The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."
Showing posts with label disaster. Show all posts
Showing posts with label disaster. Show all posts

Saturday, May 20, 2023

The Seneca Effect Blog is Closing Down

The Internet is full of angry people shouting insults at each other. Take it easy, fellows, do as a good stoic would do. Accept the will of the Gods, but keep doing your duty and help others as much as you can. And have a little fun, when you can.

The moment has arrived: after about two years of posting on the "Seneca Effect" blog; I see that a cycle is concluded: look at the stats: 

Clearly, it is not possible to continue in these conditions. It is time to reshuffle, retrench, regroup, reconsider, rebuild. The "Seneca Effects" will close, and I'll transfer my writing elsewhere. 

To create a strategy for the future, first of all, I need to understand what went wrong. Why this remarkable "Hubbert Curve"? I can think of more than one reason, but essentially two: 1) The blog has been sabotaged by the search engines, Google in particular, and 2) the blog has evolved into something that readers find confusing. 

About the first hypothesis, there are surely elements of truth in it. I already discussed it in a previous post, and the majority of commenters agreed that they couldn't find the blog in the first rows of their search engine, except if they used "Bing." Apparently, Microsoft likes me, but Google doesn't. There is nothing especially conspiratorial in this. It already happened for my old "Cassandra" blog. And I, for one, bow down in front of our new memetic overlords! 

About the second hypothesis, it has elements of truth as well. The blog has evolved along with my personal views. I am normally classed together with the "catastrophists," and the idea of the "Seneca Cliff" can be seen as being as catastrophist as catastrophism can be. But my position is much more articulated than that: I see myself as a modern stoic. I accept the will of the Gods, but I consider it my duty to help people (including myself) to avoid the incoming disaster. 

The problem is that some people seem to have internalized the idea that collapse is unavoidable, and they don't seem to be able to think of a better way to face it than turning themselves into poor peasants (or dreaming the same thing thereof). My view, instead, is that we have to build a resilient society by means of renewable energy and that it is possible to do that with the currently existing technology. 

You may or may not agree with my position; the point is that many people are confused by a blog that has a title that hints at a coming collapse while it deals with ways to avoid collapse (the same problem that "The Limits to Growth" study had: few people understood what the authors were trying to do). So, they see my position as "treason" and proceed to insult me as a result. I prefer to close the blog than have readers like these.  

Apart from a number of hopeless cases of people really gone papayas, the problem is that a blog (or any kind of publication) must have a certain consistency. Many bloggers succeeded in growing their readership by always posting the same thing, only with minor variations (I have a few ones in mind, but let me not name names). That's not strictly necessary, but I understand that the aims of the "Seneca Effect" blog, as it is now, are confusing for many readers.  

So, it is time for the Seneca blog to fold over and for me to move onward. The two "souls" of the blog will find their places in two different blogs. The discussion on energy will move to the existing blog "The Sunflower Paradigm." It has been a marginal blog so far, but you can note that it is reasonably easy to find. And its readership is growing.

Then, how about my meditations on history, art, philosophy, stoicism, and the like? They might go to my existing blog, "Chimeras." Or maybe to a new blog that could be titled "Meditations" à la Marcus Aurelius?  I am still thinking about that. Suggestions are welcome. In the meantime, here is the latest post I published on Chimeras.


After 50 years of Catastrophism, we are now facing the cliff. What would Seneca do?

The Raft of the Medusa, a painting by Theodore Géricault (1818). It seems to illustrate the way some people feel in the current situation: survival implies throwing other people out of the raft. 

Lucius Annaeus Seneca, the Roman Philosopher, never was a catastrophist, but he understood that in life you have to expect ups and downs. And that when things go bad, they go bad fast (festinantur in damnum). This is what I called the "Seneca Effect.

Seneca was a stoic, a person steeped in the views of his times. It was an age when people understood that their control of the vagaries of life was limited. Sickness, ruin, pain, and death were facts of life for people who had no aspirin, no life insurance, and no dentists. In the stoics' view, bad moments had to be accepted and lived as a test of your moral fortitude, not as an excuse to forget one's duties in life. Seneca, just like all of us, had his defects. But when the final moment came for him, he accepted his destiny with dignity and serenity. 

And here we are, what holds for a single person holds for humankind. We are facing a serious downturn, a decline that could be so rapid to call it a cliff. Half a century after the serious warning of "The Limits to Growth," we not yet falling, but we are on the edge. We start seeing the chasm ahead while the fog of time clears. 

Is this becoming a test of moral fortitude for humankind? Unfortunately not. Humans are dividing themselves into tribes that fight each other, so far only verbally. Some just refuse to look ahead. Others think that, when jumping from the cliff, they'll be able to fly. Others search for someone to blame. 

A mixture of ignorance and aggressivity is generating a tremendous wave of hate; at least from what I can see in the comments to another post of mine. These people seem to think they are already on the raft of the Medusa, the French ship that was wrecked at sea in 1816. Only 15 out of the 146 people stranded on the raft survived. And they did that by throwing the others into the sea and recurring to cannibalism. 

But we are not there yet. There is still space for avoiding the sandbanks. We still can do our duty to live and help others living. Be a good stoic; do not lose hope, and do not fall into cruelty. 

Sunday, January 1, 2023

A Post for the New Year: Do we Still have a Chance to Avoid Collapse?

The article below is an attempt to propose (once more) to the general public the main results of "The Limits to Growth" study of 1972. It is a brief text that appeared in a major Italian newspaper (Il Fatto Quotidiano) on Dec 30, 2022. The limits of length of these articles are, typically, under 800 words, so I had to be extremely synthetic (for an in-depth assessment, see our recent book, "Limits and Beyond"). Mainly, I was curious to see how people would react to my rather blunt statements. 

One good thing about "Il Fatto" is that there is no censorship on comments (except for extreme cases) and so people are free to express themselves as they like, including insulting the authors of the articles ("Liar!" "Idiot!" "Snake Oil Seller!"). As I said in a previous post, I listen to everyone and I trust no one. So, even the most rabid and insulting comments are a chance to grok somethingFor this article, as for many others on "Il Fatto," I received personal attacks because I am too catastrophistic, and also because I am not catastrophistic enough. Some comments are nearly completely incomprehensible and, as usual, people tend to take refuge in impossible nuclear dreams. But I received also a few comments from people who seem to have understood how things stand. We'll see how the debate evolves, for the time being, I am reporting a few translated comments after the main text. 

Happy new year, everybody! 

2022 has been a difficult year for climate and energy. But there is still some hope

Di Ugo Bardi -30 Dec 2022

The year 2022 was a year of great transformation and great difficulty. To assess what lies ahead in the coming year, we might start with the fact that 2022 was the 50th anniversary of the publication of the 1972 study The Limits to Growth. It was not a prophecy, but an analysis of current trends. It said that, if nothing changed, we could expect the beginning of an irreversible decline of the world economy in the first decades of the 21st century. The result of the combined effect of natural resource depletion and pollution.

These are phenomena that occur over a multi-decade span, but the events of 2022 are in line with the trajectory already outlined 50 years ago. Today, the "World System" looks like one of those old cars that loses parts all over the place, consumes fuel like a truck, and pollutes like a coal-fired power plant. In addition, the mechanics not only do not know how to fix it, but they spend their time fighting each other.

We are in trouble on all fronts, first and foremost with fossil fuels. After the Covid-19 crisis of 2020, production showed some recovery, but only a partial one. As for natural gas, Europeans had become accustomed to cheap Russian gas, and this year they got a nasty surprise. Replacing Russian gas will not be easy, and surely the costs of liquefied natural gas are much higher. Not to mention the costs of the infrastructure needed to handle it. And let's say nothing about coal, which is expensive, impractical, and polluting. As for nuclear power, the costs are truly out of this world. It is discussed seriously only where dictatorial governments can afford to embark on expensive and uncertain ventures.

Then there is agriculture, for which fossil fuels are needed for fertilizer and all production operations. At present, the world's agricultural production is fairly stable, but prices are rising everywhere. This is putting the poorest in dire straits. According to FAO data, we are close to having one billion hungry people, and the numbers are growing. In parallel, the growth of the world population has seen a remarkable slowdown. Globally, it is still growing but, if current trends continue, in a few years we may see the beginning of an irreversible decline. On this point, The Limits to Growth was even too optimistic, proposing that the human population could continue growing despite the economic downturn.

About climate, The Limits to Growth saw climate change (part of the general pollution problem) playing a major role only after the beginning of the collapse of the economic system. It may be that, even in this area, the analysis was correct. For the time being, climate change caused regional disasters, rather than global catastrophes. That does not mean we can ignore the problem. The concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere continues to increase and, with it, the earth's temperature. At the same time, no one seems to care about doing anything serious about it anymore, as seen with this year's Cop27.

In short, we are in bad shape. It certainly seems that The Limits to Growth was even more prophetic than its creators themselves expected.

But there are also positive findings that the 50-year-old study could not account for. One is the discovery that the Earth's ecosystem can have an important cooling effect on climate. Not that this will get us off the hook but, if we treat both forests and marine ecosystems better, we can do something good to reduce the effects of greenhouse gases. Another positive factor is the disruptive growth of renewable energy, which today has such low prices that it has no competitors.

If we can get a few decades of peace, perhaps even just one or two, we can expect solar and wind power to replace most fossil fuel energy production. By coupling renewables with higher efficiency of use, we could greatly reduce the problems of both energy availability and emissions.

Can we do it? Maybe we can. And if we work at it, the most pessimistic scenarios of the Limits to Growth will not come true. So happy new year to all!


Some examples of comments (translated from Italian)

From "Diomedes01" (insults)

The usual idiocies of the end of the year! The author is not an ecologist but an anti-nuclear and is willing to write baloney. The IEA wrote that the most economical energy ever is nuclear energy in any way you count! Instead the author says it is the most expensive when the most expensive are renewables that are made competitive by excluding from costs more or less everything! At the end of the day for the author better fossil and gas than nuclear and we talk about green transition! Ha ha ha.

From "Cortisol0" (nearly completely incomprehensible)

... If we are to have any hope people like you must be relieved of the social role you have, as you of how to solve this crisis from innate human behaviors incompatible with having developed science and technology that combined in tools=machines allow you to release and apply monstrous amounts of energy modifying both the natural energy flow, and the ecosystem, you will never admit it, as it is to develop precisely science and technology claiming endless growth, that the current environmental disaster is being produced and it is only possible with your PRIMARY contribution and denying that it is the fault of this combined conjugate because you are the most guilty of all and once it emerged you would be immediately prosecuted popularly for it and your career and life would be irremediably ruined, while the state and its power demand more and more science and power for weapons and social control, so you pretend to seek a solution when the solution as the initial act is to eliminate this dynamic you are part of with the state.

From "MarcoMx" (good understanding of the matter)

"One is the discovery that the Earth's ecosystem can have an important cooling effect on climate." I'll bet a coffee on that. The planet will not watch unresponsive to our stupidity, it will find a way to cool itself, plants and greenery we are late in defending will grow them themselves. If, however, in the equation we were able to bring the war factor, including armaments and related costs, to zero, or almost zero, the equation would become solvable without much difficulty. We would have much more resources for everything, hunger, energy transition, and pollution. By the way, the popularizers of the climate crisis almost never talk about the burden of weapons and wars (to think the worst...). But one only has to look at the figures to see that it is decisive, over $2 TRILLION each year.  If we fail to do this, well then all the consequent problems we deserve, including eventual extinction. In that case, we would be left with billions of cell phones full of the latest selfies ... the aliens who find them after thousands of years will come to the inevitable conclusion, "What a cocksucker civilization."

Monday, October 17, 2022

The Dark Side of Nuclear Fusion: A New Generation of Weapons of Mass Destruction?

In December 1938 the atomic era was born in Otto Hahns beakers at the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gesellschaft zur Förderung der Wissenschaften in Berlin, now Max Planck Institutes, where fission of uranium and thorium was discovered. In the image, the discovery as shown in Walt Disney's movie "Our Friend, the Atom" in 1956

This is a guest post by Giuseppe ("Pepi") Cima, retired nuclear researcher. It summarizes a number of facts that are known, in principle, but largely hidden from the public. Basically, research on nuclear fusion, sometimes touted as a benign technology able to produce energy "too cheap to meter," is often financed because of its military applications. The search is for an "inertial confinement device," that would detonate without the need for a trigger in the form of a conventional fission bomb. These devices could cover a range of destructive power that could go from tactical warheads to planet-bursting weapons. Fortunately, we are not there, yet, but Cima correctly notes how the current situation is similar to the way things were in the 1930s, when a group of bright scientists started working on nuclear chain reactions with the objective of unleashing the awesome power of nuclear fission. At the time, it was an enormously difficult challenge, but the task could be accomplished by means of the lavish financial support provided by the psychopathic criminals who were in power at the time, who were motivated by the perspective of developing an enormously powerful weapon. Today, we do not lack money for military research, nor do we lack criminals at the top, so we can only hope that the task of turning nuclear fusion into even more powerful weapons of mass destruction will turn out to be unfeasible. Unfortunately, we can't be sure about that and, if they are making good progress at that, surely they won't tell us. (U.B.)

By Giuseppe Cima

In February 1939, Leo Szilard, who had already thought of the chain reactions for energy in 1934, conceived the possibility of a bomb of extraordinary power. In September 1939 Szilard, with Eugene Wigner and Edward Teller, the soul of the H-bomb and the only one with a driving license, all Hungarians, went to see Albert Einstein who was on vacation on the New Jersey shore: it was already clear what to be afraid of. Szilard knew Einstein well from the Berlin years; they had jointly patented a new type of refrigerator. This time the idea was a device that could destroy an entire city in one blast. Together, they wrote a letter to President Roosevelt and almost nothing happened for about two years.

I can visualize the three Hungarians with a strong European accent, in Washington, trying to convince the Uranium Committee: a general, an admiral, and some mature scientists. "We canna make a little bomba and it will blow up a whola city." How could they believe it? But, in August 1945, six years later, nuclear power had changed the world, quickly ended world war two, and started an industry the size of the automotive one.

After a few years, Otto Hahn became a fervent opponent of the use of atomic energy for military purposes. Even before Hiroshima, Szilard, one of the most brilliant minds of the time, was ousted from anything to do with nuclear power, he devoted himself full-time to biology and in 1962 started the Council for a Livable World, an organization dedicated to the elimination of nuclear arsenals. In a 1947 issue of The Atlantic, Einstein claimed that only the United Nations should have atomic weapons at their disposal, as a deterrent to new wars. 

Why should we recall these episodes now? Because something similar is occurring today with nuclear fusion.

The essential fusion

Today, most people probably have some idea of what nuclear fusion is, even the Italian prime minister, Mr. Mario Draghi, spoke about it at a recent parliament session. Although energy can be produced by splitting uranium nuclei in two, it can also be produced by fusing light atomic nuclei. We have all been taught that this is the way the sun works and it has been repeated to boredom by people with a superficial knowledge of these processes, such as the Italian minister for the ecological transition Roberto Cingolani. But not everyone knows that if helium could be readily generated by two hydrogen atoms, our star, made of hydrogen, would have exploded billions of years ago in a giant cosmic bang. Fortunately, the fusion of hydrogen involves a "weak" reaction and is so slow and so unlikely that, even with the extraordinary conditions of the sun's core, the energy density produced by the reaction is about the same as that of a stack of decomposing manure, the kind we see smoking in the fields in winter.  To radiate the low-level energy produced in its giant core the sun, almost a million kilometers in diameter, must shine at twice the temperature of a lightbulb filament when is on.

To do something useful on Earth by means of nuclear fusion, one can't use hydrogen but needs two of its rare isotopes, deuterium and tritium, not by chance the ingredients of H bombs. The promoters of fusion for pacific purposes don't mention bombs, but this is precisely what I want to talk about, the analogies between fusion now and what happened in the 1930s and 1940s.

Peaceful use?

Reading what was written by the scientists who worked in nuclear fusion in the early years of the "atomic age" shows that the development of an energy source for peaceful use, energy "too cheap to meter", is what motivated them more than anything else. The same arguments were brought forward by Claudio Descalzi, CEO of ENI, a major investor in fusion, addressing the Italian Parliamentary Committee for the Security of the Republic (COPASIR) in a hearing of December 9th 2021: fusion will offer humanity large quantities of energy of a safe, clean and virtually inexhaustible kind.

Wishful thinking: with regard to "inexhaustible," we cannot do anything in fusion without tritium (an isotope of hydrogen) which is nonexistent on this planet and most of the theoretical predictions, no experiments to date, say that magnetic confinement, the main hope of fusion, will not self-fertilize. Speaking of "clean" energy, Paola Batistoni, head of ENEA's Fusion Energy Development Division, at reactor shutdown envisages the production of hundreds of thousands of tons of materials unapproachable by humans for hundreds of years.

However, the problem I am worried about here is a military problem, mostly ignored, even by COPASIR, the Parliamentary Committee for the Security of the Republic. There are many reasons to worry about nuclear fusion: the huge amount of magnetic energy in the reactor can cause explosions equivalent to hundreds of kilograms of TNT, resulting in the release of tritium, a very radioactive and difficult to contain gas. On top of it, with the neutrons of nuclear fusion, it is possible to breed fissile materials. But the risks that seem to me most worrisome in the long run will come from new weapons, never seen before.

New Weapons

To better understand this issue, let's review how classical thermonuclear weapons work, the 70-year-old ones. Their exact characteristics are not in the public domain but Wikipedia describes them in sufficient detail. For a more complete introduction, I recommend the highly readable books by Richard Rhodes. There exist today "simple" fission bombs, which use only fissile reactions to generate energy, and "thermonuclear" bombs, which use both fission and fusion for that purpose. Thermonuclear bombs are an example of inertial confinement fusion (ICF), where everything happens so quickly that all the energy is released before the reacting matter has the time to disperse.

The New York Times recently announced advances in the field of inertial fusion at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab in California with an article reporting important findings from NIF, the National Ignition Facility. What really happened was that the 192 most powerful lasers in the world, simultaneously shining the inner walls of a gold capsule of a few centimeters, vaporize it to millions of degrees. The X-rays emitted by this gold plasma in turn heat the surface of a 3 mm fusion fuel sphere which, imploding, reaches ignition. Ignition means that the fusion reactions are self-sustaining until the fuel is used up. As described in the article, without an atom bomb trigger, a few kilograms worth of TNT thermonuclear explosion occurs as in the conceptually analogous, but vastly more powerful, H-bomb of Teller and Ulam from the fifties. 

Fig. 1 Diagram of the Teller-Ulam thermonuclear device. The explosion is contained within a cavity, technically a "hohlraum", in analogy to the gold capsule of the NIF experiment but hundreds of times bigger.

We don't have to worry about these recent results too much, for now, NIF still needs three football fields of equipment to work, nothing which one could place at the tip of a rocket or drop from the belly of an airplane, but its miniaturization is the next step.

In fusion, military and civilian, particles must collide with an energy of the order of 10 keV, ten thousand electron-volts, the 100 million degrees mentioned everywhere speaking of fusion. Regarding the necessary fuel ingredients, deuterium is abundant, stable, and easily available. Tritium on the other hand, with an average life of 10 years, can't be found in nature and only a few fission reactors can produce it in small quantities. The world reserves are around 50 kg, barely enough for scientific experiments, and it's thousands of times more expensive than gold. The fusion bombs solved the tritium procurement issue by transmuting lithium 6, the fusion fuel of Fig. 1, instantaneously, by means of fission neutrons. In civilian fusion, instead, the possibility of extracting enough tritium from lithium is far from obvious. It is one of the important issues expected to be demonstrated by ITER, a gigantic TOKAMAK, the most promising incarnation of magnetic fusion, under construction in the south of France with money from all over the world but mainly from the European community. The Russians, who invented it, and the Americans, the ones with most of the experience in the field, are skeptical partners contributing less money than Italy. The NIF inertial fusion experiment, instead, is financed by the Pentagon with billions of dollars, the most expensive fusion investment to reach ignition. 

Along the lines of NIF, there is also a French program, another country armed with nuclear weapopns. CEA, the Commissariat à l'Energie Atomique, Direction des Application Militaires, finances near Bordeaux the Laser Méga-Joule (LMJ), three billion euros and operational since October 2014. Investments like these show the level of military interest in fission-free fusion and so far they are the only ones who have achieved self-sustaining reactions.

Private enterprises

In the private field, First Light Fusion, a British company, has already invested tens of millions to carry out inertial fusion by striking a solid fuel target with a tennis ball size bullet. The experimental results consist, for now, of just a handful of neutrons. The amount of heat generated is, so far, undetectable, but the energy of the neutrons, 2.45 MeV, corresponds to the fusion of deuterium, the material of the target. I cited First Light Fusion to indicate that there is interest in inertial fusion even in private companies outside nuclear weapons national laboratories. Marvel Fusion, based in Bavaria, is another private enterprise claiming a new way to inertial confinement ignition.

For those wondering if the 12 orders of magnitude of difference for the density of the fuel needed in comparison to that of solid matter, and that of TOKAMAK, the one of a good lab vacuum, hide alternative methods to carry out nuclear fusion for peaceful and military purposes, the answer is certainly positive. Until now, in academia, before the advent of entrepreneurs' fusion, no proposal seemed attractive enough to be seriously pursued experimentally. The panorama could change in years to come, the proposal of General Fusion, Jeff Bezos's company to be clear, is of this type: short pulses at intermediate density. One wonders if the CEO of Amazon is aware of sponsoring research with possible military applications.


The idea of ​​triggering fusion in a deuterium-tritium target by concentrating laser radiation, or conventional explosives, has long fascinated those who see it as a potentially unlimited source of energy and also those who consider it an effective and devastating weapon. At the Frascati laboratories of CNEN, the Comitato Nazionale per l'Energia Nucleare, now ENEA, Energia Nucleare e Energie Alternative, we find examples of experimentation of both methods in the 70s, see "50 years of research on fusion in Italy" by Paola Batistoni.

According to some sources, the idea of ​​triggering fusion with conventional explosives, as in the Frascati MAFIN and MIRAPI experiments of the mentioned CNEN review report, was seriously considered by Russian weapon scientists in the early 1950s and vigorously pursued at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory during the 1958-61, the years of a moratorium on nuclear testing, as part of a program ironically titled "DOVE".

According to Sam Cohen, who worked at the Manhattan Project, DOVE failed in its goal of developing a neutron bomb "for technical reasons, which I am not free to discuss." But Ray Kidder, formerly at Lawrence Livermore, says the US lost interest in the DOVE program when testing resumed because "the fission trigger was a lot easier". It didn't all end there though, it is instructive to read now an article that appeared in the NYT in 1988, which describes a nuclear experiment carried out in order to verify the feasibility of an inertial fusion explosion not triggered by fission, such as Livermore's NIF. In addition to showing the unequivocal military interest in these initiatives, the article gives an idea of ​​the complexity, and slow pace, of their development. Nevertheless, the initiatives of the 80s seem to be bearing fruit now.

Modern nuclear devices are "boosted", they use fusion to enhance their yield and reduce their cost but the bulk of the explosive power still originates from the surrounding fissile material, not from fusion. However, there are devices where energy originates almost exclusively from fusion reactions such as the mother of all bombs, the Russian Tzar Bomb. With its 50 megatons, a multi-stage H, the addition of a tamper of fissile material would have greatly enhanced its yield but it was preferred to keep it “clean”.

It is important to underline that the H component of a thermonuclear device, unlike fissile explosives, contributes little to long-term environmental radioactivity. Uncovering the secrets of the ICF could indicate how to annihilate the enemy while limiting permanent environmental damage. It is the same reason why civilian fusion is claimed to be more attractive than fission: the final products, mostly helium, are much less radioactive than the heavy elements characteristic of fission ashes. As mentioned earlier, radioactivity nonetheless jeopardizes the usefulness of civilian fusion in other ways: a heavy neutron flux reduces the already precarious reliability of the reactor, and radioactivity protection greatly increases its cost.

Despite the rhetoric of some press advertising, the relevance of ICF for energy production is minimal for many reasons: first of all, as in the case of NIF, the primary energy, the supply power of all devices involved, is hundreds of times higher than the thermal energy produced by the reactions, the quasi-breakeven reported refers to the energy of the laser light alone. Even more importantly the micro-explosion repetition rate and the reliability necessary in a power plant constitute insurmountable obstacles.

Where do we stand?

Back to ICF, the Lawrence Livermore National Lab's NIF experiment is funded by the Department Of Defense aiming at new weapons while complying with yield limits imposed by the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT). The Question of Pure Fusion Explosions Under the CTBT, Science & Global Security, 1998, Volume 7. pp.129-150 explains why we should be concerned about pure fusion weapons presently under investigation.

With nuclear fusion, we are witnessing a situation similar to what appeared clear to many of the scientists who participated in the development of weapons at the time of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: nuclear energy is frighteningly dangerous while potentially useful for producing energy and as a war deterrent.

With fusion, the balance between weapons and peaceful uses seems to be even more questionable, making further developments harder to justify. Fusion weapons, which will arrive earlier than reactors, are potentially more devastating than fission with a wider range to both higher and lower yields. Low-power devices, while remaining very destructive, would not carry a strong deterrent power, and the super high-power ones, hundreds and thousands of megatons, would have catastrophic consequences on a planetary level. On the other hand, electricity production by fusion seems now less and less likely to work out, economically less attractive than the already uninviting fission.

The wind and photovoltaic revolution, rendering the already proven nuclear fission obsolete despite the urgency of decarbonization, are making fusion unappealing even before it's proven to work. At the same time, possible military applications should discourage even the investigation of fusion tritium technologies. At the very least, new research regulations are needed.

It's a collective choice

Is "science" unstoppable in this instance?

First of all, I would characterize these developments as a purely technological development than a scientific one. We are talking of applications without general interest, not a frontier of science. Fusion is a "nuclear chemistry" with potentially aberrant applications, in analogy to other fields which are investigated in strict isolation. Fortunately, fusion is an economically very demanding technology, impossible to develop in a home garage. Working on fusion can be, at least for now, only a collective choice that reminds the story of the atomic bomb at the end of the 30s, but at a more advanced stage of development than when Szilard involved Einstein to reach Roosevelt. Is the genius is about to come out of the lamp?

Author's CV - I researched nuclear fusion in labs and universities in Europe and the US, publishing around 100 peer-reviewed papers in this field. After losing faith that a deconstructionist approach to fusion could yield better reactor performances than already indicated by present day experiments I started an industrial automation company in Texas. I have now retired in Venezia, Italy, where I pursue my lifetime interests: environmental protection, energy conservation, teaching technology and science, and, more recently, mechanical watches. Giuseppe Cima

Previously published in Italian on Scenari per il Domani, sep 14 2022

Thursday, September 22, 2022

Who Controls Those who Control Us? Why a Lone man at the top is the Most Dangerous Thing in the World

In the game of chess, you win when you eliminate your opponent's king. In the real world, instead, killing the enemy leader is a much less effective strategy in comparison to being able to influence his choices in ways that harm his side. Here, I am examining the case of Benito Mussolini in Italy. Could it be that Mussolini was influenced, if not controlled, by the British secret services? It may have been one of the first cases of "one-man psyops" designed with the purpose of taking control of the mind of an enemy leader. Maybe something similar can explain some of the horribly bad decisions that our leaders are taking nowadays.

It never was a secret that Benito Mussolini started his political career as a shill for the British secret services. His task was pushing Italy to join the allies in World War One. Recent data show that, in 1917, he was still being paid by the British M15 to the tune of 100 pounds per week, a respectable sum at that time. 

We don't know what role the British Services had in Italy in the events after the end of WW1, but it is likely that they continued to support Mussolini, directly or indirectly. The British wanted a stable Italy that they saw as a staunch ally and a barrier against the ambitions of rival powers in the Mediterranean sea. Italy had played that role from when it had been created as a unified state, in 1861, with the help and financing of the British.

Italy was friendly to Britain, yes, but not a disinterested friend. Italians wanted something in exchange for their friendship, and they had it in the form of coal. Italy had no significant coal reserves, it was fully dependent on imports. It was British coal that had created the Italian industrial economy, from the early 1800s onward. That created a relationship between the two countries that many defined as a true brotherhood (fratellanza). But things changed in 1913, when Britain went through its "peak coal." Production stopped increasing and was disrupted by strikes and social unrest. 

Britain still had enough coal for its internal needs, but exports were affected. This was especially bad for Italy, which saw a precipitous drop in coal imports after the end of WWI. At that time, the change of mood toward the British in Italy was palpable. D. H. Lawrence reports in his "Sea and Sardinia," published in 1921, how insulting the "English" was a common subject of conversation among Italians. 

Now, put yourself in the shoes of someone who managed the British secret services in the early 1930s. It must have been clear to them that there was a problem with Italy. An enormous problem. Germany's coal production was still increasing and Germany could easily supply 100% of Italy's needs. Then, Italy and Germany were natural allies. Germany had no direct strategic interests in the Mediterranean sea, while Italy could use Germany's support to become the leading Mediterranean power. By taking control of the Suez Canal, Italy could effectively kick Britain out of the Mediterranean: truly a disaster for the British Empire. (Italy actually tried to do exactly that in 1940).

And then, Mussolini himself: another headache for the British who were discovering that they had created a golem they couldn't control. In 1933-34 two more things happened that made the situation critical. First, in 1933 Adolf Hitler took power in Germany. Then, in 1934, Mussolini held a referendum that gave him a majority of 99.84% percent of the votes. The two dictators shared views and methods, and the road was now open to the Rome-Berlin "Axis." It would be formalized in 1936.

Again, let's see the situation from the viewpoint of the British. Facing a confrontation with Germany, it was vital for them to do something to remove Italy from the game or, at least, to weaken it considerably. But how? Directly toppling Mussolini was unthinkable. But it may well be that the British still had some direct communication channels with him (and, by the way, Mussolini could speak English). So, when you have to deal with someone who is too powerful to attack directly, you use indirect means. Find his weak spot, and set up a trap. And Mussolini did have a weak spot: his dream of rebuilding the Roman Empire. 

Up to 1934, the Imperial dreams of Mussolini had been mostly for show: people dressed like ancient Romans parading in the streets, the ubiquitous "fascio" symbol, and the outstretched arm in the "Roman Salute," even though the Romans had never saluted each other in that way. And then, suddenly, there came the idea that, by attacking Ethiopia, Italy would recreate the Roman Empire. It had a certain perverse logic: since the King of Ethiopia had the title of Negusa Nagast (king of kings) he could be defined as an "emperor," Then, by defeating him, the King of Italy could take his title and become emperor. Never mind that the ancient Romans never had Ethiopia as a colony, they barely knew it existed. It was a recipe for an "instant empire."  

Italy had two colonies on the border with Ethiopia, and also an old grudge against Ethiopia, having been defeated by the Ethiopians at the battle of Adwa in 1896. But, up to 1934, nothing in the propaganda arsenal of the Fascist regime had identified Ethiopia as an important enemy or a target to be attacked. I went to examine the archives of one of the national newspapers, "La Stampa." I found that, before 1934, there was basically nothing about Ethiopia, except a few articles about local folklore. I also re-read D.H. Lawrence's "Etruscan Places" (written in the late 20s). It was, in many ways, a strong accusation against the Fascist regime, but Lawrence never mentions that Italy had Imperial dreams in Ethiopia. 

Then, on 5 December 1934, there came the "Walwal incident." Italian and Ethiopian troops clashed at the border of Ethiopia and Somaliland, with losses on both sides. From that moment, the Italian press started a campaign of accusations against the Ethiopians said to be attacking the Italian possessions in Eritrea. There started to appear the idea of the "civilizing" mission of Italy in that barbarous country and, finally, the whole soup was sparkled with references to the glory of the Roman Empire that Fascist Italy was going to recreate. And, yes, also young Ethiopian women were part of the deal for the conquerors. 

Less than one year after the Walwal incident, Italy invaded Ethiopia with a force of nearly 700,000 men, an enormous effort for a relatively poor country like Italy. After about 8 months of fighting, Ethiopia surrendered and the King of Italy happily (presumably) took upon himself the title of "Emperor of Ethiopia." The enthusiasm in Italy was beyond what anyone could have imagined: true enthusiasm, not just propaganda. How this mad idea could be swallowed so easily by most Italians is one of the greatest mysteries I encountered in my life. Apart from raping Ethiopian women (which was surely done on a large scale) what did they think exactly to accomplish? But let me not harp on that. 

Just consider the story from the viewpoint of the British. For them, it was an incredible success. First of all, they had been able to deflect the Italian strategic effort toward an objective that, for the British, had little importance. Second, they were forcing Italy to keep a large military force in a region where they had no direct connection with the mainland: it could be resupplied by sea, and only as long as the British allowed it. More than that, the costs of the military campaign and of maintaining the occupation of a land that remained hostile were a tremendous burden. The British then proceeded to further cripple the Italian economy by imposing economic sanctions and zeroing coal exports to Italy. The reaction in Italy was expressed with the slogan "noi tireremo diritto" ("we'll keep going onward"). But it was a devastating blow. Remarkably, the Italians had inflicted all the damage on themselves by themselves. 

A few years later, when World War Two started, the Italians were woefully unprepared. Their military equipment was obsolete, their economy weak, their troops insufficient. At the start of the war, the British proceeded to mop up the Italian forces in Ethiopia: an easy task since the Italians rapidly ran out of supplies. In the meantime, the Italian attempt to march on Suez in 1940 was a major catastrophe. But imagine that they had been able to deploy in Egypt the 120,000 fully equipped troops stranded in Ethiopia. Then, maybe history would have been different. But so it goes. 

Now, the big question: how did the British accomplish this miracle of deception? It may not have been so difficult. The secret of propaganda is no secret at all: just repeat the same thing over and over, letting no contrasting voices appear. Then, you can dominate minds. You saw how well it worked during the past two years with so many good people swayed just because they heard the same things over and over on TV, and they had no contrasting sources of information.

Dictators are not necessarily better than ordinary people at eschewing the destructive action of propaganda. They may, actually, be an even easier target, being often isolated in a knowledge bubble that admits no contrasting voice. We know that, by the 1930s, Mussolini was a lone man at the top, surrounded by yes-men, sycophants, and profiteers. He had no friends who could tell him things that he was not happy to hear, so he was the perfect target for a one-man psyop (using a modern term). Already in 1925, Britain had agreed to sign a treaty known as the "Anglo-Italian Agreement" that said, essentially, "if you want to invade Ethiopia, go ahead, we won't move a finger to stop you." Mussolini may have thought that the British were afraid of him and that they were trying to appease him with concessions. In any case, he waited to be strong enough before acting on this treaty, but eventually he acted the way the British probably were expecting he would. Perhaps, there were other factors (*), but we'll never know for sure. 

The story of Mussolini's attack on Ethiopia is an example of a deception technology that consists in convincing an enemy leader to engage in an attack that he believes will be a cakewalk. Then, sitting back and enjoying the fireworks before intervening for the killing blow. It may have been used against Iraq at the time of Saddam Hussein. And it may have been used in recent times. Note that I don't mean that a leader who squanders his country's resources in a senseless military campaign shares the evil qualities of Benito Mussolini (a racist, bloodthirsty psychopath). It is just that all strong leaders are potential victims of this kind of "one-man psyops." As you know, history rhymes and one of these rhymes goes, "a lone man at the top is one of the most dangerous things in the world."

I already examined the fateful years when Benito Mussolini led Italy to utter defeat in World War 2. My previous posts can be found at these links

(*) We may speculate about the role of a specific person in convincing Mussolini that attacking Ethiopia was a good idea. Margherita Sarfatti (1880-1961) was his lover, confident, and mentor from when they met in Milano in 1911. Sarfatti was a Jewish intellectual, an artist, and a writer, sometimes credited with having "created" Mussolini's public image. But she was three years older than him and, with time, her influence on him started to fade. In that fateful year, 1933, Mussolini took another woman as mistress, Claretta Petacci, 28 years younger than him. In the same year, Sarfatti also saw the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany, and she couldn't have missed what it meant for her and for the European Jews in general. It was only in 1938 that Sarfatti was forced into exile, but we may imagine that in 1933 she still had a chance to influence Mussolini and deal a deadly blow to him. Did she titillate his vanity by telling him that he could really become the Emperor of a newly created Roman Empire? Was she influenced by the British secret services in order to do that? We shall never know, but one thing is sure: Sarfatti understood perfectly the mechanisms of political power and she was a master propagandist. As an example, here is a piece she wrote -- it seems -- while the Ethiopian invasion was ongoing. I do not hesitate in classing it as one of the best pieces of propaganda ever written. Read and savor it in all its details: it is truly a masterpiece if you remember that propaganda is aimed at simple minds using simple concepts. 




When the Abyssinians came upon us treacherously at Uol-Uol, the Duce curbed his anger and said: "in Geneva in Switzerland, there is the league of nations that we Italians also founded, so that justice and good agreement between the peoples may be created. Let's hear what they think to do in Geneva to give us satisfaction "

Instead, Geneva washed her hands in her lake: "I don't know anything, the rifles may have fired by themselves". "Oh yes?" said The Duce. "Is this your way of understanding justice? It is no longer the time to make fun of Italy, now we are in the 15th year of the Fascist era".

And he called all the generals of land and air, and the men of the sea, and said, "We must settle old and new accounts with that land of wild slaves. This is the coast of Africa, march down from the North and up from the South, and go and get me all of Ethiopia, with the capital Addis Abeba. I will take care to provide you with men, weapons, ships, orders, and food".

"All right," said the admirals and the land and air generals. "It will be done. Long Live The Duce! Long Live The King!" And all the young men of Italy ran under the tricolor flag with the insignia of the Fascio Littorio, to volunteer in Africa for Italy.

Margherita Sarfatti




Quando gli abissini ci vennero addosso a tradimento a Uol-Uol, i Duce frenò la collera e disse: «A Ginevra nella Svizzera, vi è la Società delle Nazioni che abbiamo fondato anche noi italiani, perchè metta la giustizia e il buon accordo fra i popoli. Sentiamo cosa pensano di fare a Ginevra per darci soddisfazione »

Invece Ginevra si lavò le mani nel suo lago: «lo non so niente, i fucili avranno magari sparato da soli». «Ah si?» disse il Duce. «È questa la maniera vostra di intendere la giustizia? Non è più il tempo di prendere in giro l'ltalia, adesso siamo nell'anno XV dell'era fascista». 

E chiamò tutti i generali di terra e d'aria, e gli ammiragli del mare, e disse: «Bisogna regolare i conti vecchi e nuovi con quel paese di schiavi selvaggi. Questa è la costa dell'Africa, Marciate in giù dal nord e in su dal sud, e andate a prendermi tutta l'Etiopia, con la capitale Addis Abeba. A darvi gli uomini, le armi, le navi, gi ordini e i viveri penso io».

«Va bene», dissero gli ammiragli e i generali di terra e d'aria. «Sarà fatto. Viva il Duce! Viva il Re!» E tutta lo gioventù d'Italia correva sotto la bandiera tricolore con l'insegna del Fascio Littorio, a battersi volontaria in Africa per l'Italia.

Margherita Sarfatti


Sunday, September 4, 2022

The Rise of the Key Opinion Leaders: the End of Politics as we Know it?


In ancient Japan, a "kagemusha" (shadow warrior) was an impersonator who took the aspect and the role of the actual leader. It was simply a decoy to be used in battle but, in our times, the problem for leaders is not so much to avoid bullets but to avoid the much more powerful propaganda techniques that may destroy them. The result is the rise of a new kind of kagemusha, the KOLs (Key Opinion Leaders). The KOLs do not impersonate the true leaders, but express their ideas and plans in public, taking the blame for the failures and the mistakes that may result. The real leaders, instead, remain in the shadows. The KOLs operate in many fields, not just in politics. For instance, they are popular in science. But, their presence in politics is becoming more and more evident. 

I met a top-level KOL (key opinion leader) for the first time in 2005 when I was organizing a conference on energy. The Tuscan Regional Government was sponsoring the conference, and they wanted a high-profile speaker. So, they insisted on inviting Jeremy Rifkin, the author of "The Hydrogen Based Economy" (2001). I disagreed, but they were those who paid for the conference, so we had to invite him. Rifkin wanted $10,000 as a fee, a first-class plane ticket, and VIP treatment. He got all that in exchange for a talk of about 45 minutes, in which he said nothing new or especially interesting. He took no more than a few questions, giving vague answers, then he disappeared, leaving for another conference. He didn't even stay for the speakers' dinner.   

That was at a time when the KOLs were still relatively rare -- I think the acronym didn't even exist. But, over the years, the term is becoming common, even though the term "influencer" remains more frequent. Normally, the term KOL is applied to fashion and performing arts. You see in the image a typical example.

There also exists a line of KOLs operating in science. Carl Sagan (1934–1996) was an early incarnation of the KOL scientist. He started his career as a first-class scientist, but he was among the first to suffer from what was later called the "Sagan Effect." It describes how scientists who move into popularization soon become "celebrity scientists" and tend to neglect or abandon real scientific research. Emil Kirkegaard calls them "the Kardashians of Science." Another example is Neil deGrasse Tyson.  (*) 

Both Sagan and Tyson did a good service to science with their popularization efforts, but that is not always the case. The KOLs may well distort or falsify the results of scientific research, depending on who are their sponsors. It is, simply, corruption. The scientist who takes a few steps into the media, soon discovers that there is good money to be made there. Much more money than what an average scientist can even dream of. Then, they discover that the more time they can dedicate to the media, the more money they can make. Soon, the (former) scientist starts to operate in the "pieceworker mode." They move from one conference to another, from an interview to another, trying to cram as many of them per day as possible. 

How much are the KOLs of science paid? Of course, that depends on rank. I already told you about the fee that Jeremy Rifkin mustered in 2005, today it must be much more for top-level KOLs. I could give you the names of scientists who ask fees of the order of Eur 20,000-30,000 for participating in a conference, and they are not the top stars in their fields. In Italy, the fee of a middle-level virologist during the pandemic, Ilaria Capua, was reported to be $2000 for ten minutes of a TV interview. More famous virologists surely make more. But of course, much of the money provided by the industry for the KOLs is shrouded in consultancies, teaching fees, honoraria, and various perks (conferences in fashionable resort places, for instance). There are also plain salaries that can be very high. As an example, for years, Tony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was the highest-paid government employee in the United States with more than $400,000 per year. And he surely had additional sources of income. 

As you can imagine, the corruption problem is especially bad in medicine, where a lot of money can be made by promoting specific products. On this, you may read the book by Peter C. Goetsche "Deadly Medicine and Organized Crimes." (2013). Goetsche is a somewhat controversial figure for his radical stance on several subjects, but his description of the behavior of the KOLs in medicine is both stunning and realistic. Formerly, they may have been good scientists but, at some moment, they switched to the dark side, being paid to promote the products that the industry sells. They are in for the money, there is little else that matters to them.

Now, stop for a moment and think of what all this means. Imagine yourself interviewed on TV: you are paid $200 per minute (could be much more) for just a few minutes. What are you going to say? Chances are that what you'll say will be a concise, clear, and unequivocal version of what you are expected to say by those who pay you. No time for subtleties, no time for describing alternatives, and no time for mentioning uncertainties. If you have more time, say, you give a talk at a scientific meeting, you are also paid much more. Then, will you want to say anything that displeases your sponsors?

All that is bad enough by itself. But science is not independent of politics, as you know, and that may well make things worse. During the COVID crisis that started in 2020, the public was suddenly exposed to a complex and difficult topic that they had never seen before: they were told about statistical data, such things as mortality, lethality, herd immunity, and much more. In the great confusion, they tended to rely on familiar figures that looked trustworthy. Tony Fauci was by far the most visible of them in the US, followed at some distance by figures such as Rochelle Walensky and Francis Collins. They justified and promoted whatever the government thought was a good idea to do. The government, in turn, acted following the advice of these and other KOLs, who were promoting the products of the pharmaceutical industry. Science, KOLs, and money became an unholy mix that created immense damage. But so goes the world. 

The KOLs may now be spilling into politics. The first actor to become a high-rank politician was Ronald Reagan, but he was far from being a "puppet president", although he profited from his experience as an actor to manage his public image. In recent times, though, we are seeing actors becoming frontmen for figures who remain backstage. A good example is Vladimir Zelensky, president of Ukraine. Independently of what you think of what's happening in Ukraine, Zelensky is clearly a modern kagemusha: an actor playing the role of the president. The way he dresses, the short beard, the posture, all are part of a character that could have starred in a movie, except that the war in Ukraine is all too real. Because of the dangers involved in the current situation, it is understandable that the Ukrainian powers that be much prefer a kagemusha as president rather than to appear themselves on stage. In the picture, you see also the French President, Emmanuel Macron, who may have tried to copy Zelensky's warlike style. 

So far, Zelensky remains a relatively isolated case. But it is possible that the KOL fashion will spread to other countries and other leaders. As an example, I can cite Mr. Matteo Salvini in Italy. As the leader of the League, he became deputy prime minister in 2018, and he is still a member of parliament. Salvini is popularly known in Italy as "Captain Nutella," owing to his penchant to present a public image of himself while eating junk food. He was never an actor, but he started his career as a participant in a TV game show, and he does not have much more than that in his professional CV (**). Incidentally, I have the impression that Zelensky took Salvini as a model; the same beard, the same style of dressing in sweatshirts, the same populist rhetoric. Not the Nutella, though. 

I would not be surprised if Salvini, or some other equally shallow kagemusha-style character, will soon take the job of the prime minister of Italy. This winter we are going to see a serious crisis in which many Italians will find themselves without heating at home and with no fuel, no electric power, and no jobs. At that point, the Nutella will hit the fan, as they say. I don't envy the person who will find him or herself in the role of the prime minister at that moment. The job could become as dangerous in Italy as it is in Ukraine now and, as you know, in Italy we already had a case of a prime minister hanged upside-down. Surely, during the coming hard times, the really powerful people will prefer to take a low-profile role. 

So, are we going to have KOLs as leaders everywhere?  The trend is surely visible. But, if you are worried about the end of politics, I can reassure you. In my personal experience, and I have personally known several high-ranking politicians in Italy, they are not actors playing the role of the evil character. They are really evil! And, KOLs or no KOLs, they'll continue ruling us. 


(*) On a personal note, my career as KOL was nipped in the bud when I was invited to speak about nuclear energy in a debate on a national channel in 2010. It was a time when the Italian government had big plans for new nuclear plants. The people who had invited me had noted that I was involved in peak oil studies and, from that, they must have deduced that, since I was against fossil fuels, I had to be favorable to nuclear energy. During the debate, I mentioned the problems of the availability of mineral uranium, and I mentioned the "uranium peak." Immediately, they cut me off. Just like that: I disappeared from the screen and the debate went on without me. And they never invited me again. Had I been a little smarter, I could have made some money by becoming a nuclear KOL, but so it goes.

(**) The populist image that Salvini proposes to his constituency doesn't mean that he is dumb. Not at all. On the contrary, he is a smart guy, perfectly able to catch opportunities when they appear. I think he would be better than many others as Prime Minister in Italy. 

Monday, November 15, 2021

Limitarians and Cornucopians: what Surprises from Technological Progress?


Resource depletion, ecosystem disruption, population growth, and technological change are interacting with each other in a tsunami of changes that always take us by surprise. The surprises that technological progress may be bringing are among the most unpredictable drivers of change. Yet, it is not impossible to reason about how our society could be transformed by some disruptive technological innovations. Here, Luca Pardi discusses the most recent report by "RethinkX," a group of remarkably sharp and creative people. They are hard to define as "pessimists" or "optimists," but they surely understand that change is unavoidable. 

by Luca Pardi

The debate among limitarians (Robeyns, 2017) and cornucopians is periodically morphing into that among doomsters and optimist-utopians. The limitarians have a generally gloomy view about the future availability of resources while the cornucopians tend to believe that shortages, always possible for many reasons in the short run, were proved not to be a problem in the past, so will not be in the future, at least in the long run. Doomsters-limitarians are also pessimistic about the environmental crisis and its paradigmatic representation: the climate change predicament. Optimists retort that the problem is amplified by anti-capitalistic ideological views and that a combination of technology and local and global policies will draw us, as has always been the case in history, out of dire straits. And the debate goes on forever!

There is a Think Tank named RethinkX that tries to be above or, better, ahead of this ideological deadlock. They are both: doomsters and optimists with a strong slant toward technological disruptive innovations. In a crescendo of techno-optimistic hypes they reach a climax in their last document Rethinking Humanity where they envisage that:

The prevailing production system will shift away from a model of centralized extraction and the breakdown of scarce resources that requires vast physical scale and reach, to a model of localized creation from limitless, ubiquitous building blocks – a world built not on coal, oil, steel, livestock, and concrete but on photons, electrons, DNA, molecules and (q)bits. [page 5]

This amazing statement summarizes and amplifies the outcomes of their previous documents about food, energy, and mobility. According to RethinkX each of the main five producing sectors of our global civilization: food and energy production, materials extraction, mobility, and communication/information, will witness a jump of at least one order of magnitude in efficiency, thanks to a combination of Schumpeterian (disruptive) innovation and cultural change within local communities. All of this in the span of time between now and 2035. Pretty good!

And here it comes the doomsters side.

The intervening decade will be turbulent, destabilized both by technology disruptions that upend the foundations of the global economy and by system shocks from pandemics, geopolitical conflict, natural disasters, financial crises, and social unrest that could lead to dramatic tipping points for humanity including mass migrations and even war. In the face of each new crisis we will be tempted to look backward rather than forward, to mistake ideology and dogma for reason and wisdom, to turn on each other instead of trusting one another. If we hold strong, we can emerge together to create the wealthiest, healthiest, most extraordinary civilization in history. If we do not, we will join the ranks of every other failed civilization for future historians to puzzle over. Our children will either thank us for bringing them an Age of Freedom, or curse us for condemning them to another dark age. The choice is ours. [page 6]

A new dark age is not ruled out, the apparently tragic outcome of an unrealized transition, should press us to act now. And “us” is not a general “us” it is exactly us, you that are reading this post as well as me writing it and those who generally in the last few decades showed to be concerned about the destiny of humanity and civilization. Incumbent leading classes are not included in the “us” they are simply unable to help much:

Dark ages do not occur for lack of sunshine, but for lack of leadership. The established centers of power, the U.S., Europe, or China, handicapped by incumbent mindsets, beliefs, interests, and institutions, are unlikely to lead. In a globally competitive world, smaller, hungrier, more adaptable communities, cities, or states such as Israel, Mumbai, Dubai, Singapore, Lagos, Shanghai, California, or Seattle are more likely to develop a winning Organizing System.[page 6]

They do not say that there will be salvation, but that we have the technical means and the human resources, to get there. It is a question of finding the social and political means.

The fact that technology is always a source of new problems is a useless truth and useless is to complain about it. Taking technology away from humans would be like removing fangs from lions or stings from wasps. We have been like this since before we were Homo sapiens. Five million years ago Homo habilis was already doing things our chimpanzee cousins ​​can't. Humans must follow their path to the end because it is theirs. Fortunately, the path is not unique and our intelligence must apply to understand which paths appear to be less traumatic. The bad news is that nobody will come to save us from outside leading the cavalry, we are alone.

Is this actually bad news?


Robeyns, I., 2017. Wellbeing, freedom and social justice: the capability approach re-examined. OpenBook Publishers, Cambridge, UK.


Luca Pardi is a senior researcher in chemistry at the Italian Research Council (CNR), former president of the Italian section of the association for the study of peak oil (ASPO). He is the author of the recent book "Picco per Capre" dedicated to peak oil