believe that we don't have to worry about anything, no need for changes or sacrifices. We can keep using our beloved fossil fuels because, even if they run out, there is a substitute "hiding just below our feet." 

In the end, this story is another illustration of the fantasy of a primate species that arose a few million years ago, abandoning their ancestral forests to move into savannas. Those savanna monkeys have been very successful in many things, including burning huge amounts of fossil hydrocarbons. A dangerous habit that's likely to lead to their extinction because of the damage it is causing to the whole ecosystem. What's remarkable, though, is how easily those monkeys can get excited about novelties, and think that their dreams will be "All complete, in a minute or two" and "Done by merely wishing we could." A description by Rudyard Kipling about the fictional "Bandar Log," the monkeys of the "Jungle Book," but that he surely meant to be also applied to those savanna monkeys known, perhaps improperly, as "homo sapiens."

An Australopithecus Africanus, one of the first savanna monkeys. Surely smart and creative, they were the start of a tradition of dreaming the impossible that continues to this day.