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 ecosystem. Show all posts
Showing posts with label ecosystem. Show all posts

Friday, December 24, 2021

Science, Forests, Bears, and Clouds

 From "Kelebek," Miguel Martinez's blog

by Miguel Martinez

Last night at sunset, a big chill, dark red clouds to the west. And the half moon, above the black cypress trees to the right, silhouetted against the fire of the dying sun.

Below  Bellosguardo, that silent little wall where sometimes a black cat walks, and to the left you can see the snow on the mountains, and, below, the city of the old enemy, Fiesole....

We go up towards Marignolle, and Marco recites to me the verses of the mad poet, Dino Campana:

To the ghostly garden of mute laurels

To the green garlands

To the autumnal earth

A final greeting!

Walking between the silent walls that hide the secrets of an occult city, we arrive at the villa of the ancient family.

From one end of the great hall, Abraham looks at us in an eighteenth-century painting, as he prepares to sacrifice Isaac; from the other end, the ancestor of the family looks at us in a portrait, and has the same beard and the same look (and faith) as Abraham. And between the two, the menorah, on the wooden sideboard that bears the date MDCXXXVII engraved on it.

We gathered to hear Anastasija Makarieva, black hair, almond-shaped blue eyes and high cheekbones, from the Institute of Nuclear Physics in St. Petersburg. An institution heir to that other half of the world, which not only managed to build Soviet atomic bombs from scratch, but explored worlds unknown to Westerners.

Anastasija (with the accent on the "i") doesn't deal with atomic bombs at all, but with forests.

We've all heard of the forests of the Amazon, but we never talk about the perhaps even larger ones that stretch from the Baltic to the Pacific.

Now, as an oriental language major who has a hard time telling an ash tree from an elm, who hasn't taken notes, and is going from memory, I'm going to try to report to you what Anastasiya said, any nonsense is just my own.

It is said that we are living an immense environmental crisis, linked to CO2 emissions with related global warming; and that we must therefore reduce these emissions.

Which however has a huge consequence: if the problem is too much CO2, we reduce CO2 even at the cost of an extermination, end of the problem. The war against climate change is all there.

The scientists in St. Petersburg do not deny the issue of emissions at all, but they say that there is another factor, which is perhaps even more important, that is leading us towards climate catastrophe.

If life exists, it exists because the biosphere exists; and the biosphere is intimately linked to something the Russians call the biotic pump.

Trees are apparently remarkably incompetent machines: they disperse 90% (I'm quoting from memory) of the water they absorb into the atmosphere.

But coastal trees catch what little water the sea sends down to the earth; they alone, through evapotranspiration, are able to make what by its nature goes down go up. Emitting not only water, but also other substances that allow the water to condense, they form clouds, and through various very complex mechanisms - which complement those known to meteorology - they create winds, which bring moisture inland.

And they therefore allow life on the continents, and generate rivers. So, life on earth depends on the forest world. But it's not enough to plant millions of trees at random, as the technogreens would like to do.

Anastasija tells us about the fir trees, planted en masse at the beginning of the twentieth century, in Bohemia, which today have been infested and destroyed in a short time by pests, because there is no variety; about the problem of coeval trees - the biotic pump really works only when there is the set of trees of many generations, with the whole surrounding ecosystem.

And an American artist listening to us tells of a friend of his, who in order to recreate a forest, very slowly took the humus of a still intact forest, with all its variety.

Siberia and Amazonia are the two forest poles of the world, in their immense diversity. But for some reason, the Siberia they're selling off to the multinational timber industry doesn't seem to interest anyone.

"I've only been to Siberia twice," Anastasija admits. "But every year my partner and I camp in a tent on the coast of the White Sea."

Once we saw a bear. From very far away... so we got closer.

We found him in front of us, and then I felt inside me, what the bear was thinking inside his head: the end had come!

He looked one last time at the sea, then turned around, trying to show as little as he could of his profile. And then suddenly, he gathered all his strength, and ran off into the woods!"

And she gives us the picture of the owl, seen in a tree far, far north, with which we open this story.

Monday, April 12, 2021

The Sixth Law of Stupidity: Why Humankind may be the Stupidest Species in the Whole Ecosystem


 Illustration by James Donnelly for the original 1976 paper by Carlo M. Cipolla "The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity" Recently, Ugo Bardi and Ilaria Perissi reviewed his work on the basis of modern Biophysical Economics arriving to validate and extend the laws. Not only, as Cipolla said, stupidity is common and dangerous among humans, but humans may be the stupidest species in the whole ecosystem!


I remember having met Carlo Maria Cipolla in Berkeley in the 1980s. At that time, I wasn't involved with biophysical studies, but I was already a fan of his work. His treatise on stupidity was truly a masterpiece of intelligence and humor. Then, his description of money forgers in Florence during the Middle Ages included also a mention of some of my remote ancestors, no doubt very enterprising people, actually too much! Cipolla was an incredibly brilliant writer and, in real life, he was charming, generous, and modest.

Cipolla's work on stupidity has been in my mind for a long time. His ideas on the matter were so simple and yet so deep. And he was expressing these deep concepts in a plain language that everyone could understand. The "third law," the basic one, is expressed as "A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons, while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses.

So simple, and it happens all the time. We are surrounded by stupidity, embedded in stupidity, accomplices of stupidity, perpetrators of stupidity. It seems to be a sort of cosmic ether that permeates everything and, unlike the ether of physics, it really exists. But why is it so common?

Recently, we got together with my coworker Ilaria Perissi, and we started thinking about making a model of Cipolla's law. Ilaria has been modeling the production cycles of fisheries using the biophysical model called the "Lotka-Volterra" model and, together, we published an entire book, "The Empty Sea," on that subject starting from those studies. (as you can see in the picture, Ilaria is very proud of that book: her first book in English!).

As you probably know, the Lotka-Volterra model is supposed to describe the interaction of two populations: predators and prey. It is often called the "Foxes and Rabbits" model. But it is much more than that. It is a simple model that goes very deep into the concept of "potential dissipation" that dominates the functioning of complex systems in the real world. 

So, not surprising that the Lotka-Volterra model could give us some deep insight into Cipolla's intuition. According to our interpretation, stupidity occurs when the dissipation of an energy potential goes too fast: the result is what we call "overexploitation" in which people exploit a resource to the point of destroying it, and damage themselves in the process. Fortunately, we also found that these systems can adapt in the long run. In an evolutionary system, stupidity punishes itself, but it takes time. Unfortunately, we are still in the midst of what could be the greatest stupidity wave that the ecosystem ever saw in its nearly four billion years of existence.

Here is the introduction to our paper. You can read it on ArXiv (we are planning to publish it in a scientific journal soon). It is written according to the rules of formal scientific prose, but one of our purposes in writing it was to follow Cipolla's example and demonstrate that a scientific paper need not be incomprehensible and boring!

The 6th Law of Stupidity: A Biophysical Interpretation of Carlo Cipolla’s Stupidity Laws

Ilaria Perissi and Ugo Bardi
Dipartimento di Chimica – Università di Firenze.
Polo Scientifico di Sesto Fiorentino, via della Lastruccia 3
50019 Sesto Fiorentino (Fi) - Italy


Carlo Cipolla’s “stupidity quadrant” and his five laws of stupidity were proposed for the first time in 1976 [1]. Exposed in a humorous mood by the author, these concepts nevertheless describe very serious features of the interactions among human beings. Here, we propose a new interpretation of Cipolla’s ideas in a biophysical framework, using the well-known “predator-prey,” Lotka-Volterra model. We find that there is indeed a correspondence between Cipolla’s approach – based on economics – and biophysical economics. Based on this examination, we propose a “6th law of stupidity,” additional to the five proposed by Cipolla. The law states that “humans are the stupidest species in the ecosystem"


In 1976, the economist and historian Carlo M. Cipolla (1922-2000) wrote an essay titled “The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity.” Initially, it was only a pamphlet circulated among friends [1], but later it was published as a book [2]. Written in a tongue-in-cheek style, Cipolla’s text analyzed human behavior using a simple semi-quantitative model in the form of two individuals (“agents”) interacting with each other in performing an economic transaction.

Cipolla reasoned in terms of the payoff of each transaction, arranging the possible outcomes as a quadrant divided into four subsectors. One of the two agents may gain something at the expense of the other, but it may also happen that both profit from the exchange. The worst possible situation is the one in which both lose something. The kind of agents who cause someone else’s loss while damaging also themselves in the process were labeled by Cipolla as “stupid people.”

From there, Cipolla went on defining the five “laws of stupidity” as 1) Always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation. 2) The probability that a certain person will be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person. 3) A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses, 4) Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals, and 5) A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person.

Today, Carlo Cipolla may well be better known for his quadrant and the five laws, that he probably thought of as a joke, than for his academic papers. One of the reasons for this popularity is that these ideas ring true: they make sense according to our everyday experience. Indeed, Cipolla’s ideas have been examined, discussed, and modeled in various ways for instance in terms of game theory [3] and of agent-based modeling [4].

Here, we wish to take a fresh look at Cipolla’s theory using a biophysical approach. That is, we will frame Cipolla’s quadrant in terms of a complex system similar to biological ones. We’ll use the model known as the “Lotka-Volterra” (LV) one, also known as the “predator-prey” or “Foxes and Rabbits” model [5], [6]. Our examination leads us to propose a “6th law of stupidity” that applies to the whole ecosystem and that has that “Humans are the stupidest species on Earth.”


Read the whole Paper on ArXiv