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 overexploitation. Show all posts
Showing posts with label overexploitation. Show all posts

Monday, May 17, 2021

Give a man a fish, and he will eat for a day. Teach a man how to fish, and you'll find that he already knew that better than you

The UN program "The Ocean Decade" is starting this year. It is supposed to be ten years of research, assessment, and development of what the world's oceans can provide to humankind and how that can be managed in a sustainable manner within the concept called "The Blue Economy". It is a good idea, in general, but from what I saw up to now, many of the participants in the program are still anchored to the view that the Oceans contain large, untapped resources that can be exploited within the model of "sustainable development," normally understood in terms of economic growth. 

That may be a remarkable misunderstanding. As we explain in our recent
book "The Empty Sea," the world's oceans do contain enormous resources, but it is also true that -- like all biological resources -- overexploitation is a misunderstood risk that always takes people by surprise. 

It is a mistake done over and over: when the yield of a fishery goes down, governmental agencies think it is a good idea to provide fishermen with more powerful boats and other technological tricks. It works, just until it doesn't. Then, it makes things worse. Overexploited fish stocks collapse, leaving fishermen with plenty of useless hardware and the sea reduced to a desert. 

Below, Paul Jorion tells a story that provides much food for thought in this field: the pretense of Western "experts" to know more than the local African fishermen and to help them by means of more powerful engines and better fishnets. And, as usual, the result was plenty of wasted money, possibly worse than that. The apparent inability of the Fishermen of Benin to produce as much fish as produced in nearby regions was not because they were bad fishermen. It was because of the lack of fish off the coast of Benin.

"Upwelling" is a concept discussed in some detail in our book, it is the oscillating phenomenon that characterizes the "El Nino/La Nina" cycles off the Peruvian coast. Upwelling brings nutrients to the surfaces and generates the growth of the fish stocks. The lack of upwelling has the opposite effect. The sea is a complex environment, you can see it as a giant holobiont that goes on in cycles, as living systems often do. You must understand these cycles, you can't fight them with technology. If you try, you'll destroy the very resources that make you survive. In this case, the fishermen of Benin had perfectly well understood how to deal with the lack of upwelling: you don't fish. 

Jorion doesn't say what happened with the program, but he hints that it was carried out and that it failed, badly -- as it had to. Will we ever be able to understand that growth is not always the solution for all problems?


By Paul Jorion

The FAO project in Benin aimed at developing fisheries in the country. It had been observed that, unlike neighboring countries, coastal fishing was languishing there. Benin was living at that time under a Marxist-Leninist regime and it was considered in high places at the United Nations that the time had come to intervene also in countries whose government was of this type.

Our project was sponsored by Denmark and Japan. Its objective was to discover the reasons for the weakness of fishing and to remedy them. As is often the case with development aid projects, the conclusion we would come to was pre-established: we could read it in the fact that Denmark had offered nets and Japan Yamaha outboard motors.

A preliminary survey on the situation in Benin had been carried out a few weeks before my arrival by a British anthropologist colleague: Jacob Black-Michaud, who had highlighted in a report of about thirty pages the mediocrity of the local fishery. This report established that, for some unknown reason, fishermen in Benin did not manage to fish with the same skill as observed in neighboring countries. The rationale for the United Nations to come to their aid lay there.

I had a real affection for Jacob Black-Michaud, whom I had previously had the opportunity to meet during an evening in Cambridge. His career had been similar to mine: from the university environment to anthropology applied to development projects in the field. But unlike me, who loved to deal with reality, he lived the transition from university life to that of a bush adventurer like a downfall. I would share his sentiment, but at a different time: when, fourteen years later, at the age of fifty-one, I was recruited for my first job in the United States: a programmer in a subprime loan company. I would have the opportunity to ask myself then, like him in Benin: "How did you get there: what happened to you?" 

It is always with real emotion that I think back to him and to our conversations about the deep meaning of our profession and the challenges of what is called "development aid". Black-Michaud had lived in Ceylon an experience that had transformed him on a personal level but also made him cynical on these subjects. I remember our last conversation: I didn't share his belief that anything we did was wasted (and my own experience would convince me that it was indeed not, despite the sheer size of some obstacles to come up against.) and I told him.

He wrote to me shortly before the Christmas holidays. Unfortunately, I was not surprised to learn a few weeks later that during a ski tour he had fallen to his death, having fallen from an overhang.

It was therefore necessary to find out why the performance of coastal fishing in Benin was so disappointing. In Houat, I went to a good school for the fishing profession, and also to a good school in Cambridge, in terms of mastering analytical tools. The first thing I did, with the help of a team of "statisticians" that the project had enabled me to recruit, was a census of the eight fisherman camps in Benin (including Beninese and Ghanaian people) who had been selected for our mission. project.

A census allows, among other things, to build an age pyramid. This is a very simple exercise in graphing the age composition of a population. After having counted the people of each sex of such or such age, this number is represented on a horizontal scale, the men on the left and the women on the right, by convention. The age groups are stacked along a vertical scale graduated according to age: children between zero and one year old are shown at the base, while the highest age group is shown. which belongs to the oldest person still alive.

For each age group, a line is drawn whose length is proportional to the number of people of that age. As with aging and accidents people die, the general shape tapers upwards. In traditional populations ravaged by very high infant mortality, the figure generally had the shape of a pyramid, the steps of which were made up of age groups. 

The pyramid is generally asymmetrical at the top: thicker on the female side for the reason that everyone knows that in all societies, women live longer than men and there are therefore more women than men at the top.

However, the age pyramids of my villages all had the same unexpected shape: asymmetrical, showing a very noticeable dip on the side of men in the age groups of fifteen to forty-five years. The interpretation was unequivocal: men in their prime were missing out. Where could they possibly be?

I went to see the women: "Where are the men I asked?" "In Liberia, Gabon, Congo!" They replied, adding:" Where there is fish. Not like here!" The men followed the fish, often leaving the women behind. Sometimes the women followed their men, in trucks, along the coast. I would discover that the Beninese had the reputation of being outstanding fishermen wherever they went fishing, returning periodically to the country, either seasonally or after stays that lasted several years. The men we saw in Benin, for example practicing the "beach seine" (this long pocket-shaped net that is spun off with the help of a boat after leaving one of its two ropes retained by a team on the beach, and which is then folded down after having brought the second rope back to the beach, the two teams then hauling the pocket by its two ends), were either those occasionally returning, those who came to see their families, or, and essentially, the disabled and the sick ones. I had involuntarily innovated, I had introduced a new style in development projects in West Africa: I had spoken to the people we said we wanted to help!

The explanation for the absence of fish in large quantities in Benin is the absence of "upwelling ", a thermal phenomenon: the upwelling of cold water from the depths near the coast, allowing an algal bloom. diatoms on which the larvae of mollusks and crustaceans feed. The upwelling allows the plankton (phytoplankton and zooplankton), basic food fish, to grow. The upwelling moves along the coast of West Africa but it rarely develops in the Gulf of Guinea, in the area stretching from Benin to the west of Cameroon. In this area, fish are rare.

It was neither laziness nor incompetence that explained the mediocrity of fishing in Benin but the thermodynamics of the oceans. I explained this to my colleagues. It turned out very badly: the remedies available to us were, as I have already said, of two kinds: Danish nets and Japanese engines. The only explanations considered for the poor fishing in Benin were inappropriate equipment and the incompetence of the fishermen. Unfortunately, the real explanation refused to fit into this pre-established mold.

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