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 seneca collapse. Show all posts
Showing posts with label seneca collapse. Show all posts

Sunday, July 4, 2021

Climate Change and Resource Depletion. Which Way to Ruin is Faster?

What could bring down the industrial civilization? Would it be global warming (fire) or resource depletion (ice)? At present, it may well be that depletion is hitting us faster. But, in the long run, global warming may hit us much harder. Maybe the fall of our civilization will be Fire AND ice.
The years after World War 2 saw perhaps the fastest expansion and the greatest prosperity in the history of humankind. Yet, it was becoming clear that it was exactly this burst of prosperity and expansion that was creating the conditions for its own collapse. How long could humankind continue growing an economy based on limited natural resources? How long could the human population keep increasing?

Not everyone agreed that this was a problem, and the mainstream idea seemed to be that technological progress could maintain the human expansion forever. But, for those who were concerned about this matter, the discussion soon split into two main lines: one focused on depletion, the other on pollution. Over the years, the "depletionists" concentrated on fossil fuels, the main source of energy that keeps civilization moving. Initially, the disappearance of fossil fuels was seen simply as a necessary step in the progression toward nuclear energy. But the waning of the nuclear idea generated the idea that the lack of fossil energy would eventually bring down civilization. The collapse was often seen as the result of "peak oil," the point in time when oil production couldn't be increased anymore. It was estimated to occur at some moment during the first 2-3 decades of the 21st century.

On the other side, the focus was initially on pollutants such as smog, heavy metals, carcinogenic substances, and others. Pollution was generally seen as a solvable problem and, indeed, good progress was done in abating it in many fields. But the emerging idea of global warming soon started to be seen by "climatists" as an existential threat to humankind or even to the whole planetary ecosystem. The time scale of climate change was never defined in terms of momentous events but as a gradual temperature rise that could play out over a century or more. Some climatists spoke of "tipping points," e.g., the "methane explosion," that could have brought rapid ruin to humankind. But it was impossible to estimate the time scale of these events, and the majority of climatists tended to regard those who expressed these views as scare-mongering catastrophists.

Climatists and depletionists were looking at the same scene, just from two different viewpoints. But human beings notoriously have difficulties in changing their views. Their minds seem to become easily fixed on a single problem, and they tend to play the game of "my problem is bigger than yours." Ours is an age of "either-or" positions (you are either with us or against us, as G.W. Bush famously said). So, climatists and depletionists found it hard to work together and, often, they became bitter enemies of each other. It was a dispute that reminded the struggles of the Medieval Christian Church between heretics and orthodoxes (with the orthodoxes defined only after the debate had ended, sometimes with the members of the other side burned at the stake)
Depletionists were often geologists who had no training in climate physics. Sometimes they would scoff at the idea of climate change as the delusion of a group of pseudo-scientists who played with models that were unrelated to the real world. More often, they would not attack climate science directly but argued that the depletion of fossil fuels would solve all climate problems: no oil, no emissions. Then, no emissions, no climate change. 
On their side, climatists were often specialists in atmospheric physics. They were heavily focused on climate models while tending to rely on industrial estimates for the available fossil resources as external parameters in their calculations. They tended to see these resources as abundant and believe that curbing emissions to avoid a climate disaster would make depletion irrelevant. 

It was a clash that could not be solved by discussions among people who were speaking different scientific, and even political languages. Peak oil had its moment of popularity during the first decade of the 21st century, then it faded out of the debate. Climate change, instead, kept making inroads in the global memesphere, despite the dogged resistance of several lobbies and political sectors. By the end of the 2nd decade of the century, it was dominating the debate, and it had nearly completely silenced the opinion that peak oil was a threat worth of attention. 

The reasons for the tilt of the debate to favor climatists may have been more than one, but overall it may well be that it was because it is much easier to worry about a problem that is more distant in time. Politicians could comfortably claim that they were doing something useful while proposing that the airlines could run their planes on biofuels or that cars could be run on "blue hydrogen."  Peak oil may have arrived, probably as early as 2008 for conventional oil, but in the great cacophony of the media, it went unmentioned and invisible to the eyes of the public and of the decision-makers.  
All along the debate, it was almost always impossible to propose a compromise that took into account both problems, depletion and warming. But, already in 1972, the study titled "The Limits to Growth" tackled the problem in a holistic way (image by Magne Myrtveit). The computer model used in the calculation didn't share the limitations of the human mind and could simply compute the results of the interactions of the various factors. At that time, the importance of climate change was not yet clear, but the "pollution" parameter was later recognized as representing the effects of greenhouse emissions. 
The results of the "base case" scenario computed in "The Limits to Growth" study (see the figure below) indicated a probable collapse of the industrial civilization for some moment in the second decade of the 21st century. It was intended to be the illustration of a trend rather than a prediction, but it may have turned out to have been remarkably prophetic. 

But what was the cause of the collapse? Depletion or pollution? The answer was "both," but the model showed that the peaking of the production of natural resources coincided with the start of the decline of the industrial system. Pollution (climate change) arrived later, and its effect was mainly to make the decline steeper, generating a typical "Seneca Cliff." 
This result made a lot of sense: pollution is a consequence of resource exploitation and you would expect it to arrive after that depletion has played out its cycle of growth. Yet, it was also possible to create scenarios using the "Limits" model where pollution had such negative effects to become the main driver of the collapse. As usual, the future can be imagined but not predicted. In 1972 it was way too early to presume to be able to predict what was supposed to happen 50 years later.

But things kept moving and in 2009, Dave Holmgren systematized and arranged the collapse question in a semi-quantitative quadrant that indicated several possible futures that depended on the interplay of depletion and warming. Holmgren didn't take a specific position on what was the most immediate threat, but his diagram provided guidelines to assess just that.

And here we are: in 2021 Holmgren's scenarios were reviewed by "Rutilius Namatianus" (RN) in a series of three posts on "The Seneca Effect" (one, two, three). He arrived at the conclusion that -- just like in the "base case" scenario of The Limits to Growth --  depletion is arriving faster and hitting us harder.  According to RN, the reaction to the 2020 pandemic is mostly an effect of the economic system being on the verge of collapse because of depletion, even though the public has not realized that yet. 
Like other depletionists, RN is skeptical about the existence of human-caused climate change. Apart from that, though, his position makes sense. Right now, it is difficult to find a sector of the economy so badly damaged by global warming that it might cause the system to collapse. So, the crash of 2020 may be attributed to the constraints generated by the gradually increasing costs of the exploitation of natural resources for a growing economy and an increasing population. 

A civilization based on conspicuous consumption cannot keep going for long when there is little left that can be consumed. Hence, we are seeing a series of correlated changes: less traveling (especially by plane), the collapse of the tourism industry, the contraction of the entertainment industry, less commuting, and the reduction or the disappearance of other wasteful activities that we can't afford anymore. All that is officially just temporary and things are supposed to return soon to "normal," that is to the best of worlds. But we may reasonably doubt that. Instead, we may well be seeing the start of the Seneca Cliff that "The Limits to Growth" had already seen in its scenarios of 1972.

Does all that mean that climate change is not a problem anymore? Not at all. Surely, the economic crash of 2020 is reducing the human impact on climate, but as I noted more than once complex systems always kick back (a quote by John Gall). We still have to receive a kick from Earth's climate that may be much worse than anything we received so far (*)
What we are doing to the ecosystem might turn out to be just a moderate perturbation, with the system kicking back to its original state in a few millennia -- or maybe even just in a few centuries. In this case, some forms of human civilization could survive the change. Or the ecosystem may kick us up all the way to the Eocene, with a temperature of 12 C higher than it is now. That won't necessarily mean the extinction of the human species, but it would not be unlikely.

And here we are, laughing at the pitiful attempts of the so-called "decision-makers" to stop the tsunami with teaspoons. We are both spectators and actors of the grandest spectacle in the history of the world: the end of the mightiest civilization that ever existed. No matter how our future will be playing out, remember that the destiny of soap bubbles is just of shining gloriously in the sun for a short while. Universes may be little more than a shower of soap bubbles in the sun, just on a grander scale. As we fade out, there will be new universes and we may even be able to create a few ourselves. Humans may have done a lot of damage to the ecosystem, but surely they never lacked fantasy!

(*) In 2012 I wrote a post on "Cassandra's Legacy" titled "Confessions of a Peak Oiler" that some people interpreted as if I had reneged the peak oil movement. But it was not that (otherwise I would have titled it "Confessions of a FORMER peak oiler.") I just made the point that the climate threat was bigger than the depletion threat, not that it didn't exist. 

Monday, June 28, 2021

The Collapse of Concrete Buildings: Dust thou art, and unto Dust shalt thou return.

 We don't know yet the causes of the recent collapse of the condo building in Surfside, Florida. But it is likely that the corrosion of the reinforced concrete was one of the main reasons that weakened the structure of the building. It is a subject that I described in one of the chapters of my book "Before the Collapse" (Springer 2019) that turned out to have been timely and, unfortunately, also prophetic. We may see many more of these collapses in the future


Extract from Chapter 3.1 of "Before the Collapse" (2019) by Ugo Bardi 


In the late morning of August 14, 2018, I was busy writing this book when I happened to open my browser. There, I saw the images of the collapse of the Morandi bridge, in Genoa, almost in real time. It was a major disaster: the bridge used to carry more than 25 million vehicles per year and it was a vital commercial link between Italy and Southern France. When it collapsed, it not only took with it the lives of 43 people who were crossing it, but it was nothing less than a stroke for the Italian highway system, forcing the traffic from and to France to take a long detour. It will take years before a new bridge can be built and the economic damage has been incalculable.

How could it happen that the engineers who took care of the maintenance of the highway could not predict and contrast the collapse of such an important structure? Much was said in the debate that followed about incompetence or corruption. Perhaps the fact that maintenance of the highway was handed over to a profit-making company was a recipe for disaster: profit-maximizing may well have led to cutting corners in the maintenance tasks. But, on the whole, we have no proof that the company that managed the bridge was guilty of criminal negligence. Rather, the collapse of the Morandi bridge may be seen as another example of how the behavior of complex systems tends to take people by surprise.

Even in engineering, with all its emphasis on quantification, measurements, models, and knowledge, the phenomenon we call “collapse” or “fracture” remains something not completely mastered. If engineers knew exactly how to deal with fractures, nothing ever would break - but, unfortunately, a lot of things do, as we all know. We saw in a previous section how critical phenomena in a network can be initiated by small defects in the structure, it is the effect of cracks in real-world structures, according to the theory developed by Alan Griffith 100. The Morandi Bridge was a structure under tensile stress, sensible to the deadly mechanism of the Griffith failure.

The bridge went down during a heavy thunderstorm and that may have been the trigger that started the cascade of failures that doomed the bridge: one more case of the “Dynamic Crunch” phenomenon that leads to the Seneca Cliff. Somewhere, in one of the cables holding the deck, there had to be a weak point, a crack. Then, perhaps as an effect of a thunderbolt, or maybe of the wind, the cable snapped off. At that point, the other cables were suddenly under enhanced stress, and that generated a cascade of cable failures which, eventually caused a whole section of the bridge to crash down. You heard of the straw that broke the camel’s back, in this case we could speak of the lightning bolt that broke the bridge’s span. Complex systems not only often surprise you. Sometimes, they kill you.

But why was the Morandi Bridge so weakened? Just like many other bridges in Italy and Europe, it had been built using “pre-compressed concrete.” This is a material European engineers seem to like much more than their American colleagues who, on the contrary, tend to use naked steel cables and beams for their bridges. Pre-compressed concrete had more success in Europe because it was widely believed that concrete would protect the internal steel beams from corrosion and avoid the need for laborious maintenance work of painting and repainting required, instead, for steel bridges. But, over the years, it was discovered that steel corrodes even inside concrete, and that turns out to be a gigantic problem, not just for bridges.

In the case of the Morandi bridge in Genoa, the problem was known. The bridge had been opened in 1967 and, after more than 50 years of service, it needed plenty of attention and maintenance. Years before the collapse, engineers had noted that corrosion and the vibration stress caused by heavy traffic, had weakened the steel beams of the specific section that was to go down in 2018. A series of measurements carried out one year before the collapse had indicated that the steel in that section had lost 10% to 20% of its structural integrity. That was not considered to be dangerous enough to require closing the bridge to traffic, especially at the height of the busy summer season. After all, most buildings are built with a hefty safety margin with respect to their breakdown limit, typically at least 100%. But there was a plan to close the bridge for maintenance work in October 2018. Too late.

We see once more how the best plans of mice and men often go astray. The engineers who were working on the bridge may have made a typical mistake of linear thinking: they assumed that there is a certain proportionality between weakening and danger. In this case, they believed that a 20% weakening of the beams was not enough to cause the bridge to collapse. But that was an average, and complex systems may not care about averages: do you know the story of the statistician who drowned in a river of an average depth of 1.5 meters?

Bridges are just an example of the many engineered structures subject to collapsing under stress. The Griffith mechanism of crack propagation is typical of the fracture of structures under tensile stress, such as the beams of a suspension bridge, the beams of a roof, moving objects such as planes and ships, everyday objects such as bookshelves, and even the bones of living beings. These structures tend to go down rapidly, suddenly, and sometimes explosively, typical examples of Seneca Collapses. There also exists another category of engineered structures, those which must withstand only compression stresses: this is the case of pillars, walls, arcs, domes, and the legs of the chair you are sitting on. These structures can collapse, but are normally much safer than those under tension, because compression tends to close cracks instead of enlarging them, as tension does.

In ancient times, when reinforced concrete did not exist, buildings used to be made in such a way to avoid tensile stresses as much as possible. That was because the main construction material available in ancient times was stone, and stone just cannot take tensile stresses. So, stones can be used to build walls and buttresses, and also for bridges and roofs, provided that you arrange them carefully to form arcs and domes in order to make sure that all the elements are always under compression, never under tension.

But even compression structures have their limits. Ancient builders were perfectly aware that stone can crumble, even explode, when subjected to excessive stress. That generates a limit to the height of a building in stone: over a certain height, the stones at the base would burst out and bring the whole structure down. One of the arts that ancient builders needed to know was the capability of testing stones for their resistance to compression before using them, and they had developed sophisticated techniques to do just that. Maybe we are biased in our perception because what we see around us are only those ancient building which survived and arrived to our times, but it is true that many ancient buildings have survived the test of time beautifully, and are still around us after several centuries, even millennia.

Many Roman bridges are still standing and are used today. Another remarkable example of a building that survived from Roman times is the Pantheon temple, in Rome. It was built nearly 2,000 years ago and it still being used as a temple today, now a Catholic church. Gothic cathedrals built during the Middle Ages were also sturdy and resilient: there are only few examples of structural collapses caused by poor design. For instance, the Beauvais Cathedral, in France, built mainly during the 13th century, suffered lots of problems and some structural collapses, but it is still standing nowadays. Another example is the Pisa tower, in Italy, built during the 14th century. For centuries, it survived the bending caused by ground movements. During the 20th century, the bending had reached an angle of 5.5 degrees, bringing the tower to risk of collapse. Today, the tilt has been reduced to less than 4 degrees by acting on the foundations, and now the tower may well keep standing for more centuries in the future. Modern stone buildings are sometimes even more ambitious. The Washington Monument in Washington DC is an example of a building high enough (169 m) to be close to the limits of structural resistance of the stones at its basis. It was terminated in 1884 and seems to be still in good shape despite some cracks that it developed after an earthquake hit it in 2011.

But let us go back to the case of the Morandi bridge for a discussion on risk evaluation. I crossed that bridge by car several times in my life without ever even vaguely thinking that it was risky to do so. Probably, at least a billion vehicles safely crossed that bridge over its more than half a century of life, so the chance of seeing it collapse just when you were crossing it was abysmally low. Yet, it happened in 2018, and when a major bridge collapses, someone is bound to be crossing it. Obviously, it would have made no sense to avoid crossing the Morandi bridge, or any other concrete bridge, for fear that it could collapse. Yet, it makes perfect sense to consider the risk of collapse for a building that you use much more often than bridges: your home or the place where you work. Unfortunately, normally you have no idea of how well and carefully your home was built and maintained. Maybe all the standards were respected, maybe not and, in the second case, your life is at risk: the Seneca Collapse waiting for you could be rapid and deadly.

There are many cases when it was discovered, typically after the collapse of a structure, that the builders had saved money by reducing the amount of steel reinforcement for the concrete. Or maybe they had used poor quality sand; a typical trick to save money is to use sand taken from some beach. This sand is contaminated with sea salt and that favors the corrosion of the steel beams inside the concrete. In some cases, it is reported that instead of the standard steel beams, builders used wire mesh of the kind used for chicken coops. 

Then, you have to consider that a building rarely remains untouched after it has been built. People open doors and windows in the walls, add more floors, remove walls or add them. They may also intervene in other damaging ways: for instance, everyone loves rooftop swimming pools, but they are heavy and may destabilize the whole structure of a building. These mongrel buildings may be very dangerous: one of the worse disasters in the history of architecture happened to a building that was modified and expanded without much respect for rules or for common sense. It is the case of the Rana Plaza collapse on April 24th, 2013 in Savar, a district of Bangladesh, when more than one thousand people died and more than 2,500 were injured. The owners had added four floors to the building without a permit (!!) and also placed the heavy machinery of a garment factory in those extra floors. Not only was the machinery heavy, but it also generated strong vibrations that further weakened the building. More than half of the victims were women workers of the factory, along with a number of their children who were in nursery facilities within the building. A good example of criminal negligence.

Building collapses are rare enough for the risk to be statistically low, so small that it is not normally listed in the various “Odds of Dying” tables that you can find on the Web. Yet, it is one of those risks for which you can take precautions and there is no reason for not doing so. If you live in a building made of reinforced concrete that is older than a couple of decades, you should check for the details that may indicate danger. In some cases, you can directly see the corrosion of the steel beams where the surrounding concrete has been eroded. Cracks in the walls are an evident symptom of troubles and it has been reported that the noise of a steel cable snapping open inside a concrete beam may be perceived as the noise of gunshots. In Europe, if you hear that kind of noise, you may reasonably think that there is something wrong with the structural integrity of the building you live in, but, of course, a different explanation may be much more likely in the US. By the way, the collapse of the Morandi bridge gave rise to noises that could be interpreted as explosions and – guess what! – that led some people to interpret the disaster as the result of a “controlled demolition” carried out by the evil “Zionist Illuminati” in analogy with the demolition theories proposed for the 2001 attack to the world trade center in New York. Human fantasy seems to have no limits in terms of crackpot theories.

Not seeing or hearing anything suspicious in a building does not necessarily mean it is safe. If it is older than 50 years, it would not be a bad idea to seek professional help to have it checked for its structural integrity. It is expensive, though, and not routinely done for private buildings. Stone buildings are normally safer and more durable than concrete ones; you have to be careful, though, because these buildings can crumble under the effect of lateral vibrations generated by earthquakes. Wooden houses are often said to be more resilient and safer than both concrete and stone buildings and that is probably true, within some limits. But take into account that wooden beams are susceptible to degradation, too: they may be attacked by termites and their presence may be difficult to detect because they eat away the interior of the wood before breaking through to the surface. In terms of structural safety, an Indian tepee or a Mongolian yurt would be the best choice for a place to live. Otherwise, you have just to accept that there are some risks in life.

In the end, the problem of concrete degradation is not with single buildings: it is a global problem that affects all the infrastructure built over the past century or so.

You see in the figure how cement production went through a burst of exponential growth from the 1920s all the way to a few years ago. Only in 2015 did the global production of concrete start to show signs of stabilizing and, probably, it will go down in the coming years. It means that our highways and our cities were built in a period of economic expansion and on the assumption that the needs for their maintenance would have been minimal, just as it had been for the previous generation of stone buildings. It turned out to be a wrong estimate.

In the future, we seriously risk an epidemics of infrastructure collapses if we do not allocate sufficient resources to the maintenance of their concrete elements. Otherwise, the result could be that a considerable fraction of the world’s buildings and roads will have to be sealed off and left to crumble. Worse, crossing a bridge or living in a skyscraper could come to be considered risky. It is already the situation you have in some poor countries. In Cuba, after the revolution of 1959, the government expropriated most buildings that had been owned by rich Cubans and foreigners, and distributed them among the poor. The problem is that these buildings had been erected using Portland cement made from beach sand contaminated with sea salt. Sea salt favors the corrosion of the steel beams – it is a very serious problem. It can be remedied, but it is expensive and requires sophisticated technologies that Cubans cannot afford today. The problems of old concrete buildings in poor countries do not seem to be related to a specific political ideology or government system. Puerto Rico is under the control of the American government but the problem of crumbling buildings seems to be the same as in Cuba, worsened in recent times by the Hurricane Maria that struck the island in 2017. Other areas with warm climates and close to the sea seem to be affected in the same way.

We lack worldwide statistical data for this kind of problems, but there seems to exist a “crumbling belt” of decaying buildings everywhere in tropical regions, especially near the sea, where higher temperatures and sea salt spread by the wind cause the steel beams of concrete building to corrode faster than in other regions of the world – incidentally, the Morandi Bridge was near the Mediterranean coast and it may well be that in that case too, sea salt had a role in the collapse. Add to that the fact that in many of these regions people are poor and unable to afford the costs involved in the remediation of these old buildings, and you have a big global problem: another Seneca Cliff awaiting.

In the end, the problem has to do with an old Biblical maxim: “dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” Applied to a concrete structure, it would sound more like, “sand thou art, and unto sand shalt thou return.” Concrete is nothing else than compacted sand, not unlike the sandcastles that children build on the beach. The substance that binds the sand in sandcastles is water, and when it evaporates the castle crumbles. In concrete, the binder is cement, and it is typically lime or calcium silicate. Of course, this kind of solid binder doesn’t evaporate and concrete lasts much longer than sandcastles, but not forever. So, what we are seeing today in Cuba and other poor tropical countries may be just an image of what our world will be in a not-so-remote future.

See also: "Italy's infrastructure is melting in the rain" on "Cassandra's Legacy"

Monday, February 15, 2021

Why Science is like sex. And why the virtual version is not as good as the real one


Some people may think that this is the way science works: a solitary genius straining his brain in order to build a spaceship in his basement (Image: Dr. Zarkov in the "Flash Gordon" series by Alex Raymond). But science is not like that. Not at all! Science is a collective exchange of ideas that assemble themselves in the memesphere. Unfortunately, with the Covid disaster, scientists cannot get together anymore (image source)

Let me start by citing from the book by Per Bak "How Nature Works" (1996) where he describes the discovery of the phenomenon of self-organized criticality (SOC), that you probably know as the "sandpile model." 

We became obsessed with the origin of the mysterious phenomenon of 1/f noise, or more appropriately the 1/f signal that is emitted by numerous sources on earth and elsewhere in the universe. We had endless discussions in the physics coffee room, the intellectual center of Brookhaven. There was a playful atmosphere which is crucial for innovative scientific thinking. There would also one a constant stream of visitors passing through and contributing to our research by participating in the discussions, and sometime by collaborating more directly with us. Good science is fun science.

This is how one of the key concepts of the science of complex systems was born in the 1980s: in the coffee room. And it is a very general point: no coffee room, no science. You can find a similar description in Norbert Wiener's famous book, "Cybernetics" of 1948, where he describes how young and old scientists would collect around a dinner table to grill each other by a friendly but unsparing discussion. It is the same story. If you are a scientist, you know that science is collective. It is born out of discussions. The concept of serendipity doesn't exist if you are alone. 

In the US, they normally understand this point. To have good results in science, you have to let people mix together and campuses are often built with that idea in mind. But it is the way science is managed at all levels. I remember that when I was a post-doc in Berkeley, we had a Fussball table in one of the labs. Some of us had become truly proficient at the game. And, of course, the lunch seminar on Fridays was a good occasion to relax and exchange ideas.

In Europe, things were often a little more stiff and formal. In some universities where I worked, you had the student cafeteria separated from that of the staff -- not a good idea, in my opinion. And in many cases, not even staff members would mix when having lunch. In general, I found that the best universities are those that encouraged social mixing among their staff and students, those which didn't were second or third rate ones. That's not enough to demonstrate a causal relationship, but you may at least suspect it. And, if you are a scientist, you don't just suspect that. You know that.

And now? Over the years, I've seen science declining from the kind of playful search for innovation that Bak, Wiener, and others describe. Science has been bureaucratized, financialized, competitivized, and bowdlerized in all possible ways to become a pale shadow of what it used to be. There are a few superstar scientists who are forced to put out magniloquent press releases every once in a while where they explain how their most recent wonderful invention will one day solve the world's problems, maybe, and only if they keep receiving money to fool around with it. The rest, the rank and file, are running the rat race just to try to survive and can't afford to innovate. They must imitate.

The final blow to science may have been the idea of "social distancing" which destroyed everything that made science fun and interesting. Once you decide that everyone on campus is to be treated as infectious, there are no possibilities of human interactions anymore. Just to give you some idea of the situation, they closed the cafeteria of our campus and they even removed the coffee machines from the halls of the my department building, the only collective spaces that existed to enliven an otherwise grim building. Now, it is just a grim building.

Yes, I know, we have been told that this is only temporary. When the idea of "social distancing" was proposed, it was supposed to be only temporary. It was to last a few weeks, and then everything was to return as before. One year has passed, and nothing has changed. It looks like distancing will be forever. Will it? 

You mean we could use virtual meetings in science? Yeah, sure. Just like doing virtual sex. It may be fun, but I am sure it is not the same as the real thing. As Bak correctly said, good science is fun. I'd say, boring science is no science at all.

But I would like to close this post on an optimistic note. Take a look at this article by Avi Loeb and the comments on it by Chuck Pezeshki. Loeb talks about the Oumuamua asteroid, but he highlights the same problems of science that I have highlighted here: bureaucratization, lack of innovation, etc. And yet, science keeps producing innovation: the example is Loeb himself and his daring description of Oumuamua as an alien solar sail

Or, you may take a look at this recent massive book "Large Igneous Provinces" by Ernst, Dickson, and Bekker that summarizes decades of meticulous research that solved the problem of extinctions: these large igneous provinces (LIPs) create transient warming effects that bake the biosphere and kill many species. That's what doomed the dinosaurs, not an asteroid

Or how an old concept, that of "holobiont," revamped in the 1990s by Lynn Margulis, is slowly revolutionizing our understanding of the ecosphere and legitimize the once heretic concept of "Gaia." Incidentally, according to the holobiontic view of biology, sex is information sharing. And, yes, it is what I said science is (or should be)!

Science still has a lot to give to humankind, but it needs a good shakeup to get rid of the multiple bureaucratic layers that suffocate it. Maybe, the pandemic is the occasion to do just that? It could even happen, who knows? 


Tuesday, June 7, 2016

The Seneca Cliff goes mainstream

The concept of the "Seneca Cliff" seems to have gone mainstream. Below, it is mentioned in a recent post by Dennis Coyne on "peakoilbarrell" as an obvious concept. Just as when you say "Gaussian Curve", you don't have to specify what shape the curve has, so it is for the "Seneca Curve". It looks like I started some kind of avalanche with my 2011 post when I introduced the term. See also my blog wholly dedicated to the subject.

Here, the projections by AEO (annual energy outlook) seem to me very optimistic; can production really keep growing until 2035-2040? If that were to happen, however, the subsequent collapse would be truly abrupt.


EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook and the Seneca Cliff

The scenario above shows an Oil Shock Model with a URR of 3600 Gb and EIA data from 1970 to 2015 and the Annual Energy Outlook (AEO) 2016 early release reference projection from 2016 to 2040. The oil shock model was originally developed by Webhubbletelescope and presented at his blog Mobjectivist and in a free book The Oil Conundrum.
The World extraction rate from producing reserves must rise to 15% in 2040 to accomplish this for this “high” URR scenario. This high scenario is 100 Gb lower than my earlier high scenario because I reduced my estimate of extra heavy oil URR (API gravity<10) to 500 Gb. The annual decline rate rises to 5% from 2043 to 2047 creating a “Seneca cliff”, the decline rate is reduced to 2% by 2060.
The scenario presented above uses BP’s Energy Outlook 2035, published in Feb 2016. This outlook does not extend to 2040, maximum output is 88 Mb/d in 2035 at the end of the scenario. This scenario is still optimistic, but is more reasonable than the EIA AEO 2016. Extraction rates rise to 10.6% and the annual decline rate rises to 2.5% in 2042 and is reduced to under 2% by 2053.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Donald Trump and the Seneca Collapse

From "Cassandra's Legacy" Saturday, April 2, 2016

In this post, I argue that the ascent of Donald Trump in the US presidential race is a symptom of the ongoing breakdown of society, in turn caused by the loss of control generated by resource depletion. At the bottom of this post, you'll find a simple system dynamics model describing the situation and generating another example of "Seneca Collapse

Donald Trump seems to have taken everyone by surprise. Whether or not he gains the Republican nomination, and whether or not he becomes president, he took the media by storm: people writing on blogs and newspapers are reeling from the impact, asking themselves: where the heck did this come from? What is he? A God? The reincarnation of Hitler? Or of Mussolini? The devil? Or what? Personally, I don't claim to have been less surprised than most by Trump but, rethinking about the situation, I think it is reasonable to say that something like Trump was unavoidable. He is, really, best defined as the visible effect of the ongoing social phase transition. A discrete change in our path in the direction of collapse.

For a good number of years, I have been studying the reasons for the collapse of societies. And, at the beginning, I tended to explain it as mainly the result of the depletion of crucial resources; crude oil, in our case. But, the more I think about that, the more I understand that the relation between depletion and collapse is far from being straightforward. A society can very well collapse without running out of anything; think of the case of the Soviet Union. When it collapsed, the Union had still plenty of mineral resources, but it couldn't find a way to exploit them in a convenient manner. In the case of the Roman Empire, also, there is no evidence that it run out of food or of any basic resource. Rather, it ran out of the resource it used for paying its troops, gold and silver for its currency. In both cases, it was a question of the collapse of control. As we all know, power without control is nothing.

Note that the loss of control is related to resource depletion, but the relation is not direct. It works like this: any complex society can exist only in certain conditions: it is not enough to have access to natural resources. It is necessary to be able to distribute these resources in such a way to keep all the sections of society supplied; this is a question of control. You can also use the term "governance" if you like to avoid a term that has a military ring to it. The point is that if a society is unable to allocate the a resources in such a way to make most people accept the way they are allocated, it will break down, or collapse, or both things.

In our world, resource allocation is controlled by the entity we call "the market", with some correction on the part of another entity that we call "the government". Generally speaking, the government is supposed to correct for the fact that the market is not supposed to provide a fair distribution of wealth. For instance, the government is supposed to provide health care services even to people who can't afford it. This is why taxes are progressive (or used to be, before president Trump took office). This is what we normally call democracy: it works on the shared belief that society is kept together by a certain degree of fair sharing of the available resources.

It works, but only in some conditions. In particular, it works under the assumption that the available resources are relatively abundant. If that's the case, it is more convenient to create new wealth by exploiting some untapped resource than to steal wealth from others who already have it. But that's not always the case. Lets'imagine that you are out of your job. In normal conditions, you look for another job. But if there are no jobs available, or you are too old to get a new job, your only possible survival strategy is theft or robbery (it is happening). Then, if those silly Arabs are sitting on our oil, then it makes sense to bomb them to smithereens and get it. And why should the poor get our money for their health problems?

Note that you don't need to run out of anything to cross the critical point. Within some limits, you may assume that the cost of exploiting a natural resource goes up with the inverse of the resource abundance while the cost of stealing it from someone who has it may be taken as approximately constant. So, there has got to be a point where stealing becomes a better strategy than finding new resources. It is a phase transition in society (see the model, below). At this point, society goes to a crisis that leads it either by some form of breakdown, including "ethnic cleansing," or to some kind of centralized military control. The second outcome can be said to be better than the first. That's what the Romans did when it moved from a republic to an Imperial system. That's the path in front of us.

If we see the situation in these terms, then Trump is, really, nothing unexpected. He is a symptom of the ongoing breakdown of the social pact in the US and all over the West. Indeed, he is capitalizing on this breakdown by using his aggressive rhetoric, playing on the attempt of the white (former) middle class to maintain at least some of its previous prosperity and privileges. Trump is not (yet) an emperor and probably he'll never be one. But he is a step in that direction; an unavoidable consequence of resource depletion.

When the first barrel of oil was extracted from underground in 1859, it might have been possible to imagine that depletion would cause big problems, at some moment in the future. It would have been impossible to imagine that, one century and a half later, it would lead to a presidential candidate with carrot-colored hair whose motto could be "we shall overcomb." But so is the future: it always surprises you.


Cannibal foxes and the Seneca Collapse
by Ugo Bardi, April 2016

Here is a simple model that explains the transition of a complex society from a strategy mainly based on exploiting new resources to one based on the theft of resources from those who have them already. The model is based on well known the "Foxes and Rabbits" model; where we assume that foxes are the predator and rabbits the prey. Here, we examine only a single cycle of the model; assuming that rabbits reproduce too slowly to make a difference. For more details on how this model works and how it can be used to fit historical data, take a look at this paper of mine.

To describe the phase transition, I assume here that some foxes can become cannibals and eat other foxes. These cannibal foxes can use a double strategy, if rabbits are abundant, they will eat rabbits, but if they are not, they will eat other foxes, especially if the latter are very abundant. Here is the model, implemented using the standard conventions of system dynamics and the "Vensim" software.

And here are some results of the model, showing the evolution of the populations of the regular foxes and of the cannibal ones

You can see how the cannibal foxes grow as a "parasite" of the regular foxes, causing their population to collapse more rapidly than it would have done without the cannibals. It is another example of the "Seneca Collapse".

This is, of course, a very simple model, but I think it conveys the basic mechanism of the breakdown of society. This breakdown occurs not when society actually runs out of anything, but much earlier. That seems to be what's happening to us and Donald Trump is just a symptom of the change. 

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

CO2 emissions facing a Seneca collapse?

Reposted from "Cassandra's Legacy". I argue here, among other things, that the Seneca collapse of the world's production system might "save" (so to say) us from climate change. But, on the other hand, not even that may be enough!

Living in interesting times: have CO2 emissions peaked?

Image from MIT Technology Review

The projections that had been circulating during the past few months turned out to be correct. Now, it is official: the global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions peaked in 2014 and went down in 2015. And this could be a momentous change.

Don't expect the emission peak, alone, to save us from the impending climate disaster, but, if CO2 emissions will start an irreversible decline, then we need to rethink several assumptions that we have been making on how to deal with climate change. In particular, depletion is normally assumed to be a minor factor in determining the trajectory of the world's economy during the coming decades, but that may not be the case. Depletion is not a good thing in itself, but it might help us (perhaps) to stay within the "safe" limits and avoid a climate disaster.

CO2 emissions are mainly the result of the combustion of fossil fuels and of activities made possible by the combustion of fossil fuels. And, since we expect the production of fossil fuels to peak and decline as the result of depletion, it shouldn't be a surprise that CO2 emissions should peak too. But it is surprising that we may be already seeing the peak. For instance, Laherrere had assumed the peak for all fossils to occur not before around 2025. And many people would have seen these projections as ridiculously catastrophistic. Most of the published scenarios for the future saw CO2 emissions increasing for at least a few decades in the future unless draconian economic or legislative measures to limit them were taken.

So, what we are seeing may be simply a fluctuation; not necessarily "the peak". But, it might also be the big one: the point of no-return. From now on, we may find ourselves rolling down on the other side of the Hubbert curve. It would be the true vindication of the "base case" scenario of "The Limits to Growth" that had seen the combination of gradual depletion and pollution to cause the start of the terminal decline of the fossil based industrial system at some moment during the 2nd-3rd decade of the 21st century.

Let's assume that we really are at the peak of both emissions and fossil energy consumption, then what? First of all, the event will be surely misinterpreted. The techno-optimists will say that what we are seeing is proof of how human ingenuity can solve all problems while the anti-science crowd will hail these results as the evidence of two things: 1) that climate is nothing to be worried about and 2) that those silly climate scientists have been proven wrong one more time.

Of course, none of these interpretations is correct and the situation remains critical for various good reasons. I can list at least three of them

1. There is really no reason to congratulate ourselves for being so smart. The reduction in emissions may be partly due to better efficiency, renewable energy, and the like. But, mainly, it is the result of the global economic slowdown. The IMF data indicate that the world's GDP has peaked in 2014, together with CO2 emissions and 2016 could shrink even more (see also Tyler Durden). The reasons for all this have to do with the gradual decline of the energy yield of fossil fuels, in turn related to progressive depletion. That has generated the disaster that struck the oil industry and the whole mineral industry in the form of collapsing prices. With the decline of the extractive industry, the reason why emissions peaked is because people are poorer, not smarter (so much for the so-called "dematerialization" of the economy).

2. The fact that emissions may have peaked does not mean a reduction in the CO2 accumulation in the ecosystem. We are only slowing down the flow, but the stocks keep being filled. CO2 accumulates in two main reservoirs: the atmosphere and the oceans and we may already have too much of it in both. And that says nothing about possible feedback effects out of human control, such as the release of methane from hydrates. So, we are still risking a lot in terms of the very unpleasant things that could occur in the future (including a runaway climate change).

3. Even assuming that emissions are facing an irreversible decline, the decline rate is likely to be still too slow to stay within the limits that are perceived as (perhaps) safe. Let's assume that emissions will follow a "Hubbert" curve, that is they will go down at the same speed as they went up so far. It means that in the future we will emit approximately as much we have emitted up to now. Can that save us from catastrophic climate change? Not really. So far, we emitted a grand total 1465 gigaton (Gt) of CO2) that might be the amount that we'll emit in the future. Unfortunately, according to Meinshausen et al  in order to have a 25% probability to stay below the 2 degrees limit, we cannot emit more than about 1000 Gt of CO2. And we are not there. According to Meisenhausen, with 1500 Gt of CO2 emitted, we are almost exactly at a 50/50 probability of staying below 2 C. If your hobby is to play the Russian roulette with a real gun, you should enjoy the situation we find ourselves in.

Still, the possible peaking of the CO2 emission. although not sufficient to save us, may not be a bad thing since, at least, it eases the task of staying within the safe limits. And not just that. These new data should lead us to rethink about some of our entrenched assumptions. So far, we have been assuming that a herculean effort will be needed to force the economic system to stop using resources that were assumed to be abundant and cheap. So herculean that it seemed to be totally impossible. But, if we really are at the peak of fossils, then the effort needed could be much less herculean: depletion will help us a lot. At this point, the emphasis should shift from "phasing out" fossil fuels - that would go largely by itself - to "phasing in" renewables - that needs a specific effort. And if we want to phase in the renewables we need to do that before the collapse of the fossil fuel industry makes it impossible to invest enough in their deployment.

Finally, there is another interesting possibility (in the sense of the ancient Chinese curse: 'may you live in interesting times'). The decline might not follow a
Hubbert curve but, rather, a Seneca curve. That is, emissions may decline much faster than they grew in the past. That implies, of course, a parallel crash of fossil fuel production and of the world GDP. The resulting  economic collapse might keep us within the "safe" climate limits. That would be so bad to be almost unimaginable, but, at least, better than some truly horrible climate scenarios. And, why not, we could have both the collapse of the economy and a runaway climate change! (not just fire or ice, but fire and ice)

Truly, we live in interesting times.


Note: from some messages I received, it seems that many people find that the mere concept that the world GDP could decline is unthinkable and contrary to some universal principle. And, yet, it is shrinking. See this plot from Vox.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The abrupt collapse of the twin towers in New York: a case of "controlled demolition"?

The concept of "Seneca Collapse" is supposed to be applied mainly to socio-economic systems. Here, however, I would like to discuss it in the framework of the 9/11 attacks in New York and of the related legend of the "controlled demolition". Image above from xkcd (licensed under creative commons). 

In 2004, I attended the 4th ASPO conference on peak oil, in Berlin, and there I met Michael Ruppert (yes, that Ruppert!). Among other things, Ruppert told me that some CIA agents he personally knew were attending the conference. Later on, the same day, someone whom I had never met before introduced himself and chatted with me for a while. He told me of something that I had never heard before. It was about the 9/11 attacks in New York. It has been proven, he told me, that the towers didn't collapse because they were hit by the planes. No, it was a  controlled demolition: explosives were detonated inside the towers in order to make them collapse. It was an inside job! After that conference, I never heard from him again.

More than one decade after that conference, I still wonder about all this. Was it true, as Ruppert had told me, that there were CIA agents attending? And the person who had told me the story of the controlled demolition, who was he? Was he one of those agents engaged in "planting" an absurd story with a group of people known for their somewhat conspiratorial theories? I can't say, of course, but let me tell you that I am paranoid enough that I can't discount the idea that Ruppert was perfectly right.

One thing that I can say from these recollections of mine is that the legend of the "controlled demolition" of the Twin Towers was being diffused in 2004. This is an interesting point in itself; because it is not clear where the legend originated from. Some data seem to point out that it was proposed for the first time just the day of the attack, but it didn't go viral until 2005-2006. Today, it remains one of the weirdest and - in a certain sense - most fascinating legends among those that pullulate in the Web, where it nicely competes with equivalent ones, such as the "chemtrails" idea (and note how Randall Munroe masterfully mixed the two things together in the image, above).

The controlled demolition legend shows how difficult it is for us to understand collapse. In engineering, smart people have been making the same mistakes over and over, assuming that a structure was safe when it was not; unable to understand how easily things break. Even today, when we should know enough about the theory of fracture, things keep crashing and breaking all the time; taking us by surprise. It was, probably, this surprise that led some people who were watching the collapse of the towers on Sept 11, 2001 to think that it wasn't possible that the fall was "natural". Someone, they thought, must have been masterminding the whole event, pushing the buttons that detonated the explosives with the incredible precision necessary to cause the buildings to fall at exactly the speed that things reach when they fall freely.

But engineering is a good playground for learning about things that collapse all of a sudden, and the collapse of the twin towers was nothing exceptional. You may see it as one more case of a "Seneca Collapse" - a term that we can apply to engineering just as to the collapse of civilizations. We can understand it as part of the general rule that things are built slowly, but tend to collapse rapidly.

Despite being so patently absurd, the theory of the "controlled demolition" maintains an incredible traction as a meme residing in the Web. It is because it is not just about engineering; it is part of a general trend and it involves much more than a poor understanding of the engineering of fracture. There is one more collapse behind that of the twin towers: the collapse of trust in governments. I have discussed in a previous post of mine how this collapse of trust may have been generated by the brazen lies we were told about the "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq in 2003, but it seems to be a necessary result of the trajectory of a collapsing civilization. Lies generate more lies until truth disappears, buried underneath. The "lie curve" can't be exactly measured and so I can't say if it has the typical shape of the "Seneca Curve". But we can say that, from the early years of the 21st century, it was a landslide: conspiracies started being seen everywhere and everything that had an even vaguely defined as an "official" truth generated a counter-interpretation based on the idea that the government was lying to us: chemtrails, peak oil, fake lunar landings, and all the rest.

The problem is that the fact that a theory is wrong doesn't make another theory right: after all, there is only one truth, but lies are many. And we cannot even say that all "conspiracy theories" are wrong by definition (conspiracies do exist!). So, where is the truth? It is somewhere, buried under a gigantic mass of lies as thick as the debris of the collapse of the Twin Towers. And we may never be able to dig it out.