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."

Sunday, March 7, 2021

The Problem of the Shipwrecked Sailor: When Money Becomes Useless


The Covid crisis highlighted an already existing problem: that money is useless if you can't buy anything useful with it. It is the problem of the shipwrecked sailor on a deserted island. (image from Wikimedia): money won't help him survive. So, lockdowns and restrictions gave us a taste of a future where money may be worth nothing simply because there is nothing you can buy with it. It is a problem ultimately connected with the unavoidable depletion of the fossil fuels that form the basis of our economy: with less energy, we cannot keep making the stuff that makes it possible to indulge in conspicuous consumption. So, after the Covid, society will never be the same. Taking into account that history never repeats itself, but it does rhyme, here I examine the situation starting with a parallel with the history of the Roman Empire.

The Roman Crisis: When Money Couldn't buy Anything

Imagine living in Rome at some moment during the 1st century AD (the time of Lucius Annaeus Seneca). At that time, Rome, with perhaps one million inhabitants, was the largest city in the world and probably the largest emporium ever seen in history. Through the Silk Road, one caravan after the other were bringing to Rome all sorts of goods from Asia: pepper, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, sandalwood, pearls, rubies, diamonds, and emeralds. And then ivory, silk, glassware, perfumes, jewels, unguents, and much more: exotic birds, special food, slaves to be used as workers and as sex objects. Then, there was the entertainment: in Rome, you had theaters, chariot races, gladiator games, fights among exotic animals, and all sorts of performers with their magic tricks, their songs, and their spectacles. 

You could enjoy all that if you had money. And the Romans had money: they minted it. They had control over the richest precious metal mines of the ancient world, in the northern region of Hispania. There, tens of thousands of slaves, perhaps hundreds of thousands, were engaged in a work that Pliny the Elder described as "the ruin of the mountains" (ruina montium), the process of crushing rock into sand to extract the tiny specks of gold and silver it contained. 

With the gold and the silver they mined, the Romans paid their legions. Then, the legions would invade regions outside the Empire and capture slaves that would mine more gold to pay more legions. And, as long as the mines were producing, the Romans had gold aplenty, even though a lot of it was sent to China and to other regions of Asia to pay for the luxury goods they imported and that kept the economic machine of the empire working. For an empire to exist, money is everything.

Of course, then as now, not everyone had the same amount of money. In Rome, the rich took most of it, but some money trickled down to the artisans, the performers, the employees; everyone from cooks to prostitutes would get a share, maybe a small one, but still something. Even the slaves, destitute by definition, could own a little money. It is possible that, occasionally, their masters would give them a few coppers to buy a cup of Falerno wine or admission to the chariot races.

But the rich Romans were truly rich. And their lifestyle was all based on showing off their wealth. Read this excerpt from Cassius Dio about a wealthy Roman patrician, Vedius Pollio.

. . . he kept in reservoirs huge lampreys that had been trained to eat men, and he was accustomed to throw to them such of his slaves as he desired to put to death. Once, when he was entertaining Augustus, his cup-bearer broke a crystal goblet, and without regard for his guest, Pollio ordered the fellow to be thrown to the lampreys. Hereupon the slave fell on his knees before Augustus and supplicated him, and Augustus at first tried to persuade Pollio not to commit so monstrous a deed. Then, when Pollio paid no heed to him, the emperor said, 'Bring all the rest of the drinking vessels which are of like sort or any others of value that you possess, in order that I may use them,' and when they were brought, he ordered them to be broken. (Roman History (LIV.23))

This story must have been well known since is reported also by Seneca, Plinius, and Tertullianus. That makes me suspect that it is false, or at least exaggerated. Apart from the "lampreys" that were probably "morays," it may well have been a fabrication by Octavianus, aka Augustus, who was truly an expert in self-promotion. But it doesn't matter whether the story is true or not. The ancient Romans found it believable, so it gives us a hint of their way of thinking. 

Probably, the Romans didn't see the moral of the story in the same way we see it nowadays. For them, it was perfectly normal that slaves could be put to death by their owners at any moment, for any reason. The point of this story is that it shows that the Romans were practicing what we call today "conspicuous consumption." Pollio was filthy rich, and he loved to show off his wealth. Surely, he was not the only one: there are other examples of rich Romans displaying their wealth with sumptuous villas, lavish entertainment, fashionable clothes, jewels, and entourages of slaves and hangers-on. Then, the Emperor was the richest person in Rome. It was traditional that he would show his wealth and power by distributing food for the poor, and entertaining citizens with extravagant games and spectacles. 

In short, Imperial Rome was not unlike our age: the rich were enormously rich, but something of their wealth trickled down to the rest of the people. Surely, on all the steps of the social ladder, people played the consumption game in order to keep up with the Joneses. It was always the same story. Money is a tool for commerce, of course, but also a way to establish the social hierarchy. 

Then, things started going wrong, as they always do. For the Roman Empire, controlling a territory that stretched from Britannia to Cappadocia required an enormously expensive military apparatus and it was becoming more and more difficult to find enough money for the task. We have no records of the output of the precious metal mines in Roman times, but from the archeological data, it seems that depletion was already biting during the early centuries of the Empire. It is typical of mining: you don't run out of anything all of a sudden, but the cost of extraction keeps increasing.

Surely, enormous efforts were made to try to stave off the decline of the mines. But the Seneca Cliff is unavoidable when you deal with non-renewable resources. The cliff started approximately at the beginning of the 2nd century AD. One century later, the imperial mines had ceased producing anything. They would never recover.  (image from McDonnell et al.)

No gold, no empire. The mining collapse nearly brought the empire to its end during the 3rd century. It was a series of reciprocally reinforcing effects. The gold that was sent to China couldn't be replaced by mining. Then, less gold meant fewer troops, which meant fewer slaves, and that, in turn, meant even less gold. The result was a series of civil wars, foreign invasions, general turmoil, and overall economic decline.

The Roman Empire could have disappeared by the end of the 3rd century. In practice, it managed to survive for a couple of centuries more in a much poorer version. For one thing, the Romans couldn't afford anymore the luxuries that they once would pay with the gold they mined. As you would expect, the poor were the first to be hit, while the rich tended to maintain their extravagant lifestyle as long as they could. But the whole society was affected.

For the late Roman Empire, the problem was not just that the system had run out of gold. At some point, the Romans must have stopped, or at least greatly reduced, the flow of luxury goods from China. At that point, the rich Romans still had some gold. See this gold solidus coin minted at the time of emperor Constantine the Great, in mid 4th century AD.

But what could you buy with these beautiful coins? At that time, all the Western Roman Empire could produce were legions and tax collectors and, without imports from abroad, Rome had become a grim military outpost, not anymore the greatest emporium of the world. 

Those who still had gold found themselves in the position of a shipwrecked sailor on a deserted island. Coconuts aplenty, perhaps, but no way to play the game of conspicuous consumption. Already with Augustus, the first emperor, we see a legal trend that aimed at limiting the excesses of wealth that the Romans could display. It was a gradual process that was completed only with the diffusion of Christianity in Europe and Islam in North Africa and the Middle East. It was unavoidable, and it happened.

So, in these late Roman times, gold had lost much of its luster. Those who still had it started burying it underground, with the idea of keeping it for better times. Modern archaeologists are still finding gold buried at that time. That was the probable origins of our legends about dragons living in caves and sitting on hoards of gold. People knew that plenty of gold had been buried but, unfortunately for them, they lacked the metal detectors we have today! In any case, that was the end of the Roman Empire. As I said, no gold, no money, no empire. 

Creative money: the relics of Middle Ages

When the Roman Empire faded, it was replaced in Europe by the era we call the Middle Ages. Then, people found themselves with a big problem: how to keep society together without the precious metals needed to mint money? And, even worse, without much that money could be spent on? The Middle Ages were a period of fragmented petty kingdoms and scattered villages, but there still was a need for a commercial system that would move goods around. But how to create it without metal money?

Our Medieval ancestors creatively solved the problem with a completely new kind of money. It was based on relics. Yes, the bones of holy men, meticulously collected, authenticated, and issued by the authority of the time, the Christian Church. Not only relics were rare and sought after, but they could also provide a service that not even the Roman gold could provide when it was abundant: health in the form of divine interventions. (In the figure, 18th-century relics owned by the author. They look like coins, they feel like coins, they are shaped like coins -- they are coins!)

These relics were a form of virtual money but, after all, all money is virtual. Even a gold coin promises something (wealth) that in itself cannot guarantee unless there is a market where you can spend it. And the fact that money can be spent depends on people believing it to be "real" money, mostly an act of faith. In the same way, a relic is a virtual object that has no value in itself. It promises something (health) that can be delivered if you believe in it. It was, again, an act of faith based on the belief that the little chunks of bone that the relics contained were actually coming from the body of a holy man of the past. 
The beauty of the relic-based monetary system was that relics were not "spent" in markets. You could own relics, but you could grant their health benefits to others and still keep the relics. In other words, you could spend your money (eat your cake) and still have it!. Relic-money was managed mainly by public institutions such as monasteries and churches. They owned the most prized relics and were the places where pilgrims flocked to be healed by the powerful holy aura that these relics emanated.
The commercial system of the Middle Ages evolved in large part around relics. Travel was encouraged in the form of pilgrimages to the holy sites, and that would create an exchange economy based on charity. Conspicuous consumption was simply not possible in the relatively poor economy of the Middle Ages. Consequently, the Christian philosophy de-emphasized consumption and condemned social inequality. The highest virtue for a Medieval person was to get rid of all their material possessions and live an austere life of privation. Of course, that was more theoretical than practical, but some people were putting this idea into practice: just think of St. Francis.
The system worked perfectly until new precious metal mines in Eastern Europe started operating in late Middle Ages and that brought back metal currency to Europe. A new period of expansion followed that eventually led to our times of renewed conspicuous consumption. And that's where we are.


The Romans and us: the same problems. 

We know that history never repeats itself, but it does rhyme. So, where do we stand now? The money that keeps the Global Empire together, today, is not based on precious metals and we don't risk collapse because our mines cease producing gold. Indeed, there is clear evidence that gold production and economic growth decoupled worldwide in the 1950s. So using gold as the basis for a monetary system went out of fashion in the 1970s. 

Our money is not linked to anything, nowadays. It is something that floats free in space, a ghost of what once were heavy gold coins. But we still have it and our rich men are so filthy rich to put to shame the Roman ones (even though our multi-billionaries don't have the right to throw their servants into the pool of the morays, not yet, at least). 

Apparently, we are more clever than the ancient. They didn't have paper, didn't have the printing press, they couldn't print paper money. And they couldn't even imagine what a cryptocurrency is. We can do much better than anything they could invent. So we will never face the same problems, right?

Not so simple. Yes, we do have paper money, cryptocurrencies, and the like. But don't think that the Romans didn't try to replace gold with something else. Even without paper, they could have used earthenware, papyrus, parchment, or whatever. But if they tried that, it didn't work. The problem is always that of the shipwrecked sailor. You may have money in one form or another, but if you can't buy anything with it, it is useless. Even if you have gold, there is not much you can buy in a collapsed economy. 

And there we stand: we are all shipwrecked sailors and that has been shown most clearly by the Covid pandemic. Think about that: you were locked at home, you couldn't go to a restaurant, take a trip, get a drink, go to the beach, go dancing, nothing like that. Not that commerce disappeared: we could still buy anything we wanted from Amazon and have it delivered home. But, as I already noted, money is not just a tool to buy things. It is a tool to establish the social hierarchy by means of the game of conspicuous consumption. That's a game you can't play alone, at home, in front of a mirror. No more than a shipwrecked sailor, alone on his island, can gain a higher social status by eating more coconuts.

In the end, the pandemic simply brought to light something that we should have known already: that we can't indulge in conspicuous consumption for much longer. Running out of gold is not a problem for us. The problem is that we are gradually running out of fossil fuels, and it was those fuels that allowed us to consume so much and waste so much. The pandemic has given us a taste of the things to come. Because it is so functional in pushing the economy in the direction where it must go in any case, it may never end.

So, can we think of a creative solution for the future that awaits our civilization as it runs out of the energy sources that power it? Maybe we can find inspiration from the Middle Ages. As I said, history never repeats itself, but we may be moving toward a historical phase that rhymes with the way the economy of the Middle Ages functioned. So, the Christian Church may be replaced by the entity we call "Science" (with a capital "S"), supposed to be able to dispense physical and spiritual health to its followers. And that may generate trade and movement of people and goods, as well as establishing a new hierarchical order.

We may have already seen hints of this evolution. First, the Covid has heavily damaged the universal health care system of the countries that had it. With the fear of being infected and with hospitals being converted to Covid care centers, now good health care is not for everyone: it is a new form of conspicuous consumption for those who can afford it. The ancient pilgrimages to holy sites could be replaced by trips to the best hospital and health care centers. 

Then, would there be an equivalent of holy relics in the future? So far, nothing like that has emerged, but we may see the coming vaccination certificates as "tokens of virtue" that separate the "haves" (those who are vaccinated) from the "have nots." (those who don't want, or who can't afford, to be vaccinated). But that's hardly a functional hierarchy creating system. Eventually it could be replaced by a "point system" not unlike the shèhuì xìnyòng tǐxì, the social credit system being developed in China. By all definitions, that's a kind of monetary system that establishes a hierarchical system not based on conspicuous consumption. That may well be the future.

And, as always, history keeps rhyming. 



Wednesday, March 3, 2021

The Death of Ahmed Zaki Yamani, the "Oil Sheik" who Understood Everything

Ahmed Zaki Yamani, oil minister of Saudi Arabia until 1986, died in London last week. In memory of the "oil sheik," I reproduce here a comment that appeared on the ASPO-Italia blog in 2006. The interview of Yamani by Oriana Fallaci in 1976 is a good example of how the oil problem is misunderstood in the West and of the many lies told about it. Yamani, despite all the accusations and insults he received, was always a moderate who sought compromise. He managed to prevent his country, Saudi Arabia, from the disasters that befell all oil-producing countries in the Middle East.  

Unfortunately, Yamani's legacy has been somewhat lost over the years, but it is only now that Saudi Arabia is seeing bombs falling on its territory -- a destiny that so far the country had avoided. Now, things are going to become very difficult as Saudi Arabia faces the unavoidable decline of its once abundant oil resources.

Yamani is remembered, among other things, for having said that “The Stone Age did not end because the world ran out of stone, and the Oil Age will end long before the world runs out of oil.” And, with that, he demonstrated that he had perfectly understood the concept of "EROEI" and the consequences of gradual depletion. 

(Fallaci's interview is available in full at this link.)

Fallaci interviews Yamani: thirty years later
Di Ugo Bardi - September 2006 (slightly edited for publication on "The Seneca Effect")

About thirty years ago, at the height of the first "Oil Crisis," the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci interviewed the Minister of Oil of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani. The text of the interview appeared in the newspapers and can be found today in the book "Interview with History" (BUR 2001).  

The interview with Yamani is just one of the many interviews that Oriana Fallaci had obtained from the various powerful men of the 1970s (among them Henri Kissinger). Somehow, being interviewed by her seems to have been fashionable, or perhaps it was something that they could not avoid. According to what Fallaci herself tells us, Ahmed Zaki Yamani hesitated for a long time before agreeing to be interviewed. In the end, however, he invited Fallaci to his home in London, then in Jeddah, and received her with great courtesy, and introduced her to his wife Taman and his daughters. 

Fallaci's interview is interesting because it reproposes the elements that have characterized the debate on oil from then until today. On the one hand, the political interpretation of the crisis, as due to a conspiracy with ideological or religious roots. On the other, the pragmatic interpretation of the crisis, as due to the impossibility of production to satisfy demand and maintain a low price. 

There was also a human side of the interview and, from what she writes, it doesn't seem that Fallaci was particularly grateful to Yamani for his kindness. On the contrary, her antipathy towards him is evident. You see it in all her questions and her comments, but also when she describes his eyes as "Only his eyes alert one to his true self: brilliant, darting, crafty. Eyes that know how to lie, to caress and pierce one with ruthlessness." Fallaci, evidently, thinks she has supernatural telepathic powers. 

She defines Yamani as, "The man who can take us back to the days when we traveled on horseback, who can close our factories, make our banks fail ..." Or consider when she bluntly tells him: "You wanted money and you got it: ruining us." Then, she accuses Yamani of blackmail, of wanting to buy an atomic bomb, of being " diabolical," and things like that. Later on, Fallaci accused Yamani of having attempted to seduce her while she was in his house, although this accusation does not appear in the interview.

It's not so much a question of insults. What is striking about this interview is how Fallaci had not even minimally prepared herself on the subject of crude oil. She was unable to ask questions that were not simply based on the various legends of the time (the same as today). To illustrate how the interview looked most of all as something in the style of a gossip magazine, here are some excerpts.

"Where is the money? I see many gold watches in your shop windows and gold lighters, gold rings, I see big cars in your streets, but I don't see houses, I don't see real cities."  Fallaci apparently believed that the Saudi were still living in tents in the desert

"We know very well that the emirs use the money to buy golden water closets" Again, Fallaci doesn't seem to be bothered by the need of verifying her assertions.

"In Saudi Arabia people dig for water and find oil." If you think that it could be true, note that the oil fields of Saudi Arabia are typically located at depths of a few kilometers, far more than the depth of water wells.

Throughout the interview, Fallaci revolves around the concept that the Arabs were plotting against the West using oil as a weapon. Several times he tries to get Yamani to admit that, yes, there is a plot against the West to ruin us and to establish the world Islamic dictatorship. If possible, she would like to make him admit that it is him, Ahmed Zaki Yamani, who is the leader of the plot. It is as if she saw the interview as part of a Hollywood movie, where the villain usually confesses his crimes out of pure bragging.  

In partial defense of Fallaci, it must be said that, in those years, almost everyone in the West believed that the crisis of the 1970s had purely political origins. Today, we clearly see from the data that the crisis was instead caused by the US peak production, which took place in 1970. But the vehemence with which Fallaci attacks Yamani in the interview does not seem to be based on any data.

Yamani, for his part, always replies without losing his temper. It is clear that he considered Fallacy as a kind of time bomb, to be treated with caution and handled with gloves. It must have really taken a lot of patience for him to answer the series of questions that came to him: many were simply silly, some offensive, and others indiscreet. An example of the last kind is the one about the feelings he had experienced witnessing the execution of the killer of King Feisal. But Yamani is always courteous and answers without ever dodging the question, even though in his heart he must have wondered more than once what was that led him into such a situation. Fallaci, instead of appreciating that, accuses him, saying that "spontaneity was forbidden."

In the end, what makes the interview interesting is not Fallaci, but Yamani. Despite the lack of knowledge evident from the questions he received, Yamani manages to give a complete and organic picture of the oil situation of the time, which already foreshadowed today's world. At the time, Saudi Arabia produced three and a half million barrels a day, but Yamani said it could have produced 11. In fact, Saudi Arabia has managed to produce nearly 11 at certain times.  

Yamani was clear about the strategy that Saudi Arabia would adopt in the years to come: that of "swing producer" or needle of the balance that would have stabilized production and avoided further crises in the future. He had perfectly framed the world oil situation as it would be for at least three decades to come. Fallaci was unable to appreciate the value of what she was told but, reading the interview, one is struck by the clarity with which Yamani had predicted the events of the next thirty years and even more.

Are Yamani's considerations still valid today? Overall, yes, but they won't continue to hold for very long. Today, Saudi Arabia faces a very difficult future. It is said that the country will still be able to increase production, but it is also said that the current fields have reached their limits and that the decline is about to begin. Sooner or later, Saudi Arabia will no longer be the tip of the balance it has been since the time of Yamani. The exhaustion of resources is the real problem and not the "emirs who buy water closets of gold" as Fallaci said, perhaps really believing it.

Oriana Fallaci is gone today. Yamani has no longer been oil minister since 1986, today he is an elderly gentleman who lives in London and deals with Islamic studies (n.d.a. this was written in 2007, Yamani died in 2021). The world goes on, the events of the past always present themselves the same but in always different forms. One thing changes, however: there is less and less oil to extract).


Sunday, February 28, 2021

Seneca and the Virus: Why does the Pandemic Grow and Decline?


Seneca, the Roman philosopher, knew the term "virus," that for him had the meaning of our term "poison." But of course, he had no idea that a virus, intended in the modern sense, was a microscopic creature reproducing inside host cell. He also lived in a time, the 1st century AD, when major epidemics were virtually unknown. It was only more than one century after his death that a major pandemic, the Antonine Plague, would hit the Roman Empire. 

But Seneca was a fine observer of nature and when he said that "ruin is rapid" he surely had in mind, among many other things, how fast a healthy person could be hit by a disease and die. Of course, Seneca had no mathematical tools that would allow him to propose a quantitative epidemiological theory, but his observation, that I have been calling the "Seneca Effect," remains valid. Not only people can be quickly killed by diseases, but even epidemics often follow the Seneca Curve, growing, peaking, and declining. 

Of course, the concepts of growth and collapse depend on the point of view. In many cases one man's fortune is someone else's ruin. What we see as a good thing, the end of an epidemic, is a collapse seen from the side of the virus (or bacteria, or whatever). But, then, why do epidemics flare up and then subside? It is a fascinating story that has to do with how complex systems behave. To tell it, we have to start from the beginning. 

One thing that you may have noted about the current Covid-19 pandemic is the remarkable ignorance not just of the general public about epidemiology, but also of many of the highly touted experts. Just note how many people said that the epidemic grows "exponentially." Then, they got busy extrapolating the curve to infinity, predicting hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of deaths. But, to paraphrase Kenneth Boulding, "Someone who claims that natural systems grow exponentially has to be either a madman or an economist." It just doesn't work that way!

But how does an epidemic grow, exactly? The basic shape of an epidemiological curve is "bell shaped" (yes, just like the Hubbert curve for petroleum extraction). 

The reason for this shape is easy to understand in qualitative terms. Initially, the virus (or the pathogen) has a whole population to infect, so it grows rapidly (nearly, but not exactly, exponentially). Then, as it grows, its number of targets decline. Eventually the virus can't grow any longer for lack of targets. It reaches a peak and starts declining. 

These considerations can be set in a mathematical form: it is the model called "SIR" (susceptible, infected, removed), developed already in 1927. You may be surprised to discover that the SIR equations are exactly the same that describe the growth of the oil industry and the phenomenon of "peak oil." They are also the same equations that describe the behavior of a trophic chain in a biological system. I won't go into the details, here. Let me just tell you that, with my colleagues Perissi and Lavacchi, we are preparing a paper that describes how these and other physical systems are related to each other. 

Of course, modern epidemiological models are much more complicated than the simple "bare bones" SIR model, but it is an approach that tells us what to expect. No epidemic grows forever and even if you do nothing to stop it, it will eventually fade out by itself. After all, pathogens have the same problem we have with crude oil: they are exploiting a limited resource (us).

Now, back to the Seneca Effect, we said it implies that ruin must be faster than growth. In other words, the shape of the "Seneca curve" should be something like this:
There are such cases in the history of epidemics.

Let me show you an example: the cholera epidemic that struck London in mid-19th century (data from Wikipedia Commons)

And here you clearly see the Seneca shape. The decline of the cholera burst was significantly faster than its growth. The data for more recent cholera epidemics show the same shape. 

Yet, that "Seneca shape" is not common in epidemics. Often, we see the opposite kind of asymmetry. Here is an example: Hepatitis A, with data taken from Wikipedia. You see how the curve declines more slowly than it grows. 

Here is another pre-Covid example: the acute respiratory syndrome of 2003 in Hong Kong. 

There is no fixed rule in these historical cases, let's just say that this asymmetric shape is rather common. So, let's go to the current pandemic, and here are some data for the first cycle of 2020. (Image from "The Economist"). Also here, the trend is clear: decline is slower than growth.


It is a common trend all over the world and we could call it the "Anti-Seneca" effect. But, apart from giving it a name, why this shape?

The answer is not univocal: there are several factors that may affect the shape of the curve. In this case, the easiest explanation has to do with the parameter that describes how fast infected people cease to be infected, either because they are healed or because they die. If they heal/die fast, the curve goes down fast, otherwise it is the opposite. It makes sense: cholera may kill affected people in just a few hours, if untreated. Instead, people infected by the Sars-Cov-2 may go through one or two weeks of agony before their demise. That would explain the different shape of the curves.
But, be careful! As I said, there are other possible explanations. For instance, if you compare Sweden with Italy, you see that the mortality curve is more asymmetric for the former. Why is that? It is hard to think that sick Swedes would take more time to die than sick Italians. More likely, it is a question of geography. The Swedish population is concentrated in the southern regions, where the pandemic hit first. It took some time for the virus to spread northward and that explains the "tail" in the mortality curve. In Italy, instead, the first pandemic wave was confined to the Northern regions, which are relatively homogeneous in terms of population. Probably, geographical effects account for the commonly observed asymmetric curve shapes of the COVID-19 epidemic in other regions of the world. 
With vaccinations, the SIR model shows that we should see the epidemic curves falling down fast, at least if the vaccinations are started before the peak. So far, this effect is not seen anywhere, it may be too early. As vaccinations progress, we should be able to say more on this matter.

As for everything in science, epidemiology takes a little work to be learned, a virtue that's difficult to find in the discussion on social media. Even experts in virology and diseases don't really study epidemiology, their job is to heal people, not to make mathematical models. That's the reason why the behavior of the virus is so widely misunderstood. But, as Einstein said, "The Lord God is subtle, but malicious he is not." Epidemiology may be subtle, but it is not impossible to understand how epidemics grow and spread.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

The Collapse of Rhetoric. Can Economists and Ecologists Talk to Each Other?


In ancient times, the standard way to deal with different opinions was found in the fine art of rhetoric. At the time of Seneca, rhetoric was perhaps the main skill of a man of culture: the capability of debating was valued and practiced. 

The use remained for a long time, even in scientific matters. At the time of Galileo Galilei, it was still the standard way to discuss. Galileo wrote his "Dialogo sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo" in 1632 as a fictional dialogue among three savants. (see image above).

But rhetoric has completely gone out of fashion nowadays. Did you notice how in the media or in the socials there is no more debate? There are only insults. There has to be something deeply wrong in the way society is functioning that makes it impossible for most of us to discuss with people who don't fully agree with us. 

Nevertheless, the art of the fictional dialogue has not disappeared. Here is how it was recently interpreted by Kathy Shields, republished here with her kind permission. Note how you could see the dialog she presents as a sort of crescendo in which the protagonists, the ecologists and the economists, sort of play a musical duet that grows in tone and volume, ending with a final bang: "who put these people, (the economists) in charge?

There are many ways to describe a Seneca cycle, this is one.

A completely made up story about the history of economics and ecology


Sunday, February 21, 2021

Honoring a Fallen Enemy: the Death of Rush Limbaugh


Rush Limbaugh has died at 70. Defined as "The most dangerous man in America," climate science denier, friend of Donald Trump, accused of racism and of all sorts of evil deeds. Eventually, though, a human being like all of us. 

Quomodo fabula, sic vita: non quam diu, sed quam bene acta sit, refert. (Life is like a play: it's not the length, but the excellence of the acting that matters.) Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Letters to Licilius.


Years ago, the vagaries of life led me to have a meal in a restaurant in Bucharest. There, I discovered that the cook was Italian and I had a long chat with him. One thing he told me was that he had been the personal cook of Dick Cheney, in the US. 

Yes, Dick Cheney, the man behind the "Project for a New American Century," of the attack on Iraq, of the fake story of the "weapons of mass destruction," and God knows of how many more dark and dire things we don't know about. I have no reason to doubt the story I was told: what surprised me was that he told me that Cheney was "the best employer he had ever had," kind, considerate, and he paid well. And I have no reason to doubt that, either. 

You see, I am fascinated by evil. It is a theme that goes deep into everything we do and we think. Does evil really exist? Do evil people exist?  An Italian writer of one century ago, Armando Vacca, noted how the Great War was fought with the people on both sides all thinking they were fighting for a good cause. And he asked himself the question: "who would ever want to fight an unjust war?" A related question is, "who would ever want to live an evil life?" Evil may be something more subtle than it seems to be.

Nowadays, our view of the world is dominated by the search for evil. We seem to have lost our moral compass so completely that we can see ourselves as good only if we can identify someone evil to be in contrast with. It has been like that during the past century or so. But who are these evil rulers? Mussolini, Saddam Hussein, Cheney, and many others, were they really evil or just said to be evil by their enemies? About Mussolini, I looked into the matter as much as I could and I arrived at the conclusion that he was not a man who had pleasure in harming others, which is a possible definition of "evil". He was, mainly, a man whose mind had aged and who had retreated behind the mask of the Duce degli Italiani. The man had become the mask and he wore that mask all the time. He had come to believe in his own propaganda and he really thought that he was doing something good for Italy. 

So, evil is not a question of someone enjoying hurting or killing other people while satanically laughing. It is a question of the mask that every one of us wears. The very concept of "persona" is related to that of mask. It may come from the Latin verb per-sonare, literally: sounding through, referred to the masks actors wore in theatrical performances. We all go through life wearing a mask, sometimes more than one. And we often identify so much with the mask we wear that we forget what we might be without it. 

So, evil people are best detected when they are in a position where they can do much more damage than the average person. My experience of when I occasionally crossed paths with high-level people agrees with what the Italian cook I met in Bucharest told me. High-level people can be absolutely charming, it is a skill that they develop to arrive at the top. Does that mean that the powerful always lie their way upward? Not really. They just wear their mask, their persona, and that's what they become. We all do the same.

So, how about Rush Limbaugh? I must say that I never heard him speak live, but I knew who he was and how he had influenced many people. For me, he was a sort of a distant bogeyman, and I am reasonably sure I would disagree with maybe 99% of the things he was saying. But does that mean he was evil? Difficult to say, unless you happened to meet his cook. 

From what comes out of a debate he had with Peter Gleick (a climate scientist), Limbaugh doesn't come out as evil, more like the typical climate science denier.  Not a person who consciously lies, just a person who lacks the intellectual tools needed to think quantitatively. That is, your next-door neighbor. 

Roy Spencer (another climate scientist, but of the heretical kind) tells us many good things about Rush Limbaugh. One stands out:

Rush was the same person, on the air and off the air.

And so, it seems that Limbaugh, like many people whom we often consider evil, didn't see himself as evil. He would just wear his mask in the scene and at home, just like most of us do. In the end, the persona, the mask, is the same thing as our real face. 

As Seneca said, what counts in the play is how well it is acted and we cannot say that Rush Limbaugh didn't play his part well. Perhaps there will come a day when we won't need to label others as evil to think of us as good. Then, we'll be able to consider our enemies as human beings, just like us. Rest in peace, Rush.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

The End of the Megamachine: A Seneca Cliff, by any Other Name, Would Still be so Steep.


Our civilization seems to be acutely aware of an impending decline that nowadays is rapidly taking the shape of a collapse. It is still officially denied, but the idea is there and it appears in those corners of the memesphere where it makes an long term imprint even though it doesn't acquire the flashy and vacuous impression of the mainstream media. 

An recent entry in this section of the memesphere is "The End of the Megamachine." A book written originally in German by Fabian Scheidler, now translated into English. Not a small feat: Scheidler attempts to retrace the whole history of our civilization under the umbrella concept of the "megamachine." A giant creature that's in several ways equivalent to what another denizen of the collapse sphere, Nate Hagens, calls the "Superorganism." Perhaps these are all new generation of a species which had as ancestor the "Leviathan" imagined by Thomas Hobbes and explicitly mentioned several times in Scheidler's book. 

We may call these creatures "technological holobionts." They are complex systems formed of colonies of subsystems, holobionts in their turn, too. They are evolutionary creatures that grow by optimizing their capability of consuming food and transforming it into waste. It takes time for these entities to stabilize and, at the beginning of their evolutionary history, they may oscillate wildly, grow rapidly, and collapse rapidly. As Lucius Annaeus Seneca said long ago, "the road to ruin is rapid" and it is a good description of the fate of young holobionts.

The book can be seen as a description of the life cycle of one of these giant creatures, leviathan, superorganism, or megamachine -- as you like to call it. We see it growing from a tentative start, in the late Middle Ages, then finding an unexpected source of nutritious food in the form of fossil fuels that made it not just grow, but become fat, obnoxious, and cruel. Extremely cruel.

The megamachine is just one of the biggest systems that ever appeared in the history of Earth's ecosphere. As such it has follow the trajectory that's described in the concept of the "Seneca Effect."  At the beginning, it grows slowly, but the more it grows, the faster it can grow. Now, the resources that make it grow start dwindling and the giant brute starts stumbling around in search for more. In doing that, it exhausts itself and prepares for the final fall: the steep descent called the "Seneca Cliff"

That is where we stand right now: on the edge of the cliff and, probably, we have already started sliding down. Scheidler's description of how we arrived here is both impressive and breathtaking. It was a run toward the cliff that we ran convinced that we would have been climbing up forever but, alas, that couldn't be the case and it wasn't. 

Is there life on the other side of the cliff? Of course, yes! The universe moves in cycles and it never stands still. That's also the message of "The End of the Megamachine" that concludes with a look at a possible transition. The human civilization will never be as it was before, it will be based more on collaboration than on competition and with a more constructive relation with the ecosphere. And that's not a choice, it is a requirement for the survival of humankind.

On the bed of the Moldau, the stones are churning,
The days of our rulers are ending fast.
The great don't stay great, the order is turning,
The night has twelve hours, but day comes at last.

Bertolt Brecht 

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? 


Thursday, February 11, 2021

Why the Hummingbird is the Most Dangerous Animal in the World

This is a revised translation of a post that I published in Italian a couple of years ago. The concept that the Hummingbird is NOT a good example of how to deal with the problems we have is also explained in some detail in my book "Before the Collapse" (2019),


If you can understand French, do watch this clip that tells not only the story of the virtuous hummingbird, but how it ends. The conclusion is "if you think with a hummingbird brain, you end up screwed". (h/t Igor Giussani). (In French, hummingbird is "colibri")

Have you ever heard the story of the hummingbird and the fire? It goes like this: there is a gigantic fire raging in the forest. All the animals run for their lives, except for a hummingbird that heads towards the flames with some water in its beak. The lion sees the hummingbird and asks, "Little bird, what do you think you are doing with that drop of water?" And the hummingbird replies, "I am doing my part".

If you studied philosophy in high school, you may think that the hummingbird is a follower of Immanuel Kant and of his categorical imperative principle. Or, maybe, the hummingbird is a stoic philosopher who thinks that his own personal virtue is more important than anything else. 

Apart from philosophy, the moral of the story is often interpreted in an ecological key. That is, everyone should engage individually in good practices for the sake of the environment. Things like turning off the light before leaving the house, turning off the tap while brushing one's teeth, take short showers to save water, ride a bicycle instead of a car, separate waste with attention, and the like. Small things, just like the drop of water that the hummingbird carries in its beak against the fire. But if everyone does their part, we will achieve something.

Maybe. But I have my doubts and I think that this story is not so wise as some people understand it. Actually, I think this matter is something akin to the stuff that comes out of the back end of the male of the bovine species. More than admirable, the hummingbird seems to me a very dangerous animal. To explain why, let me tell you a little story.

Some time ago, as I walked along the street, not far from my home, I found myself immersed in a cloud of smoke. Not pleasant nor healthy, of course. Someone had thought that it was a good moment to burn a pile of clippings from their garden, generating the cloud. Apparently they didn't worry too much about the people walking in the street or the neighbors.

Is it legal to burn stuff with big smoke in the middle of an urban area? Back home, I did a little research on the Web and I found that, in Italy, yes, you can do that, but only in small quantities and according to some strict rules designed to avoid smoking out one's neighbors and passerby. So, it seemed to me appropriate to write a small post for the local discussion group, pointing out the existence of the law and inviting people to be a little more careful with burning things in their gardens.

My gosh! What had I done! In the comments I received insults of all kinds, even threats of a lawsuit. Someone even said to me, "If you say this, you must be a very unhappy person!" (true, I swear!). The curious thing was that the insults all arrived in the name of good ecological practice. Burning the cuttings, I was told, is a natural thing, the smell they make is good, the old farmers did it and so those people who were doing that are true ecologists whereas I had no title to bother anyone with my "legalistic" considerations.

Note how the people who took this position seemed to believe that their commitment to good environmental practices, caring for their gardens or whatever, puts them in a position of moral superiority over those who do not do the same. Consequently, they felt that they could afford to ignore certain laws, for example they can smoke out their neighbors by burning clippings in the garden.

We could call this attitude the "hummingbird syndrome." The fact of being virtuous in a field, gives you the right to be a sinner in another. (I think it is also a problem of Kant's categorical imperative and maybe of the whole concept of the stoic philosophy, but I am not a philosopher so let me stick to hummingbirds). In short, some people seem to think that they can save the world by small and virtuous actions, that is behaving like the humminbird of the story, dropping a little water over a giant forest fire. And having done that, they feel that they can continue polluting in other ways.

Once I got into this order of ideas, I found that I am not the first to think about this matter. Among others, Jean Baptiste Comby wrote similar considerations in his book " La question climatique. Genèse et dépolitisation d'un problème public"(Raisons d'agir, 2015). He does not use the term "hummingbird syndrome," but he basically says what I am saying here. 

Comby's idea is that the climate issue, and in general the ecological one, has been" depoliticized ", that is, it has been entirely transferred to the private domain of good individual practices. What happens is that the members of the upper middle classes create a little personal innocence for themselves by taking care of some details when, on the other hand, they are the ones who do the most damage to the ecosystem. A petty bourgeois morality that Cyprien Tasset rightly calls "green phariseeism ." 

Here is an exceprt from Tasset's review of the book by Comby

The fifth chapter deals with the "social paradox according to which the prescriptions of eco-citizenship symbolically benefit those who are, in practice, the least respectful of the atmosphere and ecosystems" (p. 16). Indeed, existing data on the social distribution of greenhouse gas emissions show that "the more material resources increase, the greater the propensity to deteriorate the planet" (p. 185). The cultural capital, here is inclined to "show itself to be benevolent towards ecology" and allows for symbolic profits, usually going hand in hand with economic capital, is "without real effect" positive in terms of limiting emissions (p. 186). Jean-Baptiste Comby has the merit of posing this paradox without resorting, as other sociologists sometimes allow themselves to do, to the ideologically overloaded category of "bobos" (fake ecologists) (*).

In short, in my humble opinion the hummingbird is a son of a bitch: flies over the forest, throws his droplet of water, then leaves, happy to have done its duty. And all the animals that can't fly die roasted.

Which could happen to us too if we continue like this.

(h / t Nicolas Casaux)

(*) In French, the term " bobos " indicates the "Bourgeois-Bohemes" - members of the upper middle class who like to paint themselves as caring for the environments but who pollute and consume resources much more than the average citizen.

Monday, February 8, 2021

Cassandra is Dead. Long Live Cassandra!


After the fall of Troy, Cassandra was taken as Agamemnon's "pallake" (concubine) and taken to Mycenae where she was killed by Clytemnestra, Agamemnon's wife. The destiny of prophetesses is never so bright, especially when they turn out to have been right. Something similar, although fortunately much less tragic, is happening to the Cassandra blog, censored on Facebook by the powers that be. So, I guess it is time to call it quits. But Cassandra is not dead! She will return in some form.


On March 2, 2011, I started the blog that I titled "Cassandra's Legacy." 10 years later, the blog had accumulated 974 posts, 332 followers, and more than 5 million visualizations (5289.929). Recently, the blog had stabilized at around 2,000-3,000 views per day.

A small blog, by all means, but I always had the sensation that it was not without an impact on the nebulous constellation of the people, high up, whom we call "the powers that be." It is a story that reminds me the legend that George W. Bush decided to invade Iraq in 2003 after he had learned about peak oil. Reasonably, it can't be but a legend, but are we sure? After all, the people who take decision are not smarter than us, just way richer. And they can misunderstand things just like we all do. Of course, their blunders make much more noise.  

And so, it may well be that many things that we are seeing around us have a logic. For sure, a certain kind of message cannot be eliminated anymore simply by ignoring it. It has to be actively suppressed. And that seems to be what's happening, with censorship rampant in the social media. Even the Cassandra blog, even though not important in itself, attracted the wrath of the powers that be. It was censored on Facebook and it seems to me that it is also kept nearly invisible in the search engines. As I discussed in a previous post on Cassandra, we knew it was going to happen and it did. 

Of course, this blog could survive even while boycotted by Facebook, but when you discover that you are in the crosshairs of someone big and powerful, it is better to take notice, duck down, and take cover. It makes little sense to insist to keep an indefensible position. It is time for Cassandra to fold. 

But this is not a defeat. It is, on the contrary, a badge of honor that the PTBs noticed this blog and acted against it (O.K., maybe it was just a glitch of some complicated AI program, who knows?). In any case, closing the blog simply means recognizing that the memetic war follows the standard rules of war. It is all about movement. And that's what Cassandra is doing. It is moving. We all do. The only things that never move are the dead, and we are still very much alive! And "Cassandra's Legacy" will remain on line, although it won't be updated anymore.

I am working at renewing a blog that I had already created, called "The Seneca Trap."  It will be online soon with the name "The Seneca Effect". We'll see if it becomes another target for the PTBs!

In the meantime, I am passing to you a few paragraphs that I took from Dmitry Orlov's book "The Five Stages of Collapse." (2013) where he correctly predicted how the West was moving along a path that's taking it to follow the steps of the old Soviet Union, even in terms of censorship. Orlov describes how, at that time, people defended themselves from an obtrusive and obtuse regime. I guess we'll have to adopt the same techniques.

The Rise of Steganography

by Dmitry Orlov -- From "The Five Stages of Collapse" (2013)

I am sure that certain readers will at this point recollect schlocky American Cold War novels they wasted their time reading, or automatically conjure up secret codes and communications technologies used Financial Collapse45to play a spy vs. spy cat-and-mouse game with the KGB, while others will want to think that the KGB was sufficiently incompetent and/or demoralized to just let all that secret communication slip by (I assure you that it was not). Well, having seen how it all works in practice, I am happy to disabuse you of all such notions. The only technologies involved were spoken word and pen and paper; the good results were achieved thanks to mental fortitude and solidarity.
The technique I saw used was an instance of steganography, which “is the art and science of writing hidden messages in such a way that no one, apart from the sender and intended recipient, suspects the existence of the message, a form of security through obscurity. The word is of Greek origin and means ‘concealed writing’ from the Greek words steganos (στεγανός), meaning ‘covered or protected’, and graphei (γραφή), meaning ‘writing.’”10 There is the outer, public message, which is innocuous or insipid or annoyingly redundant (except for a few easily overlooked details); then there is the inner, private message, which can only be discerned by the intended recipient, who has prior knowledge. The key security feature is that the recipient needs to know that the message is a message at all, never mind decipher it.
My mother and my grandmother kept up a voluminous correspondence augmented by regular telephone conversations. They discussed everything from the weather to their reading to what they ate for break-fast. They also seemed to be curiously obsessed with pieces of porcelain: which tea set was a present from whom, who would have liked it, who had owned a similar one at one time or another, from whom they may have purchased it and how much they may have paid for it, how many cups were cracked or broken, whether they could be repaired, who was the clumsy one and broke a cup, who had been particularly skillful at gluing together a broken cup so that it is now as good as new and so on and so forth, all seemingly innocent prattle between two dotty women reminiscing about sentimental bits of bric-à-brac—but for someone in the know, laden with secret meanings. Cups were thousands of dollars. Tea sets were tens of thousands. Cracked cups were expenses incurred. Broken cups were deals that had fallen through. Any persons mentioned were not referred to by full name but by informal diminutives and endearments and referenced not to actual places and times but to private, shared memories. But there were also passages of general interest, such as soup or cake recipes, sometimes supplied with a passing comment addressed directly to the KGB censor, such as “Others who are reading this might find this interesting as well.” Who could possibly suspect secret, nefarious, conspiratorial intent in some-one so seemingly guileless? Not even the KGB!