Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013: the year the world stood still

Pope Leo I meets Attila the Hun in 450 AD near the Lake of Garda, in Italy. After the meeting, Attila withdrew his army North of the Alps and nobody knows exactly why. Doesn't that remind to you something that happened in 2013? (painting by Raphael )

I don't know if you share my impression, but the truly memorable event of 2013 (*) was, mainly, a non-event: the non-attack to Syria. Everything seemed to be ready and set for a repetition of the same old script: there is this ugly dictator, he gassed his own people, we need humanitarian bombs, etc. In early September, after the usual consensus building campaign, everything was ready to start bombing. Then, strangely, everything quieted down and nobody knows exactly why.

This story reminds me of when Attila's invasion of Italy was stopped after a meeting with pope Leo I, in 450 AD. Also in that case, nobody knows exactly why. The interpretation of Raphael (above) is that Attila was scared by a vision of Saints Peter and Paul armed with swords. Who knows what made President Obama change his mind?

We could say that a year of non-events, at least, is a quiet year and that should be good. But don't forget that big events are the result of the accumulation of small events, often perceived as non-events. And there is no doubt that a lot of these small events are accumulating. Depletion, erosion, ocean acidification, global warming, ecosystem disruption and so on. All these events are occurring even though we may perceive them as non-events. One of them is the melting of Arctic ice and the consequent release of methane. That's something that Sam Carana has correctly termed "the biggest story of 2013". If the Arctic methane will released in truly large amounts; then I am afraid it will be such a catastrophe that not even the Pope (and perhaps not even St. Peter and St. Paul with their swords) would be able to stop it. The world never stands still for a long time.

(Below, US methane readings - created by Sam Carana)

(*) That doesn't mean to say that the Hurricane Hayan tragedy in the Philippines was a non-event but, unfortunately, we are getting used to these extreme events as the result of the ongoing worsening of the climate problem

Friday, December 27, 2013

Peak demand: the sound of a single hand clapping

Speaking of "peak demand" about the present stasis in the world oil production is a little like the concept of "the sound of a single hand clapping" is an old Zen "koan." This riddle has been solved by Bart Simpson in recent times.

The concept of "peak demand" is gaining popularity in the discussion about peak oil. It is a good example of how a discussion can get lost in a no-man's land of unsupported ideas and concepts. Peak demand, in a certain way, is a rebuttal of the idea that we have limits to what we can do on this limited planet. So, the implication  is that the present lack of growth in world oil production (which is a prelude to the peak) and the reduction of consumption in OECD countries has nothing to do with physical limits: it is a choice we made. We decided to consume less oil because we are smart enough to have found ways to use less of it. So, you see? We are still in charge; we are still the masters of the planet.

It is a concept that, unfortunately, flies in the face of everything that's happening around us. Maybe people have been buying more efficient cars, but it also true that they are driving less miles per year.  Simply, they can't afford to drive as much as they used to and that hardly looks like a choice.

But, then, what is exactly meant as "peak demand"? Economists talk about demand and supply, and then state that demand must always be equal to supply. Which is fine as long as you see supply and demand as qualitative terms that help you conceptualize a market situation. You could say, "if coffee were to cost 20 dollars per cup, I would drink much less of it". Obvious.

But the curious thing is that neither supply nor demand are measurable alone except in some rather special cases. They are two faces of the same coin: speaking of "peak demand" is a little like asking what's the sound of a single hand (OK; I know that Bart Simpson has solved that one, but let's not go into that....).

It is the same with "peak supply" that is a typical straw man for cornucopians who still tend to accuse peakers of saying that we will be soon "running out of oil". We will not. Supply is determined by several factors: demand (what people are willing to spend for oil) combines with supply (how much money companies are willing to invest in extracting oil) to generate one measurable parameter, which is production. We can equate production with demand, and that's fine. But peak oil is neither peak demand nor peak supply. It is peak production.

So, the concept of "peak oil" is the result of a dynamic evolution of production and consumption which is determined mainly by how EROEI goes down with time as extraction proceeds. It can be modeled and it leads, indeed, to a bell shaped curve. See here: www.mdpi.com/1996-1073/2/3/646

In the end, it is fine to argue about peak demand. But at some point we'll have to stop arguing and think solutions.


(BTW: there are cases in which you COULD reasonably speak of demand being affected by factors other than prices. Think of silver: the technology of digital photography destroyed the demand for silver for photographic film. Fine, but two things: one is that there has not been any comparable technological discontinuity for fossil fuels. The other is that digital photography didn't reduce the silver demand. You don't see any reduction in the silver production during the past decades. Good ol' Jevons still rules. )

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Happy Christmas without coal!

Despite the tsunami of anti-renewables propaganda, despite the invasion of trolls in the comments, despite the insults against scientists and against everything sustainable; there is still hope of a clean and prosperous future (we just can't expect Santa to bring it to us for free - we'll have to work for it!)

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Gaia: the missing bride

Toby Tyrrel's book "On Gaia" is an interesting book in many respects, but it misses some fundamental features of the self-regulating planetary system that we call "Gaia". (image from Alternative Energy Action Now)

Imagine that a friend of yours invites you to his marriage. You go there and you see everything you expect to see: the church, the flowers, the priest, the groom, and so on. But, as the ceremony goes on, you notice that your friend has overlooked something important: the bride is missing.

With the book by Toby Tyrrel, "On Gaia", you get a similar impression. It is well done in many respects and plenty of details are at the right place: evolution, life, climate, and more. But, as you keep reading it, you notice that the author seems to have overlooked something important: Gaia herself is missing. 

It is said that marriages fail because of excessive expectations of spouses. The same problem seems to be plaguing more than one study on Gaia, including this one. Some people seem to expect really too much from the poor lady and then they end up concluding that she doesn't even exist - as Tyrrell does with this book. His conclusion is wholly negative: there is no such think as a stabilizing feedback system called Gaia and the fact that the Earth has maintained conditions favorable to life for some four billion years is due mainly to "hazard and happenstance" (p 206 of the book).

The problem of excessive expectations appeared early in the history of studies of the stability of the Earth's ecosystem. James Lovelock, the originator of the idea of Gaia (together with Lynn Margulis), proposed that Gaia could "optimize" the ecosystem for the benefit of life. That was too much. The Earth's ecosystem is a complex system of interacting biological and geophysical loops - some tend to stabilize the system, some to destabilize it. The final result is the typical one of all complex system: the tendency of the system to oppose perturbations. That's not the same as optimization - it is homeostasis; something that tends to maintain the system's parameters within certain limits - not necessarily the optimal ones but, at least, in a range that maintains the cycles going.

There are many examples of this behavior; for instance your body is a complex system and it does exactly that: it seeks homeostasis. If the temperature of your body becomes too high, your internal thermostat will bring it down by sweating. But you can't expect the thermostat to be perfect and all powerful: if you fall into a vat of boiling oil, sweating won't help you much. The same is true for Gaia, which is - mainly - a planetary thermostat that tends to keep the planetary temperature within the limits needed for liquid water (and hence life) to exist. You don't have to expect the thermostat to be perfect and all powerful and, indeed, the Earth's history has seen all sorts of catastrophes occurring; when the planet became very hot or very cold, nearly destroying all life on it. But the system has always recovered and has countered all sorts of perturbations. That includes the gradually increasing solar irradiation over the eons that should have had a deleterious effect on life on Earth, had it not been balanced by a decrease in the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Curiously, however, Tyrrell just can't see the thermostat in action. One reason is that it is very difficult to understand the Earth's feedback system without taking into account geology and, here, the author clearly has troubles in integrating geology in the discussion. Geology, indeed, is the true "missing bride" of the book. Not that geological phenomena are not mentioned in Tyrrell's book, but often in a cursory and insufficient manner. For instance, there is no real discussion of the cycles of the Earth's ecosystem which involve continuous exchanges of matter from the surface to the mantle and back. These cycles renew the atmospheric composition and provide the chemical elements necessary for life. Without a hot core that provides energy for these exchanges, the Earth couldn't be a live planet - it would be dead like Mars.

The problem appears in particular for the main mechanism of the Earth's thermostat: silicate weathering. It is part of the planet-wide carbon cycle, a chemical reaction that removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Its rate depends on temperature, so it has temperature regulating capabilities. (see this post of mine for an introduction and ref. (1) for an in-depth discussion). Tyrrell mentions silicate weathering for the first time only at page 141, quickly arriving to the conclusion that it is only a negative factor for life because of its cooling effect (2)). You need to arrive almost to the end of the main text (p. 191-192) to find a brief discussion of whether silicate weathering can be part of a temperature stabilizing mechanism. Here, too, Tyrrell's conclusion is negative, apparently on no other basis than generic skepticism.

Now, of course one may disagree on all current scientific interpretations, but considering that silicate weathering is a core element of the whole thermostat question, it would surely deserve more discussion before arriving to dismiss Gaia as non existent. This is not the only problem related to geology in the book. Other factors, for instance the effect of the sun's increasing luminosity, are missing or barely mentioned. So, it is really disappointing that the book misses so badly its avowed target - Gaia - especially considering that there are several sections of it that are well done and worth reading, such as the discussion about the temperature effects on biological productivity.

In the end, I think that there is a basic problem in Tyrrell's approach. In the "Conclusions" section, he states that accepting or rejecting the Gaia hypothesis has a strong effect on "how we decide to manage the Earth System" and that "Gaia, by the very nature of the hypothesis, inculcates a predisposition to suspect natural feedbacks to be stabilizing." In other words, Tyrrell emphasizes that Gaia could generate a dangerous feeling of complacency on people and hamper their efforts of fighting climate change.

I beg to differ on this point. Not that I don't share Tyrrell's worries about global warming but in my personal experience the concept of Gaia as a stabilizing factor on climate is alien to the mind of typical science deniers. Rather, most of them seem to use the exactly opposite meme: "climate has always been changing," normally without showing the slightest interest in what exactly causes climate to change - they just don't care. Of course, the internet is so wide that you can find just about anything in it and, as proof of his position, Tyrrell cites a specific site that goes under the name of "The Resilient Earth". However, apart for the title that indeed reminds the concept of Gaia, the contents of the site seem to be the usual mishmash of denialist memes: from "no warming during the past 15 years" to "Al Gore is fat". The general opinion that can be read in deniers' sites about Gaia is that the concept is not just ridiculous but, rather, living proof that climate change is not science but a religion - intended as a derogatory term. (see the figure below as an example of Gaia-bashing. From thepeoplescube.com)

So, I think the least thing we should be worried about is that the concept of Gaia could engender a dangerous "lasseiz faire" attitude. On the contrary, understanding the factors that determine the Earth's temperature can only generate a healthy dose of respect for the delicate balance that has kept climate stable during the past ten thousand years or so. Homeostasis is no guarantee of absolute stability; that holds for an entire planet, just as it does for bicycles (and the latter is something that everyone understands).

In the end, Gaia is not a Goddess, (and surely not a benevolent one). She is not all powerful, she has no ability of optimizing the Earth's environment for life, and she is no guarantee whatsoever that we can keep behaving as planetary hooligans without suffering the consequences of our actions. Gaia is a huge and complex system; a gigantic tangle of geological and biological feedbacks. We are just starting to understand how this system generates its overall tendency to homeostasis and how it has evolved over the billion years of its existence (3). It will continue to evolve until, hundreds of millions of years from now, it will "die" when the Sun becomes too hot for the homeostatic mechanisms to continue operating. In the meantime, we have to keep living on this planet (if we can). Gaia may not be the perfect bride; but we can't keep behaving as if she didn't exist. 


1. For a review of the climate effects of silicate weathering, see Lee R. Kump, Susan L. Brantley, and Michael A. Arthur, Chemical Weathering, Atmospheric CO2, and Climate Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences Vol. 28: 611-667 (Volume publication date May 2000) DOI: 10.1146/annurev.earth.28.1.611

2. This point illustrates the problems that this book has with geology. At page 142, Tyrrel attributes one of the "big five" mass extinctions, the Late Devonian one, to excessive cooling caused by silicate weathering. But he doesn't say anything about the generally held opinion that mass extinctions appear to be caused by excessive warming (including the Devonian one). See, eg. David L. Kidder, Thomas R. Worsley "Phanerozoic Large Igneous Provinces (LIPs), HEATT (Haline Euxinic Acidic Thermal Transgression) episodes, and mass extinctions"  Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, Volume 295, Issues 1-2, 1 September 2010, Pages 162-191

3. For a thorough description of the feedbacks cycles of the Earth's system, you'll do well in reading the book by Tim Lenton and Andrew Watson "Revolutions that Made the Earth". Beware: it is not an easy book to read, but it is surely worth the effort.

About Gaia, see also these posts by yours truly, Ugo Bardi,  

"The Great Chemical Reaction: life and death of Gaia"
"Man Vs. Gaia"
"The Next ten billion years"


Friday, December 13, 2013

The great suffocation - will we have enough oxygen to breathe?

The oxygen concentration in the atmosphere as recorded at the Mauna Loa observatory (link). It is going down and the obvious explanation is that it is the result of our burning of fossil fuels. But do we risk to suffocate ourselves in this way? Fortunately, that's very unlikely, at least in the short run. However, looking at the "other side" of the carbon dioxide emission story gives us a good perspective of what's going on with the ecosystem as the result of human activities.

Everyone is worried about global warming, and correctly so. However, there is another side to the warming question: for every additional molecule of carbon dioxide (CO2) generated by burning fossil fuels, one molecule of oxygen (O2) must be consumed. That means less and less oxygen in the atmosphere. So, won't suffocation be an additional problem to global warming? (some people seem to be actually worried that it could be)

Fortunately, the answer is "no." We don't risk to run out of oxygen; at least in the short run. But the story is not simple and we can learn a lot about what's happening to our atmosphere, our climate, and our ecosystem if we look at the question in some detail.

First of all, what do we mean as "suffocation"? The present concentration of oxygen in the atmosphere is 21% in volume. We have evolved to live with this level of oxygen and the minimum level for humans to function normally is around 19% (See here). We are already in trouble below 17% and simply can't survive below 10%. So, we have to be careful with what we do with our atmosphere; we can't afford to lose more than about 10% of the oxygen we have, or about 1%-2% in volume present in the atmosphere.

Now, how much oxygen have we consumed with burning fossil fuels, so far? Not much, really. The data indicate a 0.05% volume loss of oxygen from 1990 to 2013. Clearly, we are not suffocating, at least not right now. However

But we need to go more in depth in the matter. Consider that we have been burning fossil fuels for a long time before 1990. We can roughly calculate the total loss considering that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased of about 120 parts per million in volume over the past century. A similar amount has been absorbed in the oceans, so we can say that we have produced the equivalent of ca. 250 ppm of CO2 and hence some 250 parts per million of oxygen (0.025% of the total volume of the atmosphere) must have gone in more than a century. But we are still well within the safety limits.

How about the future? The Keeling results tell us that, at the present rates, we consume about 0.02% of our oxygen every ten years. To arrive to lose the 1% which represents the safety threshold we would need centuries but, of course, we will not be able to keep burning fossil fuels at the present rates for such a long time. As we roll on the other side of the Hubbert curve, we won't probably be able to do more than double the amount already emitted (and perhaps much less, according to the Seneca scenario that sees decline much faster than growth).  Even in the most extreme assumptions we could emit no more than some four times the amount produced so far. That would correspond to a loss of about 0.2% of the total oxygen available. Not negligible but, as far as we know, not harmful for humans.

So, burning fossil fuels would definitely not suffocate us; not directly, at least. But there are indirect effects. One is the loss of biomass caused by human activities. When plants and animals die, the carbon they contain is normally oxidized to carbon dioxide, consuming oxygen in the process. The total amount of carbon stocked in living creatures and soil is estimated as about 2100 billion tons (Gtons). If all this carbon were to react with oxygen, it would consume some 5600 Gtons of oxygen (taking into account that an atom of oxygen weighs more than an atom of carbon and that one atom of carbon consumes two atoms of oxygen). The total mass of oxygen in the atmosphere is calculated as of the order of 1.2x10^9 Gtons (see also this reference). So, even the total burning of the planetary ecosphere would make only a small dent in the total oxygen concentration; about 0.4% loss. And that, of course, is an extreme hypothesis that would see the whole biosphere destroyed - in this case, suffocation would be the least important problem.

We could consider also the release of the methane hydrates stored in permafrost; something that could happen as a result of global warming. Methane is a strong greenhouse gas, and so the process reinforces itself, that's the origin of the so called "methane catastrophe" that would result in a disastrous greenhouse runaway effect. The total mass of methane stored in permafrost is estimated as of the order of 500-2500 gtons of carbon. In the worst case, methane could consume another ca. 0.4% of the atmospheric oxygen.

Summing up everything we have considered so far, methane, organic matter, fossil fuels, we see that we don't go over the 1% threshold, even making rather extreme hypotheses. So, we would seem to be on the safe side. However, we should also take into account that by far the largest stock of organic (and hence burnable) carbon in the Earth's crust is in the form of  "kerogen", the result of the partial decomposition of organic matter. (Figure below from Manicore.com).

10^16 tons of kerogen is such a large value that if all of it were to combine with oxygen (about 10^9 tons), then there won't be any oxygen left in the atmosphere. That would be, indeed, the "great suffocation". 

Fortunately, that is unlikely to happen. Kerogen can react with oxygen and it is, actually, the original source of the petroleum we extract and burn today. But the natural process is very slow and the human-made one very expensive. With the best of good will, Kerogen is a very bad fuel. So, human beings won't be able, ever, to burn more than a microscopic fraction of the kerogen of the earth's crust.

So, oxygen loss, the great suffocation, is not something we should be worried about because we have much more oxygen in the atmosphere than what we could consume even in the worst possible hypothesis. We have this safety margin because free oxygen is the result of billions of years of photosynthetic activity which pumped lots of oxygen in the atmosphere. Of this oxygen, most was absorbed in inorganic oxides; principally iron oxides. Only a small fraction has gradually accumulated in the atmosphere, as we see in the following figure. (from Wikipedia - take into account that there is a big uncertainty in these estimates)

Note that a peak in the oxygen concentration was reached in the remote past, perhaps in correspondence with the peak in planetary biological productivity. At the peak, oxygen concentration may have reached a value of over 30% in volume - humans could not have survived in those conditions! Then, it may have gone down to about 15% and, again, we wouldn't have been able to survive with that concentration.

So, oxygen is not simply accumulating in the atmosphere to remain there forever. It is a reactive gas and its concentration is linked to the evolution of the ecosystem. There are factors that can strongly change its concentration, probably involving reaction with the kerogen stock. We can't know for sure what factors cause this reaction but a new dip in oxygen concentration as the result of the ongoing planetary changes cannot be excluded - even though that would probably be extremely slow by human standards. What we can be sure about is that we should be careful in the way we treat the Earth's ecosystem - we are part of it!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

"Plundering the Planet": book presentation in Vienna on Dec 11 2013

from the blog of the Club of Rome. Book presentation: “Plundering the Planet. The Future of Mankind in the Age of Dwindling Resources” by Ugo Bardi

December 11th, 2013: Vienna (Austria)

What can be a future strategic approach to handle resource scarcity in our economic policies? What are the perspectives of a growth driven economic systems and future options for our society? The book provides many aspects to discuss at this event.


Welcome and moderation: Martina Schuster (Head of Department, Federal Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, Environment and Water Management of the Republic of Austria, Vienna)

Presentation of the Book “Plundering the Planet” by the author, Ugo Bardi

Panel discussion with: Ugo Bardi, Sigrid Stagl (WU Vienna University of Economics and Business, Institute for the Environment and Regional Development), Kurt Bayer (Consultant at the Austrian Institute of Economic Research and – among other functions – Former Director, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, London)

Ugo Bardi is professor for physical chemistry at the department of Earth Sciences of the University of Florence, in Italy. He is the author of several books and articles dedicated to mineral resources, with special attention to the systemic effects of resource depletion and climate change . The German language version of “Plundering the Planet” (“Der Geplunderte Planet”) has been published by Oekom in 2013.

In the 33rd Report to the Club of Rome, Ugo Bardi has taken a detailed look at the status quo of the world´s resources. Based on a historic background he provides a detailed analysis of the present and the future of mining and resource exploitation. The era of cheap resources will be over soon. Their exploitation will not only be more costly and more energy consuming, it will also produce more waste and have a higher environmental impact. Cheap resources are a basis of a growth driven economic system. It is a misinterpretation of “Limits to Growth” more than 40 years ago that minerals and resources are running out. Resources are not running out in the near future but nevertheless availability is a key problem.

The book presentation and discussion is part of the “Growth in Transition” series. The event will be held in English language.

December 11th, 2013, 4pm
Impact Hub Vienna, Lindengasse 56, Top 18-19, 1070 Vienna, Austria

Registration: http://www.oegut-registration.at/va/planet/

Monday, December 9, 2013

Here comes the sun

The folks at the "Doomstead Diner" have been very active in various fields related to a a vision they have of the future that - as you may understand from the name of the blog - is not so rosy. Now, they have started a new project called "Here Comes the Sun", where the initials stand for "Sustaining Universal Needs".

Writes "Reverse Engineer" (AKA Joe Smith) that

"At a certain point in this timeline, not sure precisely when, I realized that simply writing about what was occurring was not sufficient, something more active and constructive was necessary."

That involves, among other things

"The greatest problems faced are in terms of Food & Water Security. Access to these most basic needs for life is essential, and in a failure of our larger system of Just In Time delivery and the monetary system that serves to distribute these products, it is necessary to build your own resilient local system to replace that. Here on SUN, we seek to find and develop the best means for doing that with the lowest energy inputs possible and least damage to the surrounding environment possible. This is ongoing work for SUN members at all levels. In the end, the goal is to disseminate the knowledge, to teach more people to be self sufficient while at the same time securing our own needs in this world."

Personally, I completely agree with the idea that  "simply writing about what's occurring is not sufficient, something more active and constructive is necessary". I think I did something with the sun myself, as you can read here. (and see the picture below - the girl is my daughter, the panels are a 200 kW plant in the Italian Appennini mountains built by myself and a few friends)

 Read the complete article about the SUN project on the Doomstead Diner

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Mandela's Formula

Guest post by Max Iacono

One of modern history’s greatest figures has just died.  I tried to understand in a simplified -and by necessity highly reduced and summary manner- (for myself)  what was at the root of his greatness and success and so I thought I also would share my views and opinions with others on this blog.
Mandela arose at a particular historical moment in a particular place.  That is, just like everyone else was born and begins and then develops or “implements”  his/her life at a particular time, in a particular place and in a particular context.  He came into and confronted an extremely unjust and also deeply entrenched societal situation and context -with significant historical roots- also supported explicitly or tacitly by a large number of the world’s great powers:  Apartheid and the (criminal) apartheid regime.  

At first he thought the best approach to overthrow the regime and establish a more fair and just form of government and a more just and equitable society in South Africa would be through the ideas and methods of Gandhi.

While not abandoning the ideas and practices of Gandhi after some time he realized that organization, discipline and armed struggle also would be necessary.  Many things happened and he then ended up in prison for 27 years.   He never lost hope and provided an ongoing example to his fellow political prisoners- inmates.   Even his prison guards held him in high respect.   Eventually the more intelligent parts of the apartheid regime realized that it was in their own interest to release Mandela and establish a democracy in South Africa with both blacks and whites being able to vote and participate.  The alternative would most likely have been (sooner or later) a bloodbath and the collapse of the regime.  The international legitimacy of the regime also was increasingly lower and falling further.

But how to unite the country and the many different kinds of people -not only blacks and whites and those of other or mixed races but also the many tribal and other ethnic divisions that exist-  and the various economic and political interests living there,  after so much injustice and brutality and oppression had taken place -i.e. had been committed- for so many years and decades?

What is the logic of the so called “truth, justice and reconciliation” commissions -and of their desired outcomes- that Mandela created, established and supported?

To understand this we need to work backwards.   If one desires good societal outcomes (political, economic, social, cultural and institutional) and a better future in which the people are also far more united one needs some kind of reconciliation process leading to greater unity.  To achieve reconciliation there must be some kind of JUSTICE.  And one cannot have justice without first knowing and exposing and clearly stating what the TRUTH was, had been, and is now, and why. 

Meaning here the truth -regarding both facts and processes in both general and specific terms- also about all the various forms of oppression, brutality, injustices and crimes committed.  Justice does not have to mean punishment in all cases nor does it mean retribution or vengeance, but it can mean some forms of compensation or at least a public admission of guilt.  And reconciliation does not just mean to “forgive and forget”.  So getting the above formula and the balance of its components right was (and remains) very important.  But what is most important -something which Mandela realized- is the future, not the past.  Though there cannot be a good future if a society has not fully come to terms with its past, and in the present. Mandela understood this very clearly and not only understood it,  but also invented a practical method to achieve it.

Mandela mobilized and deployed various personal characteristics -which he continually further developed and improved over time-,  over the many years of his struggle in various situations and roles.

1)    Courage, integrity and a concern for the practical welfare of people (all people)
2)    A long-term and medium-term vision that things could and would change but that this would not happen overnight and would require (collectively)  staying the course for very many years.
3)    A flexible and practical strategy or a set of complementary and variable strategies over time to accomplish the vision.
4)    An ability to read the historical moment correctly and “seize it” and implement appropriate tactics to achieve his and the collective strategies.
5)    An ability to recognize and admit to one’s own mistakes and correct them in an ongoing fashion.
6)    An ability to articulate his thoughts and visions both to his fellow ANC members as well as to the wider South African public and masses –and also his opponents- and an ability to convince them and bring various groups onboard while at the same time always listening to others and their own views.
7)    A strong sense of pragmatism and the ability to compromise where and when necessary without losing sight of his goals or the basic principles involved.   A willingness and readiness to work with one’s enemies in partnership to achieve a better society. 
8)    An ability and willingness and desire to see past himself and his own needs or personal interests or situation and always keep the needs and well being of the people first and foremost in mind and in his actions.
9)    A firm belief that leaders should lead by example.  This, and some of his other personal characteristics above led him to decide to become only a one term President. And this also so as to set a needed example to the rest of Africa.  He also saw the struggle as a long process in which many leaders and many other people needed continually to emerge, develop and become involved.  He saw that overthrowing the apartheid regime and replacing it with something much better was only the beginning of an even longer struggle to bring practical justice, fairness, equity and reasonable prosperity to all the people of South Africa.
10)    He understood that unity and establishing a humane society and justice and equity in South Africa –itself a multi-stage and ongoing process- were closely tied to establishing unity and humanity elsewhere.  Both in the rest of Africa country by country and regionally but also on other continents and in other situations. He remained a strong advocate of human rights, justice, truth and fairness and equality everywhere, and not only in “his own” country.   Hence he had a true cosmopolitan identity and world vision.

So how can the above be summed up even more succinctly?  I think of the following words or phrases:

Unquestionable integrity, courage, selflessness, putting the people first, leading by example,  having a big-picture vision and flexible strategies,  always being pragmatic, recognizing one’s own mistakes and rectifying them, listening to others, working with one’s enemies,  and an unremitting commitment to truth, justice and human rights everywhere,  rising above petty or even major divisions and interests, staying the course no matter what, never giving up, being unpretentious and being able to relate to people of all ages and origins and identities.  A “tall order”?   Yes, but Mandela was a very tall man-  who also became taller and taller as he progressed through his own life and the history of his country. 

The above is at least the way I personally have “understood” Mandela and what he has represented and done.   I am by no means an expert on his life or on South Africa.  Only one observer and one deep admirer among millions or perhaps billions -though also without exalting him which I am certain he would not have wished for me, or anyone else,  to do-.  

THANK YOU MR. MANDELA for what you have done for South Africa, for what you have done for Africa,  for what you have done for The World,  and for what you have taught me personally through your life and example.   If I have somehow managed to understand and learn only 10% of what you have shown me and the world I surely would have become a better man.  Your example continues to shine the light for me in the right directions.

P.S.  A recent very good article by the “Common Dreams” staff  also has just come out with the title “12 Mandela Quotes that won’t be in the Corporate Media Obituaries”.   I think they are a fitting post scriptum and a useful addition of some specifics to what I wrote myself in more general terms above.  They also help to put in historical perspective the fact that now that he is dead lots of people would like to identify with him and his legacy as though they always had agreed with him and supported him. But had they?  Truth is very useful in this respect too since it is only through establishing the truth that one can learn from one’s mistakes, whether moral or political.   Here are the quotes: 

“We wanted to share some of Nelson Mandela’s quotes which we don't expect to read in the corporate media's obituaries:

    1) "A critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy. The press must be free from state interference. It must have the economic strength to stand up to the blandishments of government officials. It must have sufficient independence from vested interests to be bold and inquiring without fear or favor. It must enjoy the protection of the constitution, so that it can protect our rights as citizens."

    2) "If there is a country that has committed unspeakable atrocities in the world, it is the United States of America. They don't care for human beings."

    3) "The current world financial crisis also starkly reminds us that many of the concepts that guided our sense of how the world and its affairs are best ordered, have suddenly been shown to be wanting.”

    4) "Gandhi rejects the Adam Smith notion of human nature as motivated by self-interest and brute needs and returns us to our spiritual dimension with its impulses for nonviolence, justice and equality. He exposes the fallacy of the claim that everyone can be rich and successful provided they work hard. He points to the millions who work themselves to the bone and still remain hungry."

    5) "There is no doubt that the United States now feels that they are the only superpower in the world and they can do what they like."

    6) “It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”

    7) “Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like Slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. YOU can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.”

    8) “We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”

    9) “No single person can liberate a country. You can only liberate a country if you act as a collective.”

    10) "If the United States of America or Britain is having elections, they don't ask for observers from Africa or from Asia. But when we have elections, they want observers."

    11) “When a man is denied the right to live the life he believes in, he has no choice but to become an outlaw.”

        12) On Gandhi: "From his understanding of wealth and poverty came his understanding     of labor and capital, which led him to the solution of trusteeship     based on the belief     that there is no private ownership of capital; it is given in trust for     redistribution and equalization. Similarly, while recognizing differential aptitudes and     talents, he holds that these are gifts from God to be used for the collective good."


Additional very good articles –which also are very useful since they provide guidelines to action- and which describe Mandela’s “gifts to the world’s Justice Movements “and the potential contribution of his ideas and practices to the world’s environmental and climate change movements”,  can be found here , here and here

And for those who are interested in reading additional recent coverage and views and opinions about Mandela's life and legacy,  you also can read the following three articles here, here and here and view the two You Tube videos here and here . And the more complete  feature film –which was recently completed and is soon to be released- about Mandela’s life based on Mandela’s own autobiography –is also well worth seeing. 

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Peak Health?

Eurostat data for healthy life years expectancy (HLYE) in some European countries, as reported in a paper uploaded on arXiv in 2013 by Ugo Bardi and Virginia Pierini. Measuring "health" carries large uncertainties, but these data hardly conform to the common perception of an increasingly better health condition in Europe.

We all know that we are living longer lives, at least in rich countries. But are we also living healthier lives? This is not so evident. On the contrary, sometimes, it seems that the elderly are paying dearly for their extra years of life in terms of all sorts of chronic illnesses and handicaps.

However, this is just a qualitative perception that should be supported by data if we have to consider it as worth of attention. Unfortunately, the concept of "health" is rather difficult to define and measure; nevertheless there exist data reporting a parameter called "Healthy Life Expectancy" or "Healthy Life Years Expectancy" (HLYE) that measure the expected number of "disability free" years of one's life.

The analysis of these data is the subject of a paper that myself and my coworker Virginia Pierini recently uploaded on ArXiv. We found that according to the EUROSTAT data, several European countries (and Italy in particular) experienced a decline in the healthy life expectancy starting with 2003.

About these results, a disclaimer is in order. The only way to determine HLYE is to ask people how do they feel about their health. Their answer depends on their perception and also on the way the question is posed. So, what these data are measuring might be a decline in the way people perceive their health, rather than their actual health. And there is the further complication that in 2004 some elements changed in the way the measurement was performed. Indeed,  in a comment to an earlier paper by Gennaro et al, Piergentili suggests that the observed change in HLYE is an artifact of the measurement. But we can't rule out that some actual external change had modified people's health, or the perception of their own health. In the paper, we tentatively explored the possibility that this change could be related to the heat wave that hit Europe in 2003 - a phenomenon that, indeed, had a detectable effect on the data on standard life expectancy.

We are the first to say that the data we report are affected by a high uncertainty. But we also thought that these data were worth reporting, if nothing else as a question mark directed at the scientific community for comments. We are facing here a fundamental point: "health" is often considered as equivalent to life expectancy but it should be seen more correctly in terms of healthy life expectancy; also in relation to the changes that we are causing to our environment. Hopefully, this modest effort of ours could be a stimulus to study more this subject.


Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Internet as an information overcrowding experiment

Luis De Souza, well known for his posts at "The Oil Drum" reports a weird, but not uncommon, story in his blog "At the Edge of Time". One of his texts has been extensively reproduced on another blog, without quoting the source. This kind of event is becoming more and more common in a Web which is booming with data and information and where many people seem to choose the weapon of volume, rather than of quality, in order to get attention.

What's especially interesting here is the aggressive reaction of the author of the offending piece when Luis managed to contact him. It looks like internet crowding is making people react like rats in those experiments on overcrowding. Fortunately, these aggressive reactions in the virtual world is virtual, too. So far, at least.

Here is Luis' post, reproduced from his blog


27 November 2013

Help! My blog was plagiarised

Have you ever experienced that feeling when you reach for you briefcase and something is missing? Or arriving at home and understanding someone had been there before you? That feeling of being burglarised was what I felt when I accidentally bumped on an article with the breif title: The real problem with Solar: Panel Prices in Free Fall, and the Fuel is Free: Corporations don’t Know how to Make Money Here (Oprisko). It is published by an Australian web site named The Zero Room and its authorship attributed to George Oprisko, Executive Director of the Public Research Institute in the US.

As it happens, about one third of this article reproduces ipsis verbis parts of The Price of Solar Power post, one of the most popular in this blog, that was also published by the EuropeanTribune and TheOilDrum. Even section titles were copied, but I'm nowhere acknowledged as author. This is in clear breach of the EUPL v1.1 licence under which the contents of this blog are published.

My first reaction was to contact those running The Zero Room, asking for conformance with the EUPL. There are no contact addresses available in the site though, e-mail or other. I then tried to leave a comment on the article; I submitted the first comment on the weekend before last, by the 16th of November and have since submitted similar others. Invariably, these met the following message:
Your comment has been queued for review by site administrators and will be published after approval.
So far none of these comments has been published by The Zero Room.

I moved then to another lead, the first sentence of the article: "a guest column for Informed Comment". There's no link to this hypothetical source (the only link in the whole article is to George Oprisko's profile), but a web search could reveal something. DuckDuckGo tells me that there are at least two blogs that go by the name of "Informed Comment" but none posts content authored by George Oprisko. The Zero Room is indeed the only web site that search engines can find publishing the offending the article.

I thus insisted on this shady Australian web site, filling in a form that supposedly allows for registration. I thought that once registered I could eventually get access to some contact channel with those responsible. I promptly received the following e-mail:
Date: Sat, 23 Nov 2013 19:48:09 +1100
To: luis[d0t]a[d0t]de[d0t]sousa[@t]gmail[d0t]com
Subject: Account details for lads at The Zero Room (pending admin approval)
Sender: mjd[@t]mjd[d0t]id[d0t]au
From: mjd[@t]mjd[d0t]id[d0t]au


Thank you for registering at The Zero Room. Your application for an account is currently pending approval. Once it has been approved, you will receive another e-mail containing information about how to log in, set your password, and other details.

-- The Zero Room team
And never heard from them again.

I thus followed the only link in the article: that to George Oprisko's profile. Luckily, contacts are available at the Public Research Institute; I decided to drop a message:
Date: Sat, 23 Nov 2013 19:08:20 +0100
Subject: Article attribution
From: =?ISO-8859-1?Q?Luís_de_Sousa?= <luis[d0t]a[d0t]de[d0t]sousa[@t]gmail[d0t]com>
To: goprisko[@t]publicresearchinstitute[d0t]org

Dear Mr Oprisko,

Days ago I bumped on an article credited to your name with the following title: "The real problem with Solar: Panel Prices in Free Fall, and the Fuel is Free: Corporations don=92t Know how to Make Money Here (Oprisko)" [1]. This article reproduces ipsis verbis without proper attribution extensive content originally published in a blog post of my authorship [1].

All contents published in my blog are protected by the European Union Public Licence v1.1 [2], which demands attribution in any sort of reproduction or replication. If you are indeed responsible for the article published by the web site "The Zero Room", I would ask you to reformulate it in way to fully comply with the aforementioned Licence as soon as possible.

Best regards,

Luís de Sousa

[1] http://mjd.id.au/node/16510

[2] http://attheedgeoftime.blogspot.com/2013/02/solar-power-price.html

[3] http://joinup.ec.europa.eu/software/page/eupl
The reply didn't took long:
Date: Sat, 23 Nov 2013 13:41:44 -0500
From: George Oprisko <goprisko[@t]publicresearchinstitute[d0t]org>
To: =?windows-1252?Q?Luís_de_Sousa?= <luis[d0t]a[d0t]de[d0t]sousa[@t]gmail[d0t]com>
Subject: Re: Article attribution


I have been trying to find you.......... these many days..........

But up until now........... you have been lurking behind a paywall ...........

That is a front for NSA data mining..............

How nice to hear directly from you.................

Only problem with the article you mention..........

I didn't write it!

It is a paraphrase of a post of mine...... which made attribution to "Various Sources".

But I have authored the attached .............

Dr. George
Confused? I was too. Beyond the vehement denial of authorship of The Zero Room article, this e-mail resembles more a soup of cryptic messages. The documents attached are white papers from the Public Research Institute that are irrelevant to this story.

Apparently, George Oprisko was either himself victim of plagiary, or is name was being used by a third party, or both. I replied asking for details:
Date: Mon, 25 Nov 2013 18:57:35 +0100
Subject: Re: Article attribution
From: =?ISO-8859-1?Q?Luís_de_Sousa?= <luis[d0t]a[d0t]de[d0t]sousa[@t]gmail[d0t]com>
To: George Oprisko <goprisko[@t]publicresearchinstitute[d0t]org>

Dear Mr. Oprisko,

I very much appreciate your swift reply, knowing that you didn't write this article put this story in completely new perspective. If I'm allowed, I would advise you to pursuit legal action against the "The Zero Room" web site. I'll also equate similar options from my side.

I don't fully understand what you mean by "have been lurking behind a paywal" and "front for NSA data mining". I'd be grateful if you could clarify this.

Finally I'd also ask you for a link to that post of your you refer to. And thank you for the papers.

Best regards,

Luís de Sousa
The reply was nothing short of surprising:
Date: Mon, 25 Nov 2013 17:13:19 -0500
From: George Oprisko <goprisko[@t]publicresearchinstitute[d0t]org>
To: =?windows-1252?Q?Luís_de_Sousa?= <luis[d0t]a[d0t]de[d0t]sousa[@t]gmail[d0t]com>
Subject: Re: Article attribution

I visited your site, hoping to arrange a collaboration.............

It is impossible to post comments thereon....... unless you succumb to having your gmail or facebook contacts recorded........

Your site has no way to directly contact you...........

This is in direct contravention to the way we at the Institute conduct our affairs....

Our site is hosted by ourselves, has no advertizing whatever, and our direct contact information is freely available.

Also, our research is freely available to colleagues to encourage collaboration and the advancement of a carbon neutral economy.

You, on the other hand, like many associated with The Oil Drum have set your self up as an exclusive "expert" on the topic.

You, are arrogant, and as far as I am concerned too interested in making money off your ideas.

You, seem to have assumed that everyone should kiss your ass.

And, In case you don't understand where I am coming from.......

I have no intent whatever to sue anyone who attributes ideas to me or the Institute.

That is what we are here for.........

That is to foment critical out side the box thinking.........


I don't give a rat's ass how that get's accomplished .........


So, George Oprisko had been trying to contact me, but didn't succeed. My e-mail address is available in my TheOilDrum profile (from where most folk known me), also in my EuropeTribune profile and my Blogger profile is public. Beyond that there's also a link to my employer's corporate web site in the About Me widget of this blog. I can't possibly believe that someone willing to wont succeed contacting me. In any case I added my e-mail in a more explicit way to my public Blogger profile, for less web savvy readers. As for the hate speech against me and other former TheOilDrum contributors I leave for you to judge.

The "goals regardless of means" tone of George Oprisko's discourse shattered any trust in his previous denial of authorship, but the silence from The Zero Room was also compromising. I was back to square one, unknowing the precise perpetrator of the plagiary.

I went back to the Informed Comment lead. On a closer look, Juan Cole's blog seemed the most likely to harbour content on Solar Power. I thus queried him:
Date: Tue, 26 Nov 2013 13:51:50 +0100
Subject: Help with plagiary
From: =?ISO-8859-1?Q?Lu=EDs_de_Sousa?= <luis[d0t]a[d0t]de[d0t]sousa[@t]gmail[d0t]com>
To: jrcole[@t]umich[d0t]edu

Dear Mr. Cole,

Days ago I came across an article attributed to George Oprisko titled: "The real problem with Solar: Panel Prices in Free Fall, and the Fuel is Free: Corporations don=92t Know how to Make Money Here (Oprisko)" published by an Australian web site [1]. This article reproduces ipsis verbis without proper attribution extensive content originally published in a blog post of my authorship [2]. All contents published in my blog are protected by the European Union Public Licence v1.1 [3], which demands attribution in any sort of reproduction or replication.

So far I have failed to contact those responsible for the site "The Zero Room", but I have managed to contact Mr Oprisko himself. He denies to have ever written the article but has lashed hateful remarks against myself and TheOilDrum.com (an energy forum to which I contributed for 7 years). I'm thus not sure at this stage who is to blame for the plagiary.

However, a short sentence in the offending article hints at your blog, Informed Comment, as the source of Mr. Oprisko's article. Although there is nothing of the sort in your blog, you might perhaps have some insight to share on this case. Have you published in the past anything written by Mr. Oprisko? Do you know Mr. Oprisko? Do you know who may be responsible for the web site "The Zero Room" and how to contact them?

Thankful for you attention. Best regards,

Luís de Sousa

[1] http://mjd.id.au/node/16510

[2] http://attheedgeoftime.blogspot.com/2013/02/solar-power-price.html

[3] http://joinup.ec.europa.eu/software/page/eupl
In the meantime I contacted fellow bloggers and researchers seeking to get into contact with The Zero Room. Among other replies, Gav from Peak Energy noted that there are a few dead links to a post at Informed Comment with the same title of the offending article at The Zero Room.

The story was becoming clear, by I needed a confirmation from Juan Cole to be sure. Fortunately he was kind enough to reply:
Date: Tue, 26 Nov 2013 21:27:27 -0500
Subject: thx
From: Juan Cole <jricole[@t]gmail[d0t]com>
To: "luis[d0t]a[d0t]de[d0t]sousa[@t]gmail[d0t]com" <luis[d0t]a[d0t]de[d0t]sousa[@t]gmail[d0t]com>

Hi Luis. Mr Oprisko did submit an essay to IC and it went up briefly until I noticed what seemed to me to be attribution problems. I immediately took it back down, in a matter of hours. I don't however retain any records of the matter.

cheers. Juan
In essence: George Oprisko is indeed the author of the plagiary, and apparently tried to lure Juan Cole. In his first e-mail George Oprisko tried to lure myself falsely denying authorship. His second e-mail is probably a reaction to "legal action".

What I still don't understand is The Zero Room's connivance with George Oprisko. In any case I'll do all in my reach to force the removal of the offending article.

As to George Oprisko himself I'm not certain yet how to proceed. Public exposure might be enough, but on the other hand, the violation of an open source licence is something that should not go without consequence. Everyone should understand that open source does not equate to the relinquish of rights over original work.

How can you help? First of all by exposing George Oprisko too, especially if you are a blogger yourself; it might be your blog to get plagiarised next time. Secondly by sharing your experience on plagiary and/or the violation of open source licences. Any information or advise on how to best proceed are welcome.


I'd like to thank Juan Cole for clarifying this story. I'd also like to thank Antonio, Leanan, Gav and Ugo for the information provided. 

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The return of gold as currency?

This post is part of a series on gold as currency that originates from the study of mineral resources done for the book "The Plundered Planet". Previous posts were: The Physics of Money, The Strategy of Dragons, and "The Lady doesn't wear gold"

Shops that convert gold into banknotes have made their appearance everywhere in the world. In a sense, it is the return of gold as currency. This post examines the current situation starting with Roman times and arriving to discuss a question that surely many of us have been considering: is there a convenience in investing in gold today?

There is a lot of interest in gold as currency, nowadays. With the world's financial system in turmoil, it is not surprising that some people are advocating a return to the gold standard and that others are busy at buying gold coins and gold-based assets. There has even been a proposal for a return to the Arab gold dinar as the basis of trade. But what could be the advantages of a return to gold? And is it really worth investing in gold; maybe physical gold in the form of gold coins?

As it is often the case, past history can tell us a lot about the present. Here, we find that the disappearance of the gold (and silver) as currency is an unusual event. With only one major exception, the late Roman Empire and early Middle Ages, for thousands of years, gold has been recognized everywhere as the basic medium of commerce. In modern times, gold coins were still circulating in the world throughout in mid 19th century but they became increasingly rare and, with the 20th century, they disappeared completely. Silver resisted a bit longer, the last silver coins meant as currency were minted in mid 20th century, but never really circulated. It was around that time that currency officially ceased to be based on gold. It had become what economists call "fiat money" borrowing a world from the Bible as to indicate a supernatural act of creation (something, that, incidentally, tells us something about the way a banker's mind works).

These are well known events, but what happened that had so deeply changed our attitude towards money that made us accept pieces of paper instead of metal coins? There follow some considerations of mine on this subject; mainly dedicated to gold, but generally valid also for silver. I argue that the disappearance of gold was due to its physical properties that made it scarcely suitable for the size of modern commerce. I also argue that the rapid inversion of several world trends, including the movement toward a new concentration of wealth in the hands of few people, may bring back gold as currency in a not too remote future. Finally I discuss whether it is worth investing in gold, today.

This text is part of the research I performed on the mineral history of the world that I wrote in the form of a book titled "Plundering the Planet". I don't claim that it is the last word on the subject but, if you bear with me, then you'll tell me what's your impression.

1. Gold as currency

Gold as currency is a commodity and its diffusion in the market depends on the balance of demand and supply; as it happens with all commodities traded in markets. Demand for gold has always been strong as everybody seems to love it (except for hermits, philosophers, and like minded characters). But the supply of gold is limited by its cost, in turn determined by its physical characteristics.

In a previous post, "the physics of money", I examined the factors that limit the amount of gold available as currency to the economy. One is the cost of producing it: it can be mined, raided, or traded, but in any case, these activities require considerable investments. The other factor is the density of metallic gold which dictates that a gold coin cannot weigh less than 3-4 grams (around 0.1 Oz.), otherwise it would be difficult to handle. These factors combine in limiting the number of gold coins that can exist at a given time. This number seems to have remained roughly constant over history; in the range of around 10 coins per person, perhaps less than that. (incidentally, silver could provide about ten times as many)

Clearly, you can't base an economic system on ten coins per person, not any more than we could base our current system on $100 bills only. Smaller denominations are needed for everyday transactions, say, buying groceries at the market. Before paper currency was developed, that could be done using coins made of lower value metals, typically copper coins, or copper-silver alloys. Gold was way too expensive for that but, as it often happens for expensive goods, it could still occupy the top layers of the market. Gold was money only for the rich; "prestige money" for large transactions. The 10 coins per person were far from being equally distributed: the rich had plenty, while the poor were not supposed to have any. In ancient times, up to relatively modern ones, it is likely that a peasant wouldn't ever see a gold coin in his or her life.

Even though expensive, gold has been well entrenched in its niche market for most of the known history. What could make it disappear? As we said, the market for gold as a currency is determined by supply and demand. So, the first thing we may imagine as the reason for the disappearance of gold is a reduction of the supply. In that case, prices would rise so that the market niche of gold as currency would shrink so much that it would become just too small to be exist at all. Imagine that peak oil reduces crude oil production so much that gasoline prices rise to - say - $100/liter ($350/gallon). Then, most of us won't simply reduce their use of cars: we'd have to stop using them. Having private cars would make no sense anymore and gasoline would disappear as a commodity for private users.

Something like that, a sharp rise in gold prices due to increasing rarity, may have taken place during the declining phase of the Western Roman Empire and in early Middle Ages. The Roman Empire, in more than a sense, was created by the wealth of gold that the Romans could mine in Northern Spain. But when the mines were depleted, the Roman gold started disappearing; spent for purchasing luxury items from abroad or for paying foreign mercenaries. At this point, it is likely that gold coins started to be perceived as very valuable and even relatively rich people would be wary of using them as currency, preferring to wait for better times (that never came). As a result the remaining gold was hoarded (or "vaulted"); it completely disappeared as a currency for several centuries (something that, incidentally, may have originated the many legends of dragons hoarding great treasures in their caves). Silver underwent the same fate and the whole European Economy had to adapt to the lack of currency during that period (they found some clever ways, but it wasn't so practical). A consequence of this phenomenon was that gold started to be used as jewelry for personal use, rather than as a currency, something that the Romans of better times would have considered tacky.

Fast forward to the disappearance of gold in our times: did our economic system go through something similar to the fate of the late Roman Empire? Apparently not, at least not in terms of availability of gold until very recent times. First of all, there is no evidence of a rise in gold prices in 19th century in correspondence to the disappearance of gold coins. Then, you can see below how the gold supply varied in comparison with the world's GdP (data from Maddison, 2010 for the world's GdP and from the Gold Money Foundation for the gold stock)

As you see, gold production from mines more than matched the growth of the world's GdP up to the 1940s. By then, gold coins had disappeared from common usage for almost a century and the convertibility of banknotes in gold was already purely theoretical, although that would be officially sanctioned only with the demise of the Bretton-Woods agreement in 1971. Clearly, we are seeing something different here that what we can imagine had happened during the last phase of the Roman Empire.   

There were two main factors which drained gold coins from the market. Both are due to physical facts: gold is limited in amounts and gold is heavy. Let's see how these facts affected the economy.

2. Why gold disappeared:
   The sheer growth of the economy

We saw that the ratio of the amount of gold to the economy didn't decrease, it actually increased up to ca. 1940. But that didn't help to solve a problem related to the sheer size of transactions in the modern world. To explain this point, let's say that you want to buy a house with gold coins. Assuming that the house costs $100,000, at the present price of 40 $/gram you need around 2.5 kg of gold - less than one thousand 3 gram coins. Even an expensive mansion would not require quantities of gold so large to be impossible to handle and transport.

We have records that transactions in ancient times - e.g. buying and selling houses - involved actually paying the total amount in gold (e.g Verboven 2009). That doesn't mean that it was strictly necessary to move these amounts of gold. The Roman trapezitai (the way ancient bankers were called, from a Greek term for "table") could easily have taken care of that by using equivalents of the modern letters of credit. But, as we said, gold was associated with "prestige" and the fact of showing off one's gold assets had a certain value in itself - just like today people use expensive and impractical SUVs for transportation.

But, then, consider the enormous expansion of the economy in 19th century. It was the result of the availability of fossil fuels, mainly coal, that created gigantic commercial flows. And, at this point, large transactions, millions of dollars and even much larger, were no more the exception, but the rule. Not that there wasn't enough gold, but, if moving around hundreds of tons of gold each time would have becom really awkward.

At this point, there was a logic solution and it was adopted: store the gold as bullion inside bank vaults and use bills as currency. These bills were pegged to the stored gold, but were much easier to move and store. So, gold coins were melted and disappeared into the vaults of banks. They may still be there. We know that, at the end of the 19th century, a total of about 30,000 tons had been mined. Assuming that most of that gold was in the form of coins at that time, it may not be a coincidence that, today, the amount of governments' gold reserves in the world is about the same; about 30,000 tons. These are the gold coins that circulated in the world two hundred years ago!

  The rise of the middle class in the West

There is a second possible reason why gold currency disappeared from the economy. It is related to the rise of the middle class in the 19th century and the fact that this class claimed a share of the wealth that, as a consequence, was not monopolized by the elites any more.

The data on social equality trends are very uncertain, but it seems clear that in 19th century, the newly gained riches that came from commerce and conquest led to a considerable decrease in social inequality in Western Europe and in North America - as we can read in a hugely interesting paper by Joerg Baten and others. Here are the data for the Gini coefficient (a parameter proportional to economic inequality) for Western Europe and USA:

You see that, up to recent times, in the "rich" world the poor were becoming less poor, sharing a higher fraction of the national wealth. That makes sense in light of the growing economy and the rise of democracy, of political parties, of workers' movements and more. From the same paper by Baten et al., we see how this development was being paid with a considerable increase in inequality in Asia, Africa, and other regions of the world, but let's not consider that, right now.

So, with the progress of the 19th century, more and more people had access to the market and for this reason they needed money. But gold couldn't provide it. As we said, there has never been enough gold in the world to provide coins for the pockets of everyone, and that's likely to have been true even for that fraction of the population that we call "middle class".

The member of this class had access to some wealth, but not enough that they could have so many gold coins as the rich would have in earlier times. So, they tended to see gold as rare and valuable and they would hoard it in the form of jewelry. Probably, every middle class family in the west, still today, has at least several grams of gold stored as jewelry: rings, necklaces, watches and the like. That's where another large fraction of the newly mined gold went from mid 19th century onward. It never had a chance to become "currency." Probably, this gold amounts to the difference of the total of gold mined (around 150,000-170,000 tons) minus the amount stored as government's reserves. In this case, it should total some 120,000-140.000 tons. (The amount of "technical gold" that has gone in circuitry and other devices is probably much smaller in comparison).

3. The end of the gold standard

So far, we have been discussing of gold as currency (i.e. something that actually circulates) which is something different from gold as a standard, (i.e. something stored in governments' vaults).  From late 19th century to 1971, most of the world's currencies were pegged to an equivalent amount of gold. Theoretically, every paper bill in circulation could have been redeemed into a certain amount of gold. But that concept officially disappeared when the United States unilaterally abandoned the Bretton Woods agreement in 1971.

If we go back to the figure presented before we see that the demise of the Bretton Woods agreement came after that the gold supply had started to collapse in comparison with the rapidly growing world's GdP. What had happened, probably, is that the economy, at this point, had fully "decoupled" from gold and had become pegged to fossil fuels. It was the acceleration of a trend that had been ongoing for decades but that, in the post-war period, had become impossible not to notice. Unlike what was the rule in ancient times, at this point the wealth of nations was not measured in gold any longer, but in oil, coal, and gas.

Gold had ended its monetary role because there was far too little of it to use it as a standard for what we call "currency" today, unless its price were to skyrocket to impossibly high levels.  It has been estimated that all the gold mined by the end of 2011 totalled 171,300 ton. At a price of US$1500 per troy ounce, reached on April 2013, one ton of gold has a value of approximately US$48 million. The total value of all gold ever mined should be around US$8.2 trillion. Compared to the world's GdP as it is estimated today (ca. 85 trillion) it is way too little.

A lot of people thought that the sky would fall because of the loss of gold standard, but nothing horrible happened, at least not right away. The end of the Bretton Woods agreement didn't mean that currency had become truly "fiat" - that is unpegged from any physical commodity. Currency just became pegged to another, and more important commodity: not gold any longer, but crude oil. As long as the US military will control the flow of oil in the empire we call "globalization", the US dollar will remain pegged to oil and it will remain the monetary standard of the world. That cannot last forever, of course, but for the time being it is the way things are.

4. The future of gold currency

As it is the rule in history, things always change. The trends that have brought the present situation with gold and all the related monetary issues are rapidly changing. So, what can we expect for the future?

Then main problem for the economy, at present, seems to be able to maintain oil production to the levels which have created the globalized empire. In this sense, our situation is very similar to that of the Romans of the 1st-2nd centuries A.D. who were desperately trying to maintain gold production to the levels which had created their empire. In the case of crude oil, depletion is biting hard on traditional producers and gigantic investments are needed just to maintain things as they stand. So, far, it has been possible, but that won't last forever. Already now, the need of these gigantic investments for the extractive industry are draining resources from all the other sectors of the economy. The industrialized West, the backbone of the empire, is becoming progressively poorer. And we know that when society becomes poorer, hardship is not equally distributed.  

Today, we are seeing the inversion of the trends that were leading to increasing social equality as the result of the increasing wealth brought by cheap oil. In the early 1970s the US saw its local "peak oil" and, with it, what was deemed "the great U-turn of the US economy" by Bennett Harrison and Barry Bluestone. The Gini coefficient started increasing, indicating growing inequality. The rich were becoming richer and the poor poorer. The same trend appeared in later years in Europe

The trend spread all over the world and, today, we see it in full swing. As a result, middle class families in Western countries keep becoming poorer and, possibly, the very concept of "middle class" is on its way to disappearing. People relentlessly pushed into poverty are exchanging their gold for their groceries with pawn shops acting as intermediaries. In practice, they are returning to the elites the gold they had hoarded as jewelry and, by now, the elites must be really awash in gold. It has been said that crude oil had made Arab sheiks so rich that they would use toilets made in solid gold (you can read this story in Oriana Fallaci's book "An Interview with History" - but it is a horrible book, not suggested). These Arab golden toilets are probably just a legend, but real solid gold toilets - exist, even though are reported to be not for sale. Bathroom fixtures in solid gold seem to be available for whoever wants to purchase them.

Apart from this show of tacky gadgetry, will we see the a return of gold as currency? Possibly yes, especially if the world's economy shrinks considerably as the result of the decline of the production of fossil fuels. But not immediately. As long as crude oil keeps flowing, the dollar remains strong as the world's currency. But, if (when) oil production starts to dwindle, a lot of things will change and, at some point, people will start losing their trust in small pieces of paper showing the face of Benjamin Franklin.

Then, a new market for gold will develop. That doesn't mean a return to the gold standard - although that might happen. But, more likely, it will mean the development of parallel markets in which some highly valuable goods and services will be paid in gold. Right now, mafia bosses, drug cartel leaders, and assorted local criminals and warlords are using dollars for their transactions (maybe you know that by far the largest number of $100 bills is found outside the United States). That could become a good market for gold coins. After all, gold coins were invented, back in the 6th century BCE, as a way to pay mercenaries and it may well be that the military all over the world will focus their sights on gold, after that they discover that oil is not so interesting any more. Some things in history never change. But, as in the past, gold currency will not be for everybody and don't expect to be able to use gold coins to buy your groceries!

5. Investing in gold.

After so much reasoning, we are arrived to the focal point - investing in gold. If you are reading Cassandra's blog, you probably belong to the Western middle class and you know that it is an endangered species. If you have some liquid assets left, you may wonder if it is appropriate to transform them into gold. Is it worth investing in gold based funds or to buy gold coins to keep well hidden somewhere at home or in a bank safe?

Here, obviously, we enter a slippery ground and I can only propose my opinion on this matter, with the caveat that I take no responsibility for what may happen to you if you decide to follow my advice. This said, let's see to examine the question.

First, investing in gold in the form of stocks and futures, well, it is very risky. It is said that gold is a safe refuge from the financial crisis, but in the great collapse of 2008, gold lost about 25% of its previous value. It is also true that it fared better than oil, which lost  2/3 of its value in 2009. Consider, though, that in recent times gold has lost again more than 30% of its value, while oil has maintained its high prices. So, there is no guarantee that investing in gold assets you would make money (or you'll be able to buy crude oil on the cheap). Besides, you are still tied to the financial system and, if things get really bad, you can hardly claim your physical share of a gold that exists (if it exists) as ingots vaulted somewhere far away.

Then, you could buy physical gold in the form of coins or ingots. These are nice things to have, but suffer from the same problem as gold financial assets - it is not obvious at all that you'll make money when you trade in your coins or your ingots. Then, there is the obvious problem that physical gold can be stolen; so you may have to pay for a bank safe and even that may not be completely safe (probably you know that, in 1933, President Roosevelt ordered the confiscation of all physical gold owned by everyone in the country - that included the gold stored in bank safes which were opened by order of the government).

Nevertheless, if things get really bad, it may be a good idea to keep some gold at hand as an emergency tool that you may use, for instance, to bribe the custom officers and leave the country before it is too late. But also remember that gold, just like paper money, has no value in itself. In a sense, all currencies are "fiat" currencies. Gold has value only if someone is willing to accept it in exchange for goods; that depends on the availability of goods and also on the social conventions that drive exchanges. In our society, it is legal and acceptable for everyone to own gold but that may change in the future.You probably know one version or another of the story of the peasant who found a treasure of gold coins. Sometimes, the story has a good ending, but the lot of the peasant in the story is always to face great difficulties. In ancient societies you just couldn't be a peasant and have gold at the same time. That was either illegal or unacceptable (or both) and, normally, when it happened society proceeded to redress the situation by removing the gold from the peasant (or removing the peasant from society). It is not just fiction, it may be a real story as the one that as Ali Morteza Samsam Bakhtiari tells us in his book "The Last of the Khans."

In the long run, as the very concept of "middle class" disappears, if you have managed to keep some gold with you, you may find yourself in troubles even in exchanging it for groceries, because groceries may become more valuable than gold. In any case, remember that your local warlord or mafia boss can take your gold without having to give you anything in exchange (it is a small scale version of what, on a large scale, is called "taxation"). So, a few gold coins may be fine to keep, but remember the advice of Lao Tzu in the "Tao Te Ching" "A house full of gold and jade cannot be defended".

h/t Tatiana Yugay for a suggestion on an improvement of this article


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)