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."

Monday, November 21, 2022

COP27: The Reasons for a Failure


The COP27, in itself, wouldn't deserve a comment. It is over, and that's it -- been there, done that, and nobody cared. But I think it is a good occasion to reproduce this text by Stuart B. Hill that nicely explains why we make mistakes all the time when trying to manage complex systems. The COP27, indeed, has been a good example of the concept of "pulling the levers in the wrong direction" as Jay Forrester, the creator of System Dynamics, explained to us. So, here it is. h/t Thorsten Daubenfeld. 

10 Common ‘Mistakes’ to Avoid, & ‘Needs’ to Meet, When Seeking to Create

 a Better World – Prof Stuart B Hill – 2008 (updated Dec 2012)


Because of the holistic nature of the approach being advocated, all of the areas below overlap & are highly interactive & interrelated. This was written in response to the Commonwealth Government’s announcement of the Australia 2020 Summit in Canberra, ACT (19-20 April, 2008:; downloadable as a PowerPoint presentation from: 


1.    Getting the usual ‘experts’ (mostly older males) together to talk & plan 

-       always leads to tinkering with existing (flawed) plans – [‘rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic’]; & being trapped in dominant paradigms

-       excludes most, including those affected by such plans & their ‘fresh’ ideas



-       involve mostly ‘different’ people, including (if possible) those most affected

-       start by focusing not on plans, but on values, beliefs, worldviews & paradigms 

-       then feelings & passions

-       then, emergent from these, hopes, dreams, visions, imaginings, & creative thoughts

-       only then can ‘design/redesign-based plans’ be enabled to emerge (these proactively enable systems [structures & processes] to meet long-term to short-term, & broad to specific, goals, & to make systems as ‘problem-proof’ as possible)

-       then critically analyse, integrate, & flesh these out, etc

-       detail participatory opportunities, responsibilities, time lines, resource & support needs, means for monitoring outcomes (feedback), tracking progress, & for ongoing redesigning & fine tuning


2.     Emphasising enemy-oriented, problem-solving approaches (back-end, reactive/responsive, curative) 

 -   these tend to focus on symptom management & neglect the need to address the underlying maldesign & mismanagement roots of all problems [trying to make systems work that can never work!] 

-    they typically over-focus on measuring problems (a main strategy for postponing action - by those who benefit from the status quo),

-    & they usually focus on efficiency & substitution strategies, e.g., improved application of pesticide & on finding less disruptive (but still purchased) substitutes, such as biological controls & genetically modified organisms

-       same story in other areas: medicine, energy, etc  



-       redesign existing systems (& design new systems) to make them as problem-proof as possible; & to support the effectiveness of natural controls

-       & to enable effective change from flawed/defective systems to significantly more improved (sustainable, wellbeing enabling) ones


3.    Getting stuck in activities ‘pathologically’ designed to postpone (feared) change 

-       particularly measuring problems (‘monitoring our extinction’)

-       endless over-collection of data (often ‘justified’ by arguments for ‘evidence-based [vs. responsible] approaches’)

-       hearings, committee meetings, report-writing, etc. [appointment to such committees may be designed to limit one’s influence]

-       most such preoccupations have NO follow-through, & usually only lead to more of the same



-       postponing ‘pathologies’ must be recognised, exposed, contradicted & addressed; by taking responsible, timely, appropriate, collaborative action 

-       access to relevant data is needed to make responsible decisions; however, adequate data are often already available from other places, in other languages etc. 

-       globally, billions of dollars are wasted annually unnecessarily repeating studies in new locations or with mischievous intentions (often related to perceived threats to existing commercial & power advantages)


4.     Trying to solve problems within the disciplines or areas responsible for creating them; or with multidisciplinary teams of selected experts/authorities from favoured disciplines, with others excluded



-       genuine transdisciplinary, trans-competency & multi-experience teams, able to access disciplinary & specialised knowledge as needed

-       include competencies relating to holistic approaches to design, sustainability, wellbeing, meaning & effective change processes


5.    Patriarchal (them doing things to/for us, & us doing things to/for them) & ‘driven’ do-good approaches are rarely exactly what is needed 

-       these are generally not embraced by those being ‘helped’, or are not sustained after the helpers leave

-       also, they invariably have diverse negative unexpected consequences



-       inclusion of those most affected by proposed ‘improvements’; as primary collaborators in all change processes; & from beginning to end

-       enables ownership, relevance, achievability, ongoing improvement & openness to unforseen/surprise benefits


6.    Planning ‘Olympic/mega-scale’, heroic initiatives (from hearings to projects; talk to action) with no follow-through or provision for ongoing support (this needs to be more than just funding)

-       these invariably only reach the analysis, planning & preliminary stages; & then are abandoned

-       most have unforseen numerous long-term & widespread harmful side-effects (personal, social, ecological, etc.)



-       diverse, mutually supportive, doable initiatives that have long-term commitment & support

-       consideration of opportunities for ongoing improvement & learning our ways forward collaboratively towards improved futures


7.     Over-focus on knowledge & data, & neglect of wisdom & experience (most ‘wisdom’ cannot be supported by data; it involves working with the ‘unknown’ – this is most of what is – not just the limited ‘known’ –  often in ways that rely on intuition, ‘right brain’ & gut feelings, etc.)



-       to be much better at recognising, valuing & involving the wisest & most experienced in our society, & not so obsessed with ‘cleverness’ (whereas wisdom enables us to work with the ‘unknown’ & ‘know’, cleverness is limited to working with the miniscule ‘known’)


8.    Over-focus on ‘productivity’, profit, power & quick dramatic results

-       predictably leads to burn-out, only short-term, limited benefits, & often unexpected disbenefits (additional problems that are often initially unrecognised)



-       much more focus on rehabilitation &‘maintenance’ activities [sustainable ‘productivity’ is a by-product of this]

-       caring for one another (& other species & the environment)

-       spontaneous (vs. distractive & compensatory) celebration – helps validate & spread good ideas & initiatives

-       venting feelings, & access to support for ‘healing’ our (often denied) psychological wounding, etc.

-       prioritise time & resources for these activities

-       realising that sustained productivity is emergent from the effective design & maintenance of whole healthy systems


9.    Homogenisation tendencies

-       these tend to result in construction of currently favoured ‘norms’ (for people, structures, processes, etc.)

-       failure to consider diversity & ‘alternatives’

-       creation of favoured in-groups & excluded out-groups

-       also, other expressions of inclusion, exclusion & blaming

-       failure to benefit from the creativity that resides at the margins & in the borderlands of society



-       openness to appreciation of the value of heterogeneity & ‘functional’ diversity within all systems, with its opportunities for synergy, mutualism…

-       lateral & paradoxical thinking & acting

-       extension beyond the usual competencies

-       relevance to core needs & possibilities (plus, ‘Testing Questions’ & ‘Integrator Indicators’ for these]

-       a sense of inclusion, ownership, & a sense of place, etc.


10.   Neglect of the arts, or only token involvement

-       over-focus on economic (not psycho-social) growth, the sciences, technologies, business, politics, the professions, the media, & the other major powerful institutions within our society 

-       as a result, the arts are poorly supported, regarded as a luxury or optional extra, an afterthought, or even irrelevant



-       recognition of the arts, in its broadest sense (including humour), as being an essential part of both the foundation & means for implementation of all efforts to achieve genuine & sustainable improvement



Emeritus Professor Stuart B. Hill | Foundation Chair of Social Ecology – Mobile: +61 (0)400 081 440

School of Education, Western Sydney University (Kingswood Campus); Locked Bag 1797, PENRITH, NSW 2751, AUSTRALIA; Location: Building KI, Room K-2-19A, Kingswood Campus; P: +61 (0)2 4736-0799 | Ext: 2799 (Kingswood staff only) | Fax: -0400; Email: | Web:

Founding Co-Editor, Journal of Organic Systems:; Latest PPTs: &

Latest YouTubes:;;; &


My latest books are Ecological Pioneers: A Social History of Australian Ecological Thought and Action (with Dr Martin Mulligan; Cambridge UP, 2001), Learning for Sustainable Living: Psychology of Ecological Transformation (with Dr Werner Sattmann-Frese; Lulu, 2008) and Social Ecology: Applying Ecological Understanding to our Lives and our Planet (with Dr David Wright and Dr Catherine Camden-Pratt; Hawthorn, 2011).

Thursday, November 17, 2022

Colin Campbell (1931-2022). A tribute to the father of the "Peak Oil" concept


Colin Campbell died at 91, on Nov 13th, 2020, in his home, in Ballydehob, Ireland. He loved to illustrate the concept of peak oil using beer. No fancy theories, no ideology: beer is a real thing that you can't create out of thin air. And after you have drunk it, there is no more of it! 

I met Colin Campbell for the first time in Italy, in 2003, when I invited him to give a talk at the University of Florence. That day, it was clear that Colin was bringing us an important message. He knew that our world, our proud civilization, and our (perhaps) great achievements, were all based on the availability of cheap oil. No oil, no energy. No energy, no civilization. 

Not everyone who listened to him understood his message, but some of us did. It was just two years after that the Twin Towers in New York had fallen in flames. It was an event that screamed for an explanation, but that could not be understood in the framework of the world that was presented to us by the official media. It was on that day that a small group of Italian scientists and researchers collected in my office to meet Colin after his talk. An electrifying experience: we all had the impression that a veil was being lifted, that we could see what was behind the propaganda curtain, that we could finally perceive the machinery that kept the world moving. A new reality was being revealed to us. 

Colin was not an academic scientist. He was primarily an "oil man," people who have practical, no-nonsense views, and can't be easily swayed by ideologies or fashionable trends. People hardened by experience, used to setting realistic goals and attaining them. Colin was not a man who could be easily intimidated or browbeaten. 

As a former oil man, Colin had access to data that for most of us are too expensive to buy, or simply unavailable. Together with his longtime friend and coworker, Jean Laherrere, they revisited an old model that Marion King Hubbert had proposed in 1956, they revamped it with new data, and they published their results in a 1998 article in "Scientific American" titled "The End of Cheap Oil." The model was simple, and the data still uncertain, but the study went straight at its target and arrived at a clear conclusion: the oil resources of the world were becoming more and more expensive, and economic growth was going to be a thing of the past in a non-remote future. The consequences were unknown, but potentially disastrous. Later, I called the descent ahead the "Seneca Cliff,"

Colin was moving along a path parallel to the one created, some 30 years before, by the authors of "The Limits to Growth" and their sponsors, the Club of Rome. Colin was a big fan of the "Limits" study, actually one of those people who brought the study back to the attention of the public in the 2000s. Sharp-minded as usual, Colin could recognize ideas that were grounded in the real world. He would never have bought the vague arguments that had been deployed against the study, such as that resources are "created" by human intelligence. No, resources are something real, something physical, something that you can weigh and measure. They do not come for free: you must pay for what you extract, and the cost may be more than what you can afford to pay. This is the essence of the idea of gradual depletion that leads to the "bell-shaped" curve. It was the basis of the "Limits to Growth" study and the basis of the "Peak Oil" theory. Below, you can see the main result of the 1998 study.

In the early 2000s, Colin went on to establish the "association for the study of peak oil and gas" (ASPO). It was a group of scientists, intellectuals, and simple citizens who had understood a simple concept: the future was not going to be what we were told to expect. It was an attempt to alert governments and everyone about the dangers ahead. 

Rethinking about that story, today, it is amazing how Colin succeeded, alone and only with his own resources, in creating an organization that arrived to have some effect on the global debate. High-rank politicians heard the message, although often reacted by criticizing it. For a while, ASPO was also a watering hole for all sorts of subversives, including the arch-conspiracy theorist Michael Ruppert, whom I personally met in Vienna at one of the ASPO meetings. I am reasonably certain that ASPO was infiltrated by the CIA, I have no proof, of course, but I would be surprised if they hadn't probed ASPO to see what we were up to. Evidently, they decided that we were harmless (they were correct) and they left us in peace.

ASPO went through a cycle of popularity that lasted about 10 years. For a while, it looked like we could influence the world, that the people who had the power to do something would listen to our message and intervene. In 2005, Colin Campbell proposed his "Oil Protocol" (also called the "Rimini Protocol") that would have put a limit on the extraction rate of hydrocarbons worldwide. That raised much interest in the mid-2000s. But that didn't last for long. 

The trajectory of ASPO went along a similar path as that of the Club of Rome and its "Limits to Growth" study. In both cases, a group of intellectuals tried to alert the world rulers about the finiteness of the material resources on which the economy was based, and that something had to be done to avoid the "overconsumption trap" that would necessarily lead to a crash. In both cases, the message was rejected and demonized, then ignored. 

In 2008, ASPO's predictions seemed to have been borne out when oil prices shot up to levels never seen before. Was it "peak oil" arriving? It probably was, at least for what it had to do with "conventional" oil, but the consequences were unexpected. The powers that be reacted aggressively to the crisis, pumping gigantic amounts of money and resources into the exploitation of new oil and gas resources in the US. It was the start of the age of "fracking." From 2010 onward, a huge amount of oil started flowing out of the "tight oil" wells, reversing the declining trend that had started 40 years before. For many, it was the delivery from a nightmare. Some spoke of a "new era of abundance" that might have lasted for centuries, if not forever. 

None of the geologists in ASPO, or outside ASPO, had predicted this development. Cornucopians and catastrophists, alike, judged that the revenues from shale oil could not justify the costs of extraction. They couldn't believe that the oil industry would embark on such an expensive and uncertain adventure. Indeed, fracking didn't bring profits: it was mostly a political decision, meant to keep the current elites in power. In this sense, it worked very well, although nobody can say for how long. 

Fracking was the death knell for ASPO. After 2010, the public rapidly lost interest in peak oil, Perhaps it was unavoidable. People easily forget unsettling truths, much preferring comfortable lies. And that's what happened. ASPO never officially died, but it declined to a much lower level of activity than it had shown at the beginning. Colin Campbell retired in his home in Southern Ireland, and his last comment on peak oil was published in "Cassandra's Legacy" in 2018.

Rethinking today about Colin's legacy, we can see that he was not always right in his assessments. One of the limits of his approach was that it was focused only on oil and gas. His models were sometimes oversimplified, and, at times, he would be too quick in disparaging new technologies that could change the picture. Perhaps his main limit was to have overemphasized the importance of the peak date as a turning point for humankind and to have believed that it could be determined by models. I know that he understood that the peak was just one point in a smooth curve, and he said that several times in public statements. But many people misunderstood the meaning of "peak oil" and saw it as equivalent to "running out" of oil. For some, it was the equivalent of the religious concept of apocalypse, and that led to accusations against ASPO of being a millenarian cult of some kind. 

It should go without saying that Colin's ideas were as far from millenarism as they could possibly have been. His approach was good, data-based science, and he was fond of quoting Keynes saying, "when I have new data, I change my mind, what do you do, sir?" (actually, Samuelson said that). Colin's capability of dispassionately analyzing data led him to avoid the mistakes that other members of ASPO made, such as putting all their hopes on nuclear energy or refusing to accept climate science as a valid scientific field.  

So, even though right now the concept of "peak oil" seems to be out of fashion, good ideas are like souls. They move from one generation to another, being reborn as new incarnations if they are good. Campbell's ideas have that power, right now they are nearly forgotten, but waiting to reappear in a suitable body, like the spirit of the Dalai Lama. We, humans, forget things so easily, especially important things. But one day we'll understand Campbell's main message that what we get from the Earth may seem to be free, but it must be repaid, sooner or later. And the debt recovery agency employed by Gaia is ruthless and cannot be bribed using money. 

From the time when I first met Colin, that day in 2003, I considered him my mentor as I moved into a field of research, resource depletion, that was wholly new to me. It was in large part with his help, which he was always happy to provide, that I succeeded in carving for myself a niche in this new and fascinating field. Over the years, I came to know Colin and his wife Bobbins well. He was not the kind of man who cared for his public image, nor he was used to boasting about his accomplishments, but I can tell you one thing: he truly was a good person. He was at the highest level of the empathy scale, as my friend Chuck Pezeshky defines it. 

Colin cared for people. For his family, his friends, his coworkers, and also for humankind as a whole -- otherwise he wouldn't have done what he did with ASPO. He understood how resources, and crude oil in particular, are at the basis of much of the oppression and suffering of humankind, and he tried to do what he could to free people from this immense burden. Today, we can see him as one of the great minds of the past decades who tried to alert humankind of the dangers ahead, such as Aurelio Peccei, Donella Meadows, Rachel Carson, Herman Daly, and many others. They were not heard, but their memory will not be forgotten.  

May Colin rest in peace in the arms of that Earth that he studied so much as a geologist. 

Monday, November 14, 2022

Did the Catholic Church really rule that Native Americans have no soul? How propaganda can still affect us after half a millennium


You may have heard a common version of the story of the "Controversy of Valladolid." It says that during the 16th century, a court convened by the King of Spain and staffed by Catholic priests decided that the Native Americans had no soul and that, hence, could be enslaved or exterminated at will. It is one of the many legends that surround us. The Valladolid Court of 1550-1551 actually ruled in favor of the Natives, forbidding their enslavement. But they were enslaved and exterminated anyway. The ruling of the court was distorted and turned into a propaganda piece that accused the Christian Church of being the instigator of the extermination. And many people still believe this story after nearly five centuries!  But so is propaganda, one of the most powerful (and evil) technologies ever devised by humans.

Not long ago, I was taking a foreign friend to visit Piazza Signoria, in Florence, showing him the many statuary pieces lining the square. All wonderful pieces, in many ways, but also disquieting for their depiction of murder and death. Today, nobody could get away with a piece of art where a man beheads a naked woman. And yet this is exactly what one of the main pieces in the square shows to us, Perseus and Medusa, in an unbelievably cruel depiction of a murder. 

As we walked past the Perseus, I told my friend, "you see, there is an invisible wall that cuts the square in two. On one side, there are older pieces of statuary, all with Christian themes: David and Goliath, Judith and Holophernes, and more. On the other side, you have pieces inspired by classical myths from the Pagan age: Hercules, Perseus and Medusa, the rape of the Sabines, and others." 

It was at that point that something clicked in my mind: "why exactly does that invisible wall exist?" The question arrived together with the answer. The wall is related to the "Controversy of Valladolid," a debate requested by King Charles 5th of Spain in 1550 to decide the fate of the Native Americans. It is an event that still reverberates in our perception of history, but distorted and transformed into the opposite of what it was by propaganda. But let me start from the beginning

The 16th century had been a century of military triumphs for Europe, and for Spain in particular, with the conquest of Mexico and Perù. That had brought a question for the new rulers: what to do with the Native inhabitants? Were they to be given rights as citizens of the Spanish Empire? Or should they be enslaved for their own good?  King Charles 5th of Spain, an enlightened ruler, convened a court in Valladolid to discuss it. After two years of debate, the court ruled in favor of the Natives and the King duly enacted laws banning their enslavement. But the story was not going to end there. There were enormous financial interests in Europe that dictated that the Natives should have been used as expendable, cheap labor. And it the Valladolid Court had said that it was not to be done, then down with the Valladolid Court and the Christian principles at the basis of the ruling. And down with Christianity, just as well. 

It was a profound paradigm shift in European views, still reverberating in our times. Perhaps the best place to see it is just where the Perseus stands: In the Piazza della Signoria square, in Florence. In a few decades, Europe had completely switched from an art inspired by Christian principles to one inspired by Pagan ones. A reflection of the debate at Valladolid, where one of the two discussants, Juan Gines de Sepulveda cited Aristotle to argue that if civilized societies, such as the Greek and Roman ones, permitted slavery, then it could be practiced even in modern Europe. 

It was a blueprint for what was going to happen, with European society starting to model itself on what Europeans thought was the ancient Greek society. One of the results was the invisible wall in Piazza della Signoria. Cellini's piece with Perseus and Medusa, brutal as it is, acquires a specific meaning when understood in the frame of the enslavement and the extermination of the Natives. The strong survive, and the weak perish. Perseus personifies the winning Europeans, Medusa the weaker Natives.

In time, the proceedings of the Valladolid Court were turned into the legend, common nowadays, that the court was charged to decide whether the Native Americans had a soul or not. Some versions of the story say that the court had decided that, maybe, they didn't have it -- they were beasts. It was probably the result of the distorted interpretation of a book by Bartolomé the Las Casas, one of the discussants at Valladolid. He described how the decisions of the court were ignored in his "A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies" (1552). The book was turned into anti-Spanish propaganda by those who were actually exterminating the Natives, the British, and North European colonists. The Catholic Church received such a blow from this campaign that it never completely recovered from it. 

This is one of the most evil legends around us because it condemns the honest efforts that many people of good will expended trying to save the Natives. But we still believe this ancient propaganda, nearly half a millennium later! The evil Goddess named Propaganda still deceives us.


Below, you'll find a post by Paul Jorion that tells the true story.  

This text by Jorion was also discussed in a previous post on the collapse of science. See also this post on how the Perseus is related to Elon Musk's takeover of Twitter. 

The "quarrel" or "controversy" of Valladolid (1550-1551)


This text will find its place in the panorama of anthropology that I am writing at the moment. As this is a subject that I am new to and where I cannot avail myself of any expertise, please be so kind as to point out to me any factual errors I make. Thank you in advance !


In 1550 and 1551 a debate took place in the city of Valladolid in Spain, which would go down in history as the “quarrel” or “controversy,” bearing the name of this city in the province of Castile and Leon.  

What was it about? It dealt with the Christian European civilization behaving like an unscrupulous invader on a continent of which it knew nothing, within populations of which it was until then unaware of the very existence, which it then discovered in real-time as it grew. advance in the territory of the New World, and the devastation that accompanied this advance.  

What all this meant as to how the victors would now treat the vanquished would be the question posed in a great debate that would cover a period of two years and where two champions of Spanish thought at the time would face off. Great intellectual and ethical problems had to be resolved in the scholastic tradition of a disputatio, before the enlightened public of what we would today call a commission, which would decide at the end of the debate which of the two speakers was right. There were basically only church people there.  

Two thinkers were on stage, both solemnly defending opposing points of view. They clashed at the level of ideas by mobilizing all the art of dialectics: that intended to convince, an art developed specifically for the speeches held in ancient Greece on an agora. To defend one of the points of view, Juan Gines de Sepulveda (1490-1573) considered, in a word, that the inhabitants of the New World were cruel savages and that the question was, basically, how to save them from themselves. To defend the opposing point of view, there was the Dominican Bartolomé de Las Casas (1474-1566) who affirmed that the Amerindians were, like the Europeans, human beings, whose differences should not be exaggerated, and that the question was about integrating them peacefully into a Christian society by conviction rather than by force.

The brutal conquest of Mexico took place from 1519 to 1521, it was no less bloody than in Peru from 1528 to 1532. We are now in 1550, almost twenty years after this last date. The situation, from the point of view of the Spaniards, is that they have won: the huge empire of New Spain has been conquered by secular Spain. It is a victory, even if internal quarrels continue, on the one hand between the colonized, as at the time of the conquest, which their incessant dissensions had fostered, and on the other hand between the colonizers themselves, manifested by a litany of palace revolutions and assassinations of conquistadors between them, in Peru as in Mexico.  

But the time has come for Charles V (1500-1558), “Emperor of the Romans”, to take a break. We must think about how to treat these conquered populations, decimated in equal parts by battles and massacres, and by the ravages of smallpox and measles, against which the local populations were helpless, having no immunity to these diseases hitherto absent from the continent. It is considered today that Mexico had some 25 million inhabitants on the eve of the first landing of the Spaniards in 1498. In 1568, the population was estimated at 3 million and it is believed that in 1620 there were only a million and a half Mexicans left.  

The phase still to come would no longer be that of Mexico or Peru, whose conquest was completed and where colonization was then carried out well, but that of Paraguay, which would begin in 1585, thirty-five years later.

Charles V, was an enlightened sovereign, like his rival François 1 st. They were contemporaries: two thinking kings, not only just kings, but men who had questions about history, knowing that they were major players. They shared a conception of the world enlightened by the same religion: Catholicism. The reign of Charles V will end a few years later: in 1555. It will then be his son Philip who will become sovereign of Spain and the Netherlands. Later, in 1580, he will also be King of Portugal. Charles V demands that any new conquest be interrupted as long as Las Casas and Sepulveda exchange their arguments on the question of the status to be recognized for the indigenous populations of the New World.  

Charles V had not, however, remained indifferent to these questions even before: already in 1526, 24 years before the Valladolid controversy, he had issued a decree prohibiting the slavery of Amerindians throughout the territory, and in 1542, he had promulgated new laws which proclaimed the natural freedom of the Amerindians and obliged to release those who had been reduced to slavery: freedom of work, freedom of residence and free ownership of property, punishing, in principle, those who were violent and aggressive towards Native Americans.  

Paul III was the pope from 1534 to 1549. In 1537, thirteen years before the beginning of the Valladolid controversy, in the papal bull Sublimis Deus and in the letter Veritas Ipsa, he had officially condemned, on behalf of the Catholic Church, the slavery of the Native Americans. The statement was "universal," that is, it was applicable wherever the Christian world could still discover populations unknown to it on the surface of the globe: it was said in Sublimis Deus: " and of all peoples that may be later discovered by Christians ”. And in both documents, so in Veritas Ipsa too: "Indians and other peoples are true human beings."

When the quarrel began, Julius III had just succeeded Paul III: he was enthroned on February 22, 1550.

The general principle, for Charles V, was that of aligning with the Church policy. In the "quarrel" or "controversy" of Valladolid, one of the moments of solemn reflection of humanity on itself, it is not the Church, but the Kingdom of Spain, which summons religious authorities , experts, to try to answer the question "What can be done so that the conquests still to come in the New World are done with justice and in security of conscience?"

It is heartbreaking that the television film “La controverse de Valladolid” (1992), by Jean-Daniel Verhaeghe, with Jean-Pierre Marielle in the role of Las Casas and Jean-Louis Trintignant in that of Sepulveda, as well as the novel by Jean- Claude Carrière, from whom it was inspired, took such liberties with historical truth that it was affirmed that the central question in the quarrel was to determine whether the Amerindians had a soul. No: this question had been settled by the Church without public debate thirteen years earlier. Sublimis Deus affirms that their property and their freedom must be respected, and further specifies "even if they remain outside the faith of Jesus Christ", that is to say that the same attitude must be maintained even if they are rebellious to conversion. It is written in the Papal Bull Veritas Ipsa that Native Americans are to be “invited to the said faith of Christ by the preaching of the word of God and by the example of a virtuous life. »In 1537: thirteen years before the commission met.

The question of the soul of the Amerindians was of course raised in Valladolid, but in no way to try to resolve it: on this level, the issue was closed. In reality, it had been resolved in the real world by the Spanish invaders: it would have been possible to summon young men and women of mixed race in their twenties to Valladolid, including Martin, son of Ernan Cortés and Doña Marina, “La Malinche”: living proof that the human species had recognized itself as “one and indivisible” in the field and that the question of whether these people, whom their mother could accompany if necessary, dressed in Spanish fashion, and most often militants of Christianity in their actions and in their words. Whether or not they had a soul, would have been an entirely abstract and ridiculous question, the problem having been solved in the facts: in the interbreeding which took place, in this reality that men and women have recognized themselves sufficiently similar not only to mate and immediately procreate, but to sanctify their marriage, in a sumptuous way for the richest, according to the rites of the Church. Circumstances, it must be emphasized, the opposite of the rules that were followed in North America, while in the case of Protestant settlers in their almost all - except Quebec - from the end of the 16th century.

The meetings in Valladolid were eld twice over a month, in 1550 and then in 1551, but most of the texts available to us are not transcripts of the debates: they are correspondence between the parties involved: Juan Gines de Sepulveda, Bartolomé de Las Casas, and the members of the commission.

Las Casas had first been himself an encomendero, a slave settler: he led plantations where Native American slaves were originally found, plantations in which, reacting to the Church's commands to give back their freedom to the natives enslaved, he had replaced on his own authority the labor of Amerindian slaves that he ceased to exploit with other laborers: blacks imported from Africa. This will be a great regret in his life, he will talk about it later. Most of the encomenderos were not as attentive as Las Casas to instructions from the mother country or the Vatican. Already in 1511, in Santo Domingo, the Dominican Antonio de Montesinos, who exercised a decisive influence on Las Casas, refused the sacraments and threatened with excommunication those among them whom he considered unworthy. Here is his famous sermon:

"I am the voice of the One who cries in the desert of this island and that is why you must listen to me with attention. This voice is the freshest you have ever heard, the harshest and the most tough. This voice tells you that you are all in a state of mortal sin; in sin you live and die because of the cruelty and tyranny with which you overwhelm this innocent race.

Tell me, what right and what justice authorize you to keep the Indians in such dreadful servitude? In the name of what authority have you waged such hateful wars against those peoples who lived in their lands in a gentle and peaceful way, where a considerable number of them were destroyed by you and died in yet another way? never seen as it is so atrocious? How do you keep them oppressed and overwhelmed, without giving them food, without treating them in their illnesses which come from excessive work with which you overwhelm them and from which they die? To put it more accurately, you kill them to get a little more gold every day.

And what care do you take to instruct them in our religion so that they know God our creator, so that they are baptized, that they hear Mass, that they observe Sundays and other obligations?

Are they not men? Are they not human beings? Must you not love them as yourselves?

Be certain that by doing so, you cannot save yourself any more than the Moors and Turks who refuse faith in Jesus Christ. "

Las Casas' reflection led him to give up this role of planter and he took a step back for several years. Charles V then offered him access to vast lands in Venezuela on which he could implement the policy he now advocated towards the Amerindians: no longer the use of force, but the power of conviction and conversion by example. Las Casas was a Thomist. Following the line drawn by Thomas Aquinas, he read in human society a given of nature. It is not a question of a cultural heritage, that is to say of the fruit of the deliberations of men, but of a gift from God, so that all societies are of equal dignity, and a society of Pagans is no less legitimate than a society of Christians and it is wrong to attempt to convert its members by force. The propagation of the faith must be done there in an evangelical way, namely by virtue of example.

Facing Las Casas, Sepulveda stood: an Aristotelian philosopher who found in the texts of his mentor, not a justification for slavery, absent in fact from the texts of the Stagirite, but the description and the explanation of the slave society of ancient Greece, represented as a functional set of institutions: a legitimate model of human society. Sepulveda considered slavery, obedience to orders given, to be the status that suits a people who, left to themselves, commit, as we can observe, nameless abominations. Sepulveda finds argument in the atrocities committed, in particular the uninterrupted practice of human sacrifice, for which the populations brutally enslaved by the dominant society of the moment, constitute an inexhaustible source of victims, but also their anthropophagy, as well as their practice of incest. in the European sense of the term: fraternal and sororal incest within the framework of princely families in Mexico, "incestuous promiscuity" if you will, in the pooling of women among brothers, a difficulty that the Jesuits later encountered in the case of the Guaranis of Paraguay, which they will resolve by banning the “longhouse”, the collective dwelling of siblings.

Las Casas responded to Sepulveda by stressing that Spanish civilization is no less brutal: "We do not find in the customs of the Indians of greater cruelty than that which we ourselves had in the civilizations of the old world." Very diplomatically, he draws his examples from the past and says "formerly:" "In the past, we manifested a similar cruelty", highlighting for example the gladiatorial fights of ancient Rome. He also drew an argument from the monumental architecture of the Aztecs as proof of their civilization.

If the two points of view differed, and even if their positions were considered diametrically opposed, the two parties agreed on the fact that the invaders not only have rights to exercise over the Amerindians but also duties towards them, and in particular, in the context of the time and the question to be answered. There is no dispute between them as to the duty to convert: this is the dimension strictly speaking "Catholic" from the very framework of the debate. Their difference lies in their respective recommendations of the methods to be used: peaceful colonization and exemplary life for Las Casas and, for Sepulveda, institutional colonization based on coercion, given the brutal features of the very culture of the pre-Colombian populations.  

Let us remember that the context was extremely brutal texts on both sides. Las Casas, at the end of his life, will write a small book devoted only to the atrocities committed by the conquistadors, a small book that propaganda consistently used against Spain to advantage its rivals: the Netherlands, France and England, although this does not mean that these nations will not also be guilty of the same crimes in the territories that they will annex in their business colonial. Mutual surveillance therefore of European nations vis-à-vis possible abuses committed by others, from a diplomatic perspective of foreign policy.

The controversy officially ended in 1551 when Charles V, on the recommendations of the commission, formalized the position defended by Las Casas. It will therefore be by invoking the Gospels and by example that conversion will have to continue and not at the point of the sword.  

A victory which, however, will not immediately have enormous consequences on the ground, any more than the papal bulls had had before it. The encomenderos will only weakly respect the injunctions coming from the mother country. Wars between Amerindian tribes will continue despite the presence of missionaries and a small military contingent. The Bandeirantes of Sao Paulo will organize raids, supplying the encomenderos with prisoners, who will be on the plantations, as many de facto slaves. Etc.

A year after the controversy was over, in 1552, Las Casas undertook to write his Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias , the very brief account of the destruction of the Indies, which will therefore be his testimony on the destructions and the atrocitie, of the colonization of New Spain by the Spaniards.  

When, from the end of the same century, missions are founded in Paraguay, called "Reductions", it will be in the exact line of the proposals of Las Casas.

It will be essentially Las Casas who will obtain, thanks to his vibrant plea in favor of the local populations, that the question of slavery would be closed once and for all in Central and South America: there will be no indigenous slaves, Amerindians will be considered as full citizens and, as an unexpected consequence, since the Church has not pronounced on the question of knowing whether Africans could be enslaved or not, the Spanish and Portuguese authorities will consider that the decision in favor of the position of Las Casas opens suddenly the possibility of a systematic exploitation of the African populations to draw from them the stock of slaves required by the plantations of the New World. It is Las Casas who will be in a way responsible for an acceleration of the slavery of Africans insofar as the authorities, both civil and ecclesiastical, by discouraging the enslavement of the Amerindians, will indirectly encourage the planters to turn, as a replacement, towards the slave trade in African blacks, a situation in which Las Casas found himself at the time when he was encomendero. In his correspondence, at the end of his life, he bitterly regretted having been indirectly the cause of an aggravated enslavement of Africans.  

The sincere concern of Bartolomé de Las Casas to spare the Amerindians, will have preserved them from the even more tragic fate of their brothers and sisters of North America within the framework of an essentially English colonization at the start, made of spoliation and genocide, without any interbreeding. 


Friday, November 11, 2022

How to talk about the gas crisis at a party

This is a real conversation that took place a couple of weeks ago although, of course, it is revised and rearranged in this written version. The protagonists are me and a friend of mine, Antonella. Imagine us holding glasses, at a party. 

Antonella: Ugo, you know, I was visiting a town on the coast, last week. They want to install a big regasification plan, there.

Ugo: I heard something about that.

A. The people, there, don't want the plant. They say it is dangerous. What do you think about that?

U. It might be dangerous, in some circumstances.

A. Yes, but do you think it is a real danger?

U. It is a long story.

A. But we need to do something. don't we? If we need energy, we need to import gas.

U. Really, it is not so simple.

A. Ugo, you never tell people what you really think. For once, could you tell me what's going on?

U (after having taken a deep breath). The situation is critical, to say the least. We won't be able to have new regasification facilities in Italy before 2023, if we are lucky. And even those planned won't be sufficient to replace Russian gas. Even if we were able to build more, liquid gas coming from overseas is much more expensive than Russian gas, and not infinite, either. If the war doesn't stop, we won't have sufficient gas to heat homes and to power the electric grid this Winter. And the Italian industry won't be competitive in the world market with the coming gas prices. That may mean a collapse of the economy, social disorders, and even mass starvation. And because of the leaks of methane, natural gas is worse than coal in terms of damaging the climate.

A ....................

U ...................

A. Of course, we can use hydrogen, right?

U. ............

She walks away, glass in hand.

I wrote a similar post about climate a few years ago, with the same person as the protagonist. 

Monday, November 7, 2022

How to Beat Propaganda: the Grokking Strategy

We CAN beat propaganda, but it takes some effort to avoid falling prey to the simple, yet effective, methods that the powers that be (PTB) use to control us. You need first of all to understand that there is no such thing as an "authoritative source." All sources can be wrong, and many are there to trick you into believing that something is true when it is not. So, you need to listen to everybody and trust nobody. In this way, you can "grok" your information and not be grokked by the PTB.

I remember how, as a young scientist, I spent long hours at night perusing scientific journals in my department's library, at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. The administrators wisely kept the library open all night for us, students and postdocs, to nibble at the treasure of knowledge stored there. It was the equivalent of what we do today when "surfing the Web", it was just slower and more laborious. But it was a great experience: I soon learned that not all the articles found in scientific journals were trustworthy, nor were the scientists who had published them. When I started my career, frauds and lies in science were still rare, but even in "high-level" scientific journals, there were plenty of evident mistakes, unjustified assumptions, sloppy work, or, simply, irrelevant babbling. 

It was a different story when I was a student. As a student, you are supposed to be "trained." The term comes from the Latin "trahere, ‘to pull.’ It implies that your teachers can force you to learn whatever they think you must learn. So, you can pass exams in college without having understood anything of what you regurgitate to your examiners. But things change completely when you become a professional. You must learn to consult many sources and sift good information from the bad. If you are a good professional, you listen to everybody and trust nobody.

We can describe this attitude by the term "grokking," invented by sci-fi author Robert Anson Heinlein to indicate the kind of in-depth understanding that professionals have of their field. In Heinlein's fictional Mars, "to grok" also means "to drink." You assimilate knowledge just like you assimilate the water you drink. It is strictly related to the concept of "empathy" as discussed by Chuck Pezeshky in his blog. (It is also part of the concept of "virtual holobiont," but let me skip that, here).

The "grokking-style" learning is based on the idea that you don't trust a source just because it is "authoritative." No. You are the one who decides whether what you are being told is true or not. And you base your evaluation on having more than one source, and critically evaluating all of them. It applies to scientific research, but also to all kinds of information collection in ordinary life. Or, at least, it should apply if you want to really understand what you are learning. 

It is here that we have the problem, a big problem. Universities don't teach you how to grok. Probably, it is because the old saying is true: nothing worth learning can be taught. At least, not in the traditional way. Even good professionals are often completely naive when they leave their specialized field and are exposed to propaganda. Yet, it is not impossible to learn how to grok. It is a recursive affair: you must grok how to grok!

Nowadays, with a tsunami of propaganda submerging all of us, I am discovering that many people I know use the same grokking strategy that I use. Typically, we avoid TV and mainstream media, and we use aggregators, feed readers, and similar ways to access multiple sources. Many people seem to have developed this learning strategy by themselves. Not long ago, my good friend Anastassia showed me how she does it: she has hundreds of telegram channels she follows. She clicks on the titles of posts that seem interesting to her, reading them if they turn out to be really interesting. She doesn't trust any of them, but she listens to all of them. I have a feeling that there is some correlation between this style of learning and the fact that she is among the brightest people I know. 

Personally, I tend to use feed readers rather than Telegram (I described the method in a previous post), but it is the same idea. In addition, some blogs and sites are structured as aggregators, and they will do a good job for you by alerting you about new information arriving (a good one that I follow is Raul Ilargi's "Automatic Earth."). In any case, you want to be in control of what you receive: so, no Facebook, no Twitter, nothing like that, even search engines are biased. You don't want others to decide what you see. You want to be in control of the information you receive. You listen to everyone, and you trust no one. 

This method of managing information has the advantage that it makes you nearly invulnerable to propaganda. I say "nearly" because we are all human beings, and we all tend to believe in what we would like were true. But, surely, a good grokker is a hard target for the classic propaganda techniques that consist mainly in suppressing the sources of contrasting information. Then, by repeating the same thing, over and over, it becomes true (you surely remember Karl Rove's statement about "creating our own reality"). If you watch TV, you are their slave, but if you are reading this blog, you probably aren't. So far, it is still possible to collect a fan of information sources sufficiently distant from the official truth to be able to grok the situation. 

On the other hand, there are problems with this strategy. One is that, by abandoning the mainstream sources, you risk rolling down the other side of the disinformation hill. In this case, you'll find yourself fishing out rotten morsels from the soup of madness that often surrounds "alternative" news sources. You know, things like the moon landing hoax, graphene in the Covid vaccines, viruses that do not exist, and the like. It is bad information that comes in part from people who have gone Martian coconuts, and in part from paid disinformers who just want to trick you. As an example, Igor Chudov makes a good case for the "viruses do not exist" meme as a psyop created by the PTB. He even could identify the site that created the meme and diffused it. You risk "inverse grokking," which means that the powers that be are grokking you!

The other problem, much more serious, is that if you are a serious grokker, you place yourself outside the mainstream beliefs and views. You may find that your friends and family think that you are "strange," that when you walk toward someone you know in the street, she may cross the street to avoid getting close to you. And woe betides those who try to discuss with non-grokkers. You will be ignored (at best), ridiculed, and even insulted by people whom you thought were your best friends. I don't have to tell you that being in this situation can be bad for your mental health and, in some cases, for your physical survival. You may remember the ominous sentence about the unvaccinated, “what do we do with these people?” expressed by Canadian prime Minister Justin Trudeau. It sounds very much like what was said about the "Jewish Problem" in the 1930s. You know how some people thought they could solve it. Some solutions are truly final.  

So, knowledge carries a risk, something that has been known from the time of Adam and Eve. On the other hand, we are always seeking truth, an activity that every good person on this planet should pursue. And so, onward, fellow grokkers! All you have to lose is your ignorance. 

If you have time, you can tell me in the comments the way you use to gather and process information. I suspect that many readers of this blog are good grokkers, but many of them may use creative methods. 

In the following, some excerpts from a post by "John Carter" which inspired these reflections of mine. Note, though, that if you read his whole post, you may notice that not even he is completely immune from being grokked by reverse propaganda. Probably it is also my case.... alas. See also a recent post by Todd Hayen on "Off Guardian" that expresses very similar concepts. 

What Are Your Sources?

"If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end with doubts, but if he will be content to begin with doubts he shall end in certainties." - Francis Bacon

Excerpts from a post by John Carter on his blog, "Postcards from Barsoom"

"Where do you get your information from? What are your sources?"

I really hate this question.

Part of it is that a lot of the places I tend to go to collect information would strike the normie as batshit insane conspiracy sites. Once you're on the other side of the great hyperreality bifurcation, you're experiencing a world in which very fundamental assumptions of the old societal mainstream, ranging from 'what is true' to 'what is moral', are no longer taken for granted and, indeed, are widely rejected.

Another part of it is that a great deal of what gets circulated within the hydra originates with anonymous or pseudonymous writers. By the very nature of communicating one's thoughts from behind a veil, it is impossible to verify whether they really know what they're talking about. A normie used to the anodyne pronouncements of credentialed experts being fellated by talking heads on CNN will find the idea of taking seriously the words of random Internet schizos to be a bit jarring.

But the single biggest reason I dislike this question is that it's the wrong question. 'Sources' have absolutely nothing to do with how I gather information; and from what I've seen, that's true for most of us.

The general assumption in normieland seems to be that there are reliable and unreliable sources of information. The former carry the stamp of approval of established authorities, who go to great lengths to ensure that the information they communicate has been extensively vetted for accuracy, with obvious mistakes removed by dedicated teams devoted to the rigorous vetting of every piece of information that gets included. The latter consists of wild speculations, rumours, and crazed ramblings. There's some nuance there - most people will admit that politicians, bureaucrats, and corporate marketing executives will usually put some spin on the information they communicate - but in general the heuristic that gets applied is "there are reliable sources, and unreliable sources; all you need to do to have an accurate view of reality is to limit your information diet to the former and ignore the latter."


When you're attempting to scale the walls of Chapel Perilous in the weird corners of the Internet, you don't have the luxury of relying on authoritative sources. The very concept of 'authoritative source' loses all meaning, and of necessity one develops a very different approach to information gathering and belief formation. Inside the datastream of the Internet, no one perspective is privileged as being unimpeachable. Nothing is to be trusted. Nothing is ever to be 100% believed. Everything one comes across, from any source, whether an established blogger with hundreds of thousands of daily readers or some rando in the comments section, is greeted with more or less the same response:

Here's what I do; and I suspect it's pretty much what the rest of you do, too:

I've got a variety of news aggregators I tend to go to, each more or less reflecting the worldview of the individual or team who maintains them through the lens of the topics that attract their attention. I skim these feeds and occasionally click on something if it catches my own attention. There are a few forums that I frequent, where various topics are discussed, and people share links to things they think are interesting together with whatever impressions they have of them. Social media plays a similar role; while I'm not on Twitter or Facebook, I do subscribe to a couple of hundred Telegram channels, some of which I'll peruse throughout the day, once again clicking on anything that looks interesting. Add to this an archipelago of blogs which provide some degree of original analysis, but are mostly the Internet's editorial page; in these cases, I gravitate towards those authors I find to be consistently interesting. Then there are podcasts and livestreams, most of which take the form of a free-ranging conversation between hosts and guests.

In most cases I have no idea about the identities or credentials of the authors, and I could generally care less. The contribution of an anon on 4chan can be every bit as insightful and correct as the analysis of a facefag whose CV I can review in detail. Equivalently, the facefag can be every bit as wrong as that of the shitposter. The salient detail is not the identity of the person originating the information, but the structure of the argument.

When perusing something, at the same time that I'm evaluating the information, I'm also evaluating the worldview that produced the information. What are the ideological biases of the author? Is he a libertarian, a post-liberal, an old-school leftist, a nationalist, a trad-Catholic, a deep ecologist, a neoliberal managerialist, a critical race theorist? Does the author have something to gain from what he's writing - is he trying to get me to buy something, or being paid to advance a perspective that will enrich his paymasters? The author's perspective is inseparable from the argument being put forward, as it structures what the author considers to be interesting, and what he believes to be axiomatically true and false - creating attentional foci and blind spots.

This doesn't mean that something is to be rejected or accepted merely because it conflicts or accords with a worldview I find personally agreeable - that's ultimately just a version of the 'authoritative source' mindset, one that leads straight into an echo chamber. In principle, valuable insights can come from almost anywhere. The purpose of the exercise is rather to discern the model of reality that produced the perspective leading to the information being organized as it has been.

All models are by their nature simplified schema that fail to capture the full complexity and nuance of the world. They emphasize some things and omit others. That's why it's important not to get overly attached to them. However, some models are more accurate than others, much more likely to correctly predict unfolding events. By foregrounding the models that produce the hot takes, one begins constantly testing these models against one another. As events unfold, one notices which models are more, and which less, accurate. New information can then be evaluated on the basis of the model that generated it, and its probability of being accurate weighted accordingly.

As this goes on, one inevitably begins to construct one's own model of reality, simply by combining the elements that seem to have worked from the models that one has been exposed to. There's nothing particularly special about having a model of reality - we all do, of necessity; the advantage lies rather in that this process becomes conscious and deliberate. One makes one's own model, rather than simply accepting whatever model is offered by 'authoritative sources'.

The normies still trapped in the mass media holodeck cling to the certainty that their 'reliable sources' can be trusted, and the result is that they inhabit a nightmare world of shifting illusions that has driven them quite entirely mad. It frequently happens that they wake up to one or another of the lies of which the control system is built, but having perceived the deception on a given topic, they react by looking for an authoritative source elsewhere that they can rely upon. Invariably in this case, they get trapped in a different lie - trading the regime ideology they've left behind for a new ideology, one that they accept whole as uncritically as the one they were raised with. That's what that boomer in the bar was looking for. His first instinct, upon being confronted with plausible arguments that he'd been systematically misled by the legacy media, was to reach for something he could trust. To trade one gospel for another.

In truth, there are no reliable sources, and there never have been. Paradoxically, it's only by letting go of the desire for reliability, by holding things conditionally rather than absolutely true, and by constructing one's own provisional reality model, that one can find one's sea legs on the shifting and uncertain waters, and successfully navigate the ocean of the real.


To finish, an updated list of the blogs I follow (UB)

  1. Anti-EmpireAlgora Blog
  2. Bracing Views
  3. Brownstone Institute
  4. Climate Etc.
  5. Clive Best
  6. ClubOrlov
  7. Collaborative Fund
  8. Consent Factory, Inc.
  9. Dr. Malcolm Kendrick
  10. Edward Slavsquat
  11. eugyppius: a plague chronicle
  12. Exapt Press
  13. Fear of a Microbial Planet
  14. Fight Aging!
  16. RSS feed
  17. Glenn Greenwald
  18. Gut Microbiota for Health
  20. Il Chimico Scettico
  21. Il Pedante
  22. Il Pedante
  23. imetatronink
  24. Impressions of a Holobiont
  25. It's About Empathy – Connection Ties Us Together
  26. Julian Jaynes Society
  27. Just Emil Kirkegaard Things
  28. Kelebekler Blog
  29. La cruna dell'ago
  30. La Cruna dell'Ago
  31. Lettera da Mosca
  32. Madam Mayo
  33. Marty's Mac 'n' Cheese
  34. Mattias Desmet
  35. Meryl’s COVID Newsletter
  37. Moon of Alabama
  38. Nuova Accademia Gnostica S.A.W. di Firenze
  39. OffGuardian
  40. oftwominds-Charles Hugh Smith
  41. Our Finite World
  42. Paolo Gulisano blog
  43. Patrick J. Buchanan – Official Website
  44. Peak Oil Barrel
  45. Peter Turchin
  46. Post-Woke
  47. Postcards From Barsoom
  48. Prof. Harald Walach
  49. Rational Ground – Clear Reasoning on National Policy for COVID-19
  50. Resistenze al nanomondo
  51. Resource Insights
  52. Retraction Watch
  53. Roy Spencer, PhD.
  54. Sebastian Rushworth M.D.
  55. Shrew Views
  56. Simon Sheridan
  57. Steve Kirsch's newsletter
  58. Tehran Times
  59. Tessa Fights Robots
  60. The age of loss
  61. The Automatic Earth
  63. The Inquisitive Biologist
  64. The New Normal
  65. The Philosophical Salon
  66. The Reading Junkie
  67. The Slavland Chronicles
  68. The Upheaval
  69. The van says…
  70. The Vineyard of the Saker
  71. Trust the Evidence
  72. Umanesimo e Scienza
  73. Unmasked
  74. Vinay Prasad's Observations and Thoughts

Note added after publication: Several people have expressed surprise at the fact that I placed 74 links in the list. "How can you follow so many blogs?" they ask. The fact it that I don't "follow" all of them. I skim through the list of titles and I open the links that I think are interesting. Then, I may or may not read the whole post -- some people publish posts that are so interesting that I can't miss them. But not all those linked here, only a minority Note also that almost all these links refer to single-author blogs which publish no more than one-two posts per week -- often even less frequently. I make an exception for "The Automatic Earth" by Raul Ilargi, which publishes daily, because it is so interesting. But some links that you see in the list above have already disappeared from the updated list. For instance, I removed "Tehran Times" -- too many posts, and too flatly aligned with the Iranian government. 

Friday, November 4, 2022

Ukraine: The Battle for Flat Mountain


Monte Piana ("Flat Mountain") in the Italian Alps. A bloody and protracted battle was fought there during WWI between the forces of Italy and of Austria-Hungary. One more example of how often history rhymes. This ancient battle may tell us something about the current situation in Ukraine

Monte Piana in Northern Italy is a place that deserves to be seen, It is a strange mountain with a flat plateau at the top, located in the middle of the rugged Dolomite Mountains. An eerie place that still maintains relics of the bloody battles that were fought there between 1915 and 1917. 

There is a dirt road that takes you to the top, at over 2200 meters in height. There, you can walk along the gentle slope of the plateau, an area of less than one square km. It is difficult to imagine how so many people could have fought and died for that chunk of land. And yet, it happened. The number of casualties is unknown, but it is estimated as between 10,000 and 20,000, some say many more. If the ghosts of all the dead were to congregate together on the plateau, they would form a crowd of the density that you may see in a city park on a warm Sunday. Maybe they do that on moonless nights. 

On the plateau, there is very little left of the great battles of more than a century ago. You can see shallow depressions on the ground that, probably, mark the hits of artillery shells. There are traces of old trenches and fortifications, wood splinters that, probably, were part of barracks or fences. It takes a certain degree of imagination to picture in your mind how life must have been for those men who found themselves stranded there, surrounded by spectacular mountains. A scenario of incredible beauty. The kind of beauty that kills. 

The story of the battles of Monte Piana is simple: it was an open-air slaughterhouse. The Austrians occupied the North Side, the small plateau, while the Italians occupied the Southern side, the larger one, The two plateaus were separated by a natural trench that marked the boundary of the two sides during most of the war. The Italians would resupply their forces, and bring back the wounded and the dead, using a road that they built expressly for that purpose (it still exists). The Austrians would do the same on the other side, using a precarious cable car that arrived at the top.   

The problem for both sides was that they were in the range of the artillery pieces placed on nearby mountains. Howitzer shells continuously battered the area and that forced both armies to build tunnels in the sides of the mountain, where they would be reasonably safe. But some soldiers had to man the trenches on the plateau, and that meant crouching down all the time, trying to make themselves as small as possible, hoping that the next shell would kill someone else. They could do little more than wait until their unit, reduced to a small fraction of its initial strength, was replaced with a fresh one. 

On that miniature battlefield, the Italians were more aggressive than the Austrians and, every once in a while, the survivors of the artillery barrage were told to run toward the enemy with their bayonets. A run toward death: every time, they were mowed down by the Austrian machine guns; one of the slits from where they fired was still there when I visited the plateau, a few years ago. Sometimes, the Italians would be able to gain a foothold in the Northern Plateau. They were always repulsed by an Austrian counterattack. 

What's most impressive about this story is how futile it all was. Even assuming that one of the two sides could have conquered the whole plateau (and both did for short periods during the early months of the war), they could not have kept it, and in any case, it would have been useless. Anything placed there in the open would have been blown up to smithereens by the howitzers placed on higher ground around. So, why engage in that absurd battle? Why, instead, not use the troops to fight somewhere where there was a chance to break through the enemy lines? But I can imagine the headquarters of both sides: could someone propose to retreat and leave the plateau to the enemy? Unthinkable: it is a question of National honor. 

And so, the slaughter went on for about 2 years. Then, in late 1917, the Austrians broke through the Italian lines at Kobarid (a city that the Italians call "Caporetto") and nearly succeeded in knocking Italy out of the war. The retreating Italian army abandoned Monte Piana and the Austrians occupied it without fighting. About one year later, the starved and demoralized soldiers of the Austrian Empire marched back North. It was now the turn of the Italians to occupy the Monte Piana plateau without fighting. The whole story was futile as it could possibly have been.

I searched the Web for contemporary images of the battle for Monte Piana, but I couldn't find any. In the Italian press, you find almost nothing about the events on the plateau, except for occasional reports of the heroic death of someone there. It seems that two years of useless slaughter went unrecorded and nearly unknown. Not too surprising, since there was nothing to report except about failed attacks to conquer positions that were not worth conquering anyway. So, in terms of the futility of battles, you may take a look at this clip from "Return to Cold Mountain," which shows a scene that may have been similar to the battle for Monte Piana: a massed bayonet attack against a well-defended higher position. Beautiful music, stunning scenery, it may give us some idea of what the futile attacks against the trenches of Monte Piana were.

And now, let's see if this sad story can teach us something about current events. Compare the absurd battle of Monte Piana with the current one, just as absurd, in Ukraine. In both cases, we have a flat area where the fight is dominated by long-range weapons. It was artillery on Monte Piana, it is still artillery nowadays, although more precise, and more long-range, with drones dominating the battlefield. So, the battle has taken very much the aspect of what was World War I. Trenches, soldiers standing there while battered by the enemy artillery, little or no chance to maneuver using tanks or other mobile weapons. The times of Guderian's panzergruppen of WWII seem to be gone, perhaps forever. Recently, the Ukrainians have gained some territory by massing troops on specific objectives along the battle line, but it seems to have cost them dearly. In a certain way, the Ukrainians are behaving like the Italians at Monte Piana, attacking, while the Russians are playing the role of the Austro-Hungarians, defending and counterattacking. 

Of course, history never repeats itself, but there is some rhyming, here. If things go nowadays as they went during WWI, the battle in Ukraine will be completely futile, a useless slaughter of young men on both sides. The war will be decided somewhere else. It will end when one of the two sides, NATO or Russia, collapses economically, just like it happened in WWI -- where the economic collapse of the Central Empires eventually gave the victory to the allies. 

And now? Who will collapse first? Time will tell, but the useless slaughter continues. And history continues to rhyme, as it always does. 

 This post is a condensed version of a section of the book that I published in 2018, titled "La Linea d'Ombra della Memoria" (The Shadow Line of Memory) -- in Italian. It tells the story of a forgotten hero of WWI, but it is a wide-ranging discussion of the history of the "Great War."  

Monday, October 31, 2022

"The Bird is Free." Will Elon Musk Become Grand Duke of Mars?


The news of the day is that Elon Musk took control of Twitter and promises to abolish censorship. At the same time, the platforms most plagued by censors, FB for instance, are taking a bloodbath in the market (Twitter is doing much better!). It is part of the evolution of the Web, an entity much too complex and structured to be controlled by dumb creatures such as "fact checkers" and their AI henchbots. We don't know what Musk has in mind: he may plan to become the next US president or maybe to rule Mars as Grand Duke. In any case, he seems to understand better than many others how to use social media as a communication tool. 

It is said that the Grand-Duke, of Tuscany, Cosimo 1st, (1519 – 1574) used to sit, unseen, behind a low window of his palace to hear what people passing by were saying. He wanted to know what his subjects were thinking of him. He needed to: it was part of his ruling method. He used an iron fist when needed, but he also used a velvet glove to turn enemies into friends. For instance, the masterpiece of statuary, "Perseus and Medusa," was cast by a former enemy of his, Benvenuto Cellini, whose skills Cosimo admired. 

The "Perseus" is still standing in Piazza della Signoria, in Florence. With it, and with other pieces, Cosimo 1st was carrying out a propaganda campaign where he presented himself as the "monster slayer" Perseus: a stern, but just, ruler. But he needed to know how his message fared with its targets. In this case, the citizens of Florence themselves informed him by commenting aloud while looking at the statue (probably knowing that the Duke was listening from the window, nearby) and writing their comments on small pieces of paper that they glued to the pedestal. We don't know what they said and wrote, but, apparently, they thought that the statue was too much on the "stern" side and too little on the "just" one.  The Duke was disappointed enough that he never paid Cellini for the work he had done. I told this story in detail in an earlier post

There are many ways to operate a propaganda campaign. In ancient times, of course, they didn't have the technologies we have nowadays, but the problems were the same. Rulers could not reach citizens individually, but they would "broadcast" their power by means of impressive imagery and buildings. Then, the people had a certain capability of sending messages back to the rulers. And some enlightened rulers, such as Cosimo 1st, knew that a ruler who doesn't know what his subjects think doesn't survive for long. But, to hear what the citizens say, there is a need for a certain level of freedom of expression. It was a good way of ruling: Cosimo was a true Renaissance Man, who patronized art and science and did not oppress his subjects too much. He reigned for 32 years and started a dynasty of Grand-Dukes that lasted up to 1737. 

In time, propaganda evolved. The "mass media," first the press, then radio and TV, started being fundamental during the 20th century. They are great broadcasting technologies, but they are extremely poor in terms of two-way communication. With the totalitarian dictatorships of the 20th century, people were receiving messages from their rulers, but they could not talk back to them. The only way for governments to know what people were thinking was to rely on spies, but that was usually overdone. In the Soviet Union, in Iran at the time of the Shah, and in many other places, what you said to a friend could end up being reported to the police, and you risked disappearing in the night, forever. Soon, people lost all interest in expressing their opinion to anyone. 

The problem with totalitarianism is that it is rigid and inflexible. Rulers tend to think that the fact that nobody criticizes them means that nobody disagrees with them, they get absorbed into their internal squabbles, and they soon lose track of what the real problems are. That's one of the reasons why totalitarian states are not usually long-lived. A good case is that of the Fascist government of Benito Mussolini, in Italy. One of the most totalitarian states of its times (and perhaps in known history), the total control of the media by the state was matched only by the total incompetence of the government. And it ended with the great leader hanged upside down, as it was perhaps unavoidable.  

How about our times? By the end of the 20th century, Western propaganda was a sophisticated machine that worked on the principle that "the devil's best trick is to convince you that he doesn't exist" (Baudelaire said that). It was structured in such a way that it gave the citizens the impression that they were free to express themselves. It was obvious, though, that opinions contrasting with those of the government would always remain confined to spaces occupied only by visionaries and crackpots. It was a form of "invisible totalitarianism." 
But technology always changes things. The Web and social media were the equivalents of a monkey wrench thrown into the works of the smooth Western propaganda machine. The elites soon realized that they could hardly control the system when anyone could use it at a low cost. And anything could go viral on the Web, out of control, no matter how subversive. That led to a scramble to take control of the Web. 

So far, the action has been mainly with the search engines: those who control them, control the Web. If you have experienced "shadow-banning," you know how effective it is, and how defenseless you are against it. In more recent times, we saw soft banning supplemented with true banning. A large tribe of so-called "fact-checkers" appeared on the main social platforms, cracking down on whoever said something that their employers didn't want to see diffusing on the Web. With the idea that social platforms are private spaces, it was argued that the 1st amendment does not hold there, The account of a former US president on Twitter was canceled, and even top-level scientists were censored. Sometimes, just linking to peer-reviewed papers in scientific journals could lead to your account disappearing in the night, forever. 

Some people absolutely love censorship. But many (perhaps most) users of social media didn't like to be watched from over their shoulders by those overzealous nannies who pretended to know better than them what is true and what is not.  That generated criticism, and some attempts to rein in the censors. But, so far, we only saw censorship increasing its reach and becoming more pervasive.

Except for the news of the day: the bird is free! Elon Musk bought Twitter and promises to eliminate censorship.

What's happening? There are several possible interpretations, but at least something is clear: those who rule us are not a monolithic entity, as the Communist Party was in the Soviet Union. There are several would-be world rulers who are vying for power behind the scene. Musk may actually be smarter than most of them and able to understand that you gain nothing by silencing those who disagree with you. Suppose he wants to become the next US president, or maybe the Grand Duke of Mars, then he has to think like the Grand Duke of Tuscany did. He needs to know what people think because he can rule only if people agree that he is the ruler. Ruling by force and oppression is inefficient and, often, the ruler ends up hanged by the feet. So, Musk may well understand that he needs to leave some space for people to express themselves. The bird may not be completely free, but it has to be able to fly

We seem to be in a transition moment (we always are). The Internet is under pressure by the attempt of controlling it by the powers that be, turning it into a tool for a totalitarian government (in China, the government may have succeeded at that). But, at the same time, some members of the elites are realizing that the Internet is a much better tool if used according to its characteristic of a two-way communication system. The Internet may allow us to generate a new governance system that might be more effective and just than the old totalitarian systems. It might be part of a "new Renaissance" that could take some aspects similar to the way Cosimo the 1st ruled in Tuscany during the 16th century. Maybe. But, as always, the future will surprise us.