Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Stereocene: The Future of The Ecosystem



 During the "golden age" of science fiction, a popular theme was that of silicon-based life. Above, you can see a depiction of a silicon creature described by Stanley Weinbaum in his "A Martian Odissey" of 1934. The creature was endowed with a metabolism in which it would "breathe" metallic silicon, oxidizing it to silicon dioxide, hence it would excrete silica bricks: truly a solid-state creature. It is hard to think of an environment where such a creature could evolve, surely not on Mars. But, here on the Earth, some kind of silicon-based metabolism seems to have evolved during the past decades. We call it "photovoltaics." Some reflections of mine on how this metabolism could evolve in the future are reported below, where I argue that this new metabolic system could usher a new geological era which we might call "Stereocene", the era of solid state devices.
 


Abridged version of a paper published in 2016 in "Biophysical Economics and Resource Quality"

Ugo Bardi
Dipartimento di Chimica - Università di Firenze

The history of the earth system is normally described in terms of a series of time subdivisions defined by discrete (or “punctuated”) stratigraphic changes in the geological record, mainly in terms of biotic composition (Aunger 2007ab). The most recent of these subdivisions is the proposed “Anthropocene,” a term related to the strong perturbation of the ecosystem created by human activity. The starting date of the Anthropocene is not yet officially established, but it is normally identified with the start of the large-scale combustion of fossil carbon compounds stored in the earth’s crust (“fossil fuels”) on the part of the human industrial system. In this case, it could be located at some moment during the eighteenth century CE (Crutzen 2002; Lewis and Maslin 2015). So, we may ask the question of what the evolution of the Anthropocene could be as a function of the decreasing availability of fossil carbon compounds. Will the Anthropocene decline and the earth system return to conditions similar to the previous geologic subdivision, the Holocene?

The earth system is a nonequilibrium system whose behavior is determined by the flows of energy it receives. This kind of system tends to act as energy transducer and to dissipate the available energy potentials at the fastest possible rate (Sharma and Annila 2007. Nonequilibrium systems tend to attain the property called “homeostasis” if the potentials they dissipate remain approximately constant (Kleidon 2004). In the case of the earth system, by far, the largest flow of energy comes from the sun. It is approximately constant (Iqbal 1983), except for very long timescales, since it gradually increases by a factor of about 10 % per billion years (Schroeder and Connon Smith 2008). Therefore, the earth’s ecosystem would be expected to reach and maintain homeostatic conditions over timescales of the order of hundreds of millions of years. However, this does not happen because of geological perturbations that generate the punctuated transitions observed in the stratigraphic record.

The transition that generated the Anthropocene is related to a discontinuity in the energy dissipation rate of the ecosystem. This discontinuity appeared when the ecosystem (more exactly, the “homo sapiens” species) learned how to dissipate the energy potential of the carbon compounds stored in the earth’s crust, mainly in the form of crude oil, natural gas, and coal). These compounds had slowly accumulated as the result of the sedimentation of organic matter mainly over the Phanerozoic era, that is over a timescale of the order of hundreds of millions of years (Raupach and Canadell 2010). The rate of energy dissipation of this fossil potential, at present, can be estimated in terms of the “primary energy” use per unit time at the input of the human economic system. In 2013, this amount corresponded to ca. 18 TW (IEA 2015). Of this power, about 86 % (or ca. 15 TW) were produced by the combustion of fossil carbon compounds.

The thermal energy directly produced by combustion is just a trigger for other, more important effects that have created the Anthropocene. Among these, we may list as the dispersion of large amounts of heavy metals and radioactive isotopes in the ecosphere, the extended paving of large surface areas by inorganic compounds (Schneider et al. 2009), the destruction of a large fraction of the continental shelf surface by the practice known as “bottom trawling” (Zalasiewicz et al. 2011), and more. The most important indirect effect on the ecosystem of the combustion of fossil carbon is the emission of greenhouse gases as combustion products, mainly carbon dioxide, CO2, (Stocker et al. 2013). The thermal forcing generated by CO2 alone can be calculated as approximately 900 TW, or about 1 % of the solar radiative effect (Zhang and Caldeira 2015), hence a nonnegligible effect that generates an already detectable greenhouse warming of the atmosphere. This warming, together with other effects such as oceanic acidification, has the potential of deeply changing the ecosystem in the same way as, in ancient times, LIPs have generated mass extinctions (Wignall 2005; Bond and Wignall 2014).

Burning fossil fuels generate the exergy needed to create industrial structures which, in turn, are used to extract more fossil fuels and burn them. In this sense, the human industrial system can be seen as a metabolic system, akin to biological ones (Malhi 2014). The structures of this nonbiological metabolic system can be examined in light of concepts such as “net energy” (Odum 1973) defined as the exergy generated by the transduction of an energy stock into another form of energy stock. A similar concept is the “energy return for energy invested” (EROI or EROEI), first defined in 1986 (Hall et al. 1986) [see also (Hall et al. 2014)]. EROEI is defined as the ratio of the exergy obtained by means of a certain dissipation structure to the amount of exergy necessary to create and maintain the structure. If the EROEI associated with a dissipation process is larger than one, the excess can be used to replicate the process in new structures. On a large scale, this process can create the complex system that we call the “industrial society.” The growth of the human civilization as we know it today, and the whole Anthropocene, can be seen as the effect of the relatively large EROEI, of the order of 20–30 and perhaps more, associated with the combustion of fossil carbon compounds (Lambert et al. 2014).

A peculiarity of the dissipation of potentials associated with fossil hydrocarbons is that the system cannot attain homeostasis. The progressive depletion of the high-EROEI fossil resources leads to a progressive decline of the EROEI associated with fossil potentials. For instance, Hall et al. (2014) show that the EROEI of oil extraction in the USA peaked at around 30 in the 1960s, to decline to values lower than 20 at present. A further factor to be taken into account is called “pollution,” which accelerates the degradation of the accumulated capital stock and hence reduces the EROEI of the system as it requires more exergy for its maintenance (Meadows et al. 1972).

Only a small fraction of the crustal fossil carbon compounds can provide an EROEI >  1, the consequence is that he active phase of the Anthropocene is destined to last only a relatively short time for a geological time subdivision, a few centuries and no more. Assuming that humans will still exist during the post-Anthropocene tail, they would not have access to fossil fuels. As a consequence, their impact on the ecosystem would be mainly related to agricultural activities and, therefore, small in comparison with the present one, although likely not negligible, as it has been in the past (Ruddiman 2013; Mysak 2008).

However, we should also take into account that fossil carbon is not the only energy potential available to the human industrial system. Fissile nuclei (such as uranium and thorium) can also generate potentials that can be dissipated. However, this potential is limited in extent and cannot be reformed by Earth-based processes. Barring radical new developments, depletion of mineral uranium and thorium is expected to prevent this process from playing an important role in the future (Zittel et al. 2013). Nuclear fusion of light nuclei may also be considered but, so far, there is no evidence that the potential associated with the fusion of deuterium nuclei can generate an EROEI sufficient to maintain an industrial civilization, or even to maintain itself. Other potentials exist at the earth’s surface in the form of geothermal energy (Davies and Davies 2010) and tidal energy (Munk and Wunsch 1998); both are, however, limited in extent and unlikely to be able to provide the same flow of exergy generated today by fossil carbon compounds.

There remains the possibility of processing the flow of solar energy at the earth surface that, as mentioned earlier on, is large [89,000 TW (Tsao et al. 2006) or 87,000 TW (Szargut 2003)]. Note also that the atmospheric circulation generated by the sun’s irradiation produces some 1000 TW of kinetic energy (Tsao et al. 2006). These flows are orders of magnitude larger than the flow of primary energy associated with the Anthropocene (ca. 17 TW). Of course, as discussed earlier on, the capability of a transduction system to create complex structures depends on the EROEI of the process. This EROEI is difficult to evaluate with certainty, because of the continuous evolution of the technologies. We can say that all the recent studies on photovoltaic systems report EROEIs larger than one for the production of electric power by means of photovoltaic devices (Rydh and Sandén 2005; Richards and Watt 2007; Weißbach et al. 2013; Bekkelund 2013; Carbajales-Dale et al. 2015; Bhandari et al. 2015) even though some studies report smaller values than the average reported ones (Prieto and Hall 2011). In most cases, the EROEI of PV systems seems to be smaller than that of fossil burning systems, but, in some cases, it is reported to be larger (Raugei et al. 2012), with even larger values being reported for CSP (Montgomery 2009; Chu 2011). Overall, values of the EROEI of the order of 5–10 for direct transduction of solar energy can be considered as reasonable estimates (Green and Emery 2010). Even larger values of the EROEI are reported for wind energy plants (Kubiszewski et al. 2010). These values may increase as the result of technological developments, but also decline facing the progressive occupation of the best sites for the plants and to the increasing energy costs related to the depletion of the minerals needed to build the plants.

The current photovoltaic technology may use, but do not necessarily need, rare elements that could face near-term exhaustion problems (García-Olivares et al. 2012). Photovoltaic cells are manufactured using mainly silicon and aluminum, both common elements in the earth’s crust. So there do not appear to exist fundamental barriers to “close the cycle” and to use the exergy generated by human-made solar-powered devices (in particular PV systems) to recycle the systems for a very long time.

Various estimates exist on the ultimate limits of energy generation from photovoltaic systems. The “technical potential” in terms of solar energy production in the USA alone is estimated as more than 150 TW (Lopez et al. 2012). According to the data reported in (Liu et al. 2009), about 1/5 of the area of the Sahara desert (2 million square km) could generate around 50 TW at an overall PV panel area conversion efficiency of 10 %. Summing up similar fractions of the areas of major deserts, PV plants (or CSP ones) could generate around 500–1000 TW, possibly more than that, without significantly impacting on agricultural land. The contribution of wind energy has been estimated to be no more than 1 TW (de Castro et al. 2011) in some assumptions that have been criticized in (Garcia-Olivares 2016) Other calculations indicate that wind could generate as much as about 80 TW, (Jacobson and Archer 2012), or somewhat smaller values (Miller et al. 2011). Overall, these values are much larger than those associated with the combustion of fossil fuels, with the added advantage that renewables such as PV and wind produce higher quality energy in the form of electric power.

From these data, we can conclude that the transduction of the solar energy flow by means of inorganic devices could represent a future new metabolic “revolution” of the kind described by (Szathmáry and Smith 1995). (Lenton and Watson 2011) that could bootstrap the ecosphere to a new and higher level of transduction. It is too early to say if such a transition is possible, but, if it were to take place at its maximum potential, its effects could lead to transformations larger than those associated with the Anthropocene as it is currently understood. These effects are hard to predict at present, but they may involve changes in the planetary albedo, in the weather patterns, and in the general management of the land surface. Overall, the effect might be considered as a new geological transition.

As these effects would be mainly associated with solid-state devices (PV cells), perhaps we need a different term than “Anthropocene” to describe this new phase of the earth’s history. The term “Stereocene” (the age of solid-state devices) could be suitable to describe a new stage of the earth system in which humans could have access to truly gigantic amounts of useful energy, without necessarily perturbing the ecosystem in the highly destructive ways that have been the consequence of the use of fossil fuels during the past few centuries.

References (see original article)

Monday, July 24, 2017

When Fake News Kill. Mata Hari, the Spy Who Never Was


One century after her death, Mata Hari remains for us the prototypical figure of the female spy. An extreme case of “femme fatale”; she is seen as someone who not only seduced men for her lust of money and power, but also for the greater lust of having them killed by the thousands on the battlefield. But she never was what she was said to be. Rather, she was one of the first victims of what we call today "fake news," also known as "propaganda", a set of techniques of mass manipulation being developed at that time and which today have reached near perfection. 


A hundred years ago, on July 24, 1917, Margaretha Gertruida Zelle, known as Mata Hari, was sentenced to death by a military court in Paris on the accusation of being a spy for the Germans. She was said to have passed to them information that caused the death of “maybe fifty thousand French soldiers.”. She was shot a few months later.

Today, looking back at the acts of the trial, we can easily see the absurdity and the inconsistency of the accusations. If there ever was an example of a court where the judges were Marsupials, that was it. There just was no way that Mata Hari could have done what she was accused to have done. She was, rather, a scapegoat killed in order to distract the public in a moment when the war was going badly for France. Put simply: she was framed. It was one of the first examples of the deadly effects of "fake news" which, at that time, were just starting to become a common feature of our world.

The trial was the endpoint of a career of dancer and performer that Margaretha Zelle had started when she came back to Europe from Indonesia, at that time called the "Dutch Indies". She had spent just a few years there as the wife of a Dutch Officer but that was sufficient for her to pick up something of the local culture that allowed her to claim that she was Buddhist. She also learned enough of the local language to be able to choose  "Mata Hari" as her stage name, meaning (it seems) "The Light of Dawn". As a dancer, Mata Hari drew a lot of criticism at her times and it is likely that her dances were little more than strip teases with an Oriental flavor. Yet, she became very popular in Europe after she gave her first performance in Paris, in 1905.

As years went by, Mata Hari gradually gave up with stripping naked in public and she became a high-rank courtesan, seducing the rich and the famous. During the war, she may have tried her hand at being also a secret agent, but it seems more likely that she was simply framed. In a certain way, the French and the German secret services collaborated in sending her to face the firing squad. The German saw her as a "propaganda point" to show how evil the French were in killing an innocent woman, while the French saw the trial as a way to show how tough they were against traitors (and traitoresses).

The trial and the detention of Mata Hari were a showcase of cruelty and intimidation. The last pictures we have of her show us no more the dancer that she used to be, but a woman physically destroyed by months of life in jail. After the execution, Mata Hari received also the ultimate insult, that of being denied a decent burial, of having her dead body dissected on a hospital table and having the pieces thrown away. They say that her mummified head was kept for some years in the museum of anatomy in Paris, before it was, too, thrown away and lost. She was denied the status of human being and considered rather as a sort of giant insect to be disposed of. The transformation of human beings into insects and their subsequent extermination is something that Kafka had already prophetically described in his story “the metamorphosis”.

In later times the anthropologist Roy Rappaport defined as “diabolical lies” those lies that “tamper with the very fabric of reality”. Today, we call those lies with the more neutral term of "fake news", as if they were just a fad that comes and goes. But fake news can kill and one of their victims was Mata Hari. The deadly mix of nationalism and propaganda that killed her was to continue and to explode in later years with the 2nd world war, leading Europe into the largest exterminations of innocent people that history has (so far) recorded. Mata Hari was among the first to be engulfed by this wave of senseless killing. She was killed in cold blood by people who were, most likely, perfectly aware that she was innocent.

It may well be that Mata Hari’s Oriental stance was not just a veneer to ennoble a little her strip teases, but it may also be that she had seriously studied Buddhism and other oriental ways while in the Dutch Indies. Her behavior at her execution, her calm, her evident belief that death was simply a passage, may tell us that her Buddhism was not just a pose but something that she had taken by heart. A hundred years later, we may still learn something from her story.





These notes are based mainly on the book by Rusell Warren Howe, "Mata-Hari. The true story". Editions de l'Archipel, Paris 2007, and on the near contemporary report by Emile Massard "Espionnes À Paris" (Gallimard, 1922), but there is lot of material on her story. Whereas earlier on there was still some discussion on whether she could really have been a spy, today the prevalent opinion is that she wasn't. 




Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Mining the asteroids: how desperate can we become?



A silly idea that seems to be coming straight from a science fiction story of the 1950s. Mining the asteroids wouldn't just be outrageously expensive; the problem is that there is nothing to mine there. Yet, some people seem to take the idea seriously



It seems that, when we are in trouble, we tend to revert to our childhood memories, seen as happy times that, somehow, could return. That may explain why President Trump is dreaming of an impossible return to coal. He may see the idea through his memories of childhood as a time of happy miners and prosperous families.

Some others, instead, may revert to memories influenced by the science fiction of the 1950s, when the idea of "mining the asteroids" was commonplace. Jerry Pournelle wrote a delightful essay on this genre in 1980 under the title "Those Pesky Belters and Their Torchships". You may also remember the 1981 movie "Outland" starring Sean Connery and taking place in a mine on the moon of Jupiter, Io.

Nice memories, yes, could we ever mine space bodies for real? Well, the science fiction of the 1950s described many innovations that never appeared in the real world and most likely never will. Some because they are too expensive (flying cars) and some because they are contrary to the laws of physics (anti-gravity). Mining the asteroids falls straight into the "impossible" category for two reasons: the first is that it is too expensive and the second that it goes against the laws of geology (if not of physics). It wouldn't be physically impossible to mine the asteroids but there is nothing to mine there.

Let me explain: we can extract minerals on Earth because of the "energy credit" that comes from geological or biological processes (and often both) which have concentrated specific elements in some special regions of the crust. We call these regions "deposits" and we use the term "ores" for those deposits which are concentrated and pure enough that they can generate an economic profit from mining. Only ores are a useful source of minerals. Mining from the undifferentiated crust is simply unthinkable because of the enormous energy it would require (see my book "Extracted").

And there lies the snag with asteroids. The physical processes that created ores on our planet can take place only on planets which are both geologically and biologically active. As far as we know, asteroids never were. So, there are no ores on asteroids; nor there are on the moon or other "dead" space bodies. It is not impossible that there could be ores on Mars, which may have been geo-biologically active in a remote past, or perhaps on the moons of Jupiter, maybe geologically active today. But, for what we know, the best place in the solar system where to find ores is our planet, the good, old Earth (and, incidentally, as science fiction goes, the 2011 movie "Cowboys and Aliens" got the geology of the story perfectly right: the aliens come to Earth for its mineral resources). 

So, no ores, no mining. And no ores on asteroids means no mining on asteroids (*). Of course, many asteroids are mainly iron, but it makes no sense to go there to mine iron if you consider that there is plenty of iron on Earth and you think of the costs involved with the idea of mining space bodies. It is an idea that just makes no sense.

Yet, we are seeing a spate of news that we could take as if someone really wanted to mine the asteroids. Possibly the most idiotic one appeared on "Futurism.com" with the title mentioning an asteroid "worth 10,000 trillion dollars". It seems that the author simply multiplied the mass of the asteroid, supposed to be all iron, by the current cost of iron per kg, arriving at such a meaningless number.

Other people seem to be peddling space mining and they may ask you money to finance their ideas on the basis of cute drawings which, indeed, remind the fictional spaceships of the 1950s. Others, including the Luxembourg government, seem to be willing to do exactly that: spend money on the idea of mining space, really!  (at least, despite their attempt of selecting the worst possible ideas they couldn't imagine, they don't seem to be planning to invade Iraq).

Some people who should know better seem to have lost track a little of what they are saying. So, the French astrophysicist Jean-Pierre Luminet is reported to have declared that "Asteroids are full of pure and precious metals, such as gold, platinum, cobalt, etc, in quantities ten to a hundred times larger than what we can find in terrestrial mines." (let's just say that we can't pretend that astrophysicists know something of geology).  The idea seems to be diffusing and I reported in a previous post how an acquaintance of mine reacted to my statements that we had resource problems with "but we shall colonize other planets!"

So, what to say? Just that when desperation sets in, idiocy often follows.




(*) commenter Ned noted that some meteorites have a platinum concentration higher than that of terrestrial ores. So, there may be an exception to the rule. Whether these asteroids could be actually mined, it is another question. 


Monday, July 17, 2017

When governments operate in "cheating mode": Italy during WWII



Benito Mussolini: Italy's leader for more than 20 years, met an ignominious end in 1945. It is a story that can illustrate what I called the "The Camper's Dilemma", how deception may be an operational strategy for governments and for elites. 



How you react to a threat depends on how serious you consider it. Small or moderate threats don't deserve a strong reaction, while extreme, "existential" threats generate emergency measures. In between, there is an intermediate threat zone where you can think that it is a good idea to save yourself by cheating. It is what I called the "camper's dilemma." Imagine two campers in a forest inhabited by hungry bears. One possible survival strategy for each one of them is to cheat, convincing the other that there are no bears around and then quietly disappear, leaving him to be eaten.

When you have a model that looks good to you, the risk is to consider it as a hammer and see everything else as nails. But I think the "camper's dilemma" can tell us something about what's going on in the world. We all know that we are being cheated by our governments but, perhaps, the extent of the ongoing cheating still escapes most of us. So, as an example, let's revisit what happened in Italy during the second world war; when the military elites abandoned the army and the country in order to save themselves.

We all know how Mussolini's government made a number of truly gigantic strategic mistakes, engaging the country simultaneously against three of the greatest military powers of the time: Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union. How could anyone think that was a good idea is baffling for us, but, evidently, Mussolini underestimated the threat that the country faced. He seems to have been thinking that the superior fighting spirit of the Italian soldiers would take Italy to victory despite its inferiority in terms of resources.

Reality made short work of this illusion when the Red Army defeated and destroyed the Italian expeditionary corps in Russia, some 250,000 men, in a campaign that lasted a few months from late 1942 to early 1943. It was a terrible blow for Italy. It showed that, no matter what was the fighting spirit of Italian soldiers, the Italian army couldn't cope against the larger and better-equipped enemies it faced.

I already discussed the defeat of the Italian forces in Russia in a previous post, noting that Italians were told nothing by their government about the true extent of the disaster. But let's go a little deeper in the matter, here. First of all, the elites of the country had access to all the information they needed to understand that the war was being lost. But there was a not-so-subtle difference between what Mussolini and his followers were thinking and what other people at the top, including the King of Italy, were thinking. Mussolini still hoped for a miracle, maybe coming from the "revenge weapons" that the Germans were developing. The King and his generals, instead, were mainly trying to save themselves by finding an agreement with the allies before it was too late. Both factions, however, needed to keep the country at war, at least for a while.

So, the Italian press kept lying to Italians while secret negotiations were ongoing between the King and the allies. Things come to a head on Sep 8, 1943, when Mussolini was deposed and arrested while an armistice was signed that stipulated the surrender of Italy. Then, the king and his entourage fled from the capital to find protection with the Allies. The Italian army collapsed in a matter of days, left without orders and without support, to be "eaten by the bear", that is by the German troops in Italy. The last ditch defense that Mussolini tried, later on, had no hope to succeed.

These events perfectly illustrate how the elites can deceive the people in order to save their necks. And, in this case, they succeeded beautifully. Up to the last moment, the people of Italy were being told that the fighting spirit of the Italian troops was high, that the enemies were suffering heavy losses, that victory was unavoidable because the decadent Anglo-Saxon plutocracies couldn't keep fighting for long. Then, in a few days, there was no army anymore and Italy had surrendered. Cheating at its best. (*)

It seems to be a general observation that, when facing a serious threat, the elites of a country can reason that the best strategy for them is to cheat the people and save themselves. In the present situation, the threat of global warming seems to be driving some elites to do exactly that. They deny the threat while at the same time maneuvering to save themselves by moving to higher grounds and equipping their mansions with air conditioning. For all they care, the rest of the people can drown or roast.

But, as the threat of climate change becomes clearer, the elites may discover that nobody can survive in an uninhabitable planet. Then, they may finally decide to try to do something to save the ecosystem from which we all depend. Unfortunately, when that time arrives it may well be too late.





(*)There are other similar cases in history. During the war, in Germany there were attempts to kill Hitler, that failed. Even in the Soviet Union, in 1942 Stalin emanated "order 227" ("not one step back") in order to re-establish discipline in the Soviet Army. In older times, we may cite the case of the kingdom of Naples invaded by the Piedmontese in 1860, when several Neapolitan generals defected to the other side. There are many more cases that show that the strategy of deception doesn't always work, but it does exist.












Saturday, July 15, 2017

How about the "sixth extinction?" It is a Seneca Cliff in the making






Image above from the paper by Hull et al. "rarity in mass extinctions and the future of ecosystems" Nature 528, 345–351 (17 December 2015). Notice how the decline in the fossil abundance, takes the shape of a "Seneca Cliff". The article examines the current situation of the Earths's ecosystem and concludes that we are not yet falling down the cliff, but we might be in the future.





Sometimes, my colleagues make me think of the old joke, "I wouldn't want to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members." That happened to me once more when I read an interview to Smithsonian paleontologist Doug Erwin that was published with the title "We are NOT in the sixth mass extinction", ("The Atlantic," June 13, 2017). Here, Erwin states that the idea that we are in the sixth extinction is just "junk science".

If you wanted further proof that scientists are a bunch of unreliable nerds who live in a world of their own, you need to go no further. How can it be that the "sixth extinction" had become accepted science and then, suddenly, another one of those silly scientists comes up and says that it is not true? How can you believe a single word coming from them?

So. let's try to understand what this whole story is about. First, where does the idea of the sixth extinction come from? Perhaps it was popularized for the first time in a 2011 paper by Barnosky et al on Nature that dealt mainly with the megafauna extinction during the Holocene. Of course, the idea is older than that. If you look on "Google Scholar," the term "sixth extinction" produces more than 174,000 hits. If this is junk science, surely plenty of scientists seem to like this kind of junk. 

So, why does Dr. Erwin defines as junk science a subject of study that looks perfectly legitimate and widely explored? The article in "The Atlantic" is just baffling. It starts with an image of the asteroid that's supposed to have killed the dinosaurs; then the title says "we are NOT in a mass extinction," then there follows a long review of all the ongoing extinctions, and then we read that "Erwin says no." 

So, what are you supposed to understand from all this? Twice we are told that, yes, extinctions are ongoing, and twice that they are not. To add to the confusion, later in the article we are treated with paragraphs such as "“If we’re really in a mass extinction—if we’re in the [End- Permian mass extinction 252 million years ago]—go get a case of scotch,” he said." What in the world do you think could that mean?

Oh, boy, that life is complicated. Let's quit the silly article in "The Atlantic" and go see the original article in Nature where Erwin and his coauthors explain what they have in mind. And there, unlike in the Atlantic, we have an understandable text. Here are some excerpts from the article.

To date, the majority of extinction studies have been biased towards terrestrial species and charismatic megafauna and we know relatively little about changes in the abundance and ranges of the shelly marine invertebrates that would provide a direct link to mass extinctions in the fossil record.
From custodians of deep time, we need quantitative assessments of the fossil record of the present and future earth in order to accurately size up current biotic changes with the same filter through which we see the past.
 Although extinctions are rare, the ecological ghosts of oceans past already swim in emptied seas.

You see the point? So far, we have focussed on the extinction of "charismatic" species, from the past one of mammoths, giant sloths, and the like to the ongoing ones of Elephants, tigers, cheetahs, and others. However, a true mass extinction sees the disappearance, or at least the the near disappearance of common species such as marine invertebrates. But that doesn't appear to be happening, yet.

There follows that, if someone in a remote future were to examine the fossil record for our times, he/she/it wouldn't see, not yet at least, the same kind of disastrous "Seneca Collapse" of the most common species that we see for the "big five" mass extinctions. Once a true "End-Permian-like" extinction were to start, it would be so rapid and destructive that nobody would be alive, discussing it.

That's it, folks: the title "We are NOT in the sixth mass extinction" simply means "we are not YET in the sixth mass extinction", but there are plenty of ongoing extinctions that prefigurate a true mass extinction ("emptied seas") for a non-remote future. That's because we know that most of the past mass extinctions (and perhaps all of them) were caused by the same phenomenon that's ongoing nowadays: the release of large amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Said in other words, imagine you are falling from the 10th floor. You are not yet splattered on the sidewalk and, if you really want to be precise, you shouldn't say that you are in the same condition of other people who fell from the same window in the past. Who knows? You might fall on something soft, or maybe learn how to fly while en route. Precision is precision, right?

So, the position taken by Dr. Erwin is scientifically correct, although it doesn't change what we know about the ongoing extinctions (and, as a personal opinion, I normally avoid branding the work of my colleagues as "junk science," even though I may not agree with them). We didn't go through a mass extinction, yet, because it is just beginning. The problem is that the meaning of the article in The Atlantic, and in particular its title, will NOT be generally understood. On the contrary, it will give plenty of ammunition to the throngs of those who claim that "CO2 is plant food," "the Earth is getting greener," "global warming is good for people"; and the like. It is already happening. As usual, when scientists say something that some people judge unpalatable, they are cheaters and liars. When a scientist says the opposite, he is suddenly defined as reliable.

I don't think Erwin is to be faulted in particular for this disaster in scientific communication. It happens all the time and especially when you stumble on journalists who tend to sensationalize what you tell them. Unfortunately, as scientists, we haven't yet learned how to communicate science to the public.




Monday, July 10, 2017

The Three Phases of the Reaction to Existential Threats: Action, Deception, and Desperation




I have been always fascinated by how people's consciousness of collective threats blurs and disappears as the threat gets closer. Look, here, at the concept of "peak oil" as it appears on  "Google Trends." You see how it dwindled to almost zero interest after having been popular at the beginning of the 21st century.


We get similar results for Global Warming:



There are many more examples, a classic one is how the 1972 study "The Limits to Growth" was forgotten as the threat it described became closer in time. So, if you think about this, it is maddening: the earth is becoming more warm and people worry less about that?  The same about oil; the more we use, the less there is; how come that people worry less and less about the problem? Maddening, indeed.

After considerable head-scratching, I came up with a proposed explanation that I described in an earlier post as the "camper's dilemma." It is a simple model consisting in two campers trying to adopt the best strategy to avoid being eaten by bears. Here, let me repropose the camper's dilemma in a more general form that I call, here, "The Three Phases of the Reaction to Existential Threats" (actually four phases, but "phase 0" is not important)

Phase 0 - No perceived danger: no action. The problem is not recognized, so nothing is done about it.
Phase 1 - Low perceived danger: collective action. The threat is perceived to exist, but only minor adjustments are believed to be necessary to avoid damage. The emphasis is on everyone doing his/her part.
Phase 2 - High perceived danger: deception. The threat starts being perceived  (but not by everyone) as serious and involving considerable sacrifices. The objective for those who understand the situation, and for the elites in particular, is to make sure that the burden falls on someone else's shoulders. This may involve denial, obfuscation, and blame-shifting.
Phase 3 - Very high perceived danger. desperate emergency action. The threat becomes so evident that it is obvious to everyone that society is on the edge of the Seneca cliff and that not even the elites will survive the collapse. Deception is abandoned while desperate, last-ditch attempts to avoid the cliff are put in place.

Let's try to apply these considerations to the current threats, for instance global warming. It became a known threat in the 1970s and, at the time, it didn't seem to be the terrible problem it has become today. "Phase one" involved proposals such as double-paned glass windows, low consumption light bulbs, smaller cars, and the like. Much of the world's environmental movement still lives in phase one: they think that it will be sufficient to explain to people what the problem is and to convince everyone to make some small sacrifices. Then, the problem will be solved.

But "phase two" has been around for a long time and it has been gaining strength. The Trump administration is a clear example of the attempt to deceive the public about global warming by silencing the media and by a general effort of obfuscation and deception. The elites, at this stage, seem to believe that survival is possible for those who have air conditioning and own mansions on the hills. The others will roast or drown but, so the elites believe, that will reduce emissions and everything will be well for the survivors.

Some people have already moved to "phase three," with the concept of the climate "tipping point" that pushes the planet to a condition where it is not sure than anyone will be able to survive. This concept hasn't yet made inroads with the elites. But, once they discover that the threat is existential not just for the poor, but for everybody, then they may go kinetic and implement extreme, desperate attempt to fix the climate system. Expect geoengineering to become popular!

As an exercise, we may also apply the concept of the "three phases" to oil depletion. Here, we are more clearly in "phase two." The elites are engaged in gathering the remaining oil resources for themselves, while denying the problem and redirecting the anger of the public against specific ethnic, political, and religious groups. Phase three might take the shape of a desperate rush toward nuclear energy.


I know that all this is a little cynical (a lot), but it seems to me to make sense and to provide us with a working model for what's happening and why. Then, supposing it is a good model, what should we do to avoid the worse? That's something that we should discuss. Anyone has ideas?


Friday, July 7, 2017

What Can Governments Hide From Us? Lessons From WWII


In this post, I examine the historical case of the Russian campaign of the Italian army during WWII to discuss how effective can governments hide important facts from public knowledge. I think that these black-out campaigns can be very effective and it may well be possible that they are being enacted right now. 


Governments are not known to be benevolent organizations. On the contrary, when it is question of ensuring their own survival, they are ruthless. And they are well known to lie to people. The case of the "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq is well known but, at least, eventually it became clear that it was a lie: these weapons didn't exist. But it often easier to hide existing things than to create non-existing ones.

The internet is full of claims that governments or some of their institutions are engaged in this kind of lies. They are hiding from us the spreading of poisons in the sky in the form of chemtrails, the building of hidden concentration camps for political opponents, the fact that aliens landed and were captured, the fact that oil is really a renewable resource constantly recreated underground by abiotic processes, that climate scientists are engaged in a worldwide conspiracy to scare us first and then enslave us. The latest one is about "child slaves on Mars".

These claims are usually described in terms of "conspiracy theories" and most of them are so hopelessly naive and absurd that they raise the legitimate suspicion that they are part of some targeted disinformation campaign. But it seems to be easy to convince people to believe in the weirdest ideas, so maybe these legends are spontaneous evidence of this tendency. Still, it is also true that conspiracies do exist and that governments are often actively engaged in them (I can propose at least one well-documented case). So, we may ask ourselves a very general question: can governments hide important things from us? Let me examine a couple of historical examples.

Perhaps the mother of all government conspiracies was the extermination of the Jews and of other ethnic and social groups during WWII. Did the German know about what was going on, at the time? The question is controversial. On one side, it is argued that the Germans had been exposed to years of aggressive anti-Jews propaganda and that they couldn't miss the fact that the Jews were disappearing from their homes. Besides, so many people were involved with the extermination program that it wasn't just possible that even ordinary citizens wouldn't be able to understand that something monstrous was going on.

On the other side, it is noted that the Germans never could read anything about the extermination in the press, only that the Jews were being "relocated to the East," which would account for their disappearance from German cities. But the main point was that the Germans who understood what was going on couldn't say that publicly. The few who did were arrested and quickly executed. And the message was clear for all the others.

Personally, I can't say much about what the average German could or could not know during WWII. But I can offer an example of a situation that I know much better: that of Italy. The Italian government didn't engage in the mass extermination of the Jews during WWII, but we can find a significant example of "media fog" with the defeat of the Italian forces in Russia, between 1942 and 1943.

Italy engaged some 250,000 men on the Eastern Front, a major effort that ended in disaster when the Italian forces were decisively defeated by the Red Army in a series of campaigns that started in November 1942. By February 1943, the Italian forces on the Eastern Front had ceased to exist. The losses are variously reported, but probably amounted to about half of the expeditionary force. It was probably the greatest defeat suffered by Italy over its history. The disaster was so great that we could consider it as sufficient to charge the commander-in-chief with criminal incompetence and have him hanged upside down. That was, indeed, the destiny of the Italian leader, Benito Mussolini, but only two years later, in April 1945, and this specific criminal act didn't seem to have played a role in the event.

So, what did the Italians know about the Russian disaster while it was happening?  For one thing, the news of the defeat in Russa never appeared in the Italian press during the war. It is instructive to follow the news as they were reported in the Italian press. Up to December 1942, there are daily reports about the Italian expeditionary corps in Russia, the "ARMIR". Then, the reports fade out. The last one that I have been able to find on the Italian newspaper "La Stampa" dates Dec 22, 1942. Afterward, reports continue coming from Russia, describing battles fought between the Germans and the Soviets, but the Italians have disappeared. It was as if the quarter million men of the army had vanished into thin air.

That doesn't mean, of course, that the Italians couldn't know at least something about what was happening on the Russian front. It would have been easy to understand that something had gone terribly wrong just from what the press did not say, that is from the disappearance of all mentions of the Italian forces in Russia. Besides, there were tens of thousands of veterans who were repatriated after the defeat: many were sick, wounded, frostbitten, or in desperate conditions of psychological shock. They were told by the government to say nothing about what they had seen in Russia, but it is unthinkable that all of them obeyed and, in any case, their presence couldn't be ignored. Yet, the "media fog" that the government had enacted was successful. Italians seemed to be unable to discuss or express their outrage at the disaster, at least as long as the Fascist government remained in control of the country. Only years after the war was over, the disaster in Russia became widely known.

A similar situation existed with the war. In the 1940s, Italy and Germany both faced what we call today an "existential threat" in the form of military annihilation. Yet, their citizens were never told, up to the last moment, that the war was being lost. Also in this case, it was not difficult to understand what was going on from what the newspapers did not say, but it seemed impossible to state it in public or to debate it.

Now, it is always difficult to generalize, but I think that these historical examples can tell us something about how governments can hide truth: simply by not mentioning it. In other words, governments cannot make the truth disappear, but they can "blur" it, marginalizing it and making it appear unimportant.

Today, the entity that we call "The West" is facing existential threats in the form of resource depletion and global warming. Yet, the mainstream media are completely silent about resource depletion and, at least in the US, they seem to be aiming at silencing the discussion on global warming. Not that people cannot know what's going on, there are plenty of blogs and discussion groups where you can learn the truth. But it remains an unofficial, marginal truth that plays no role in the general discussion. The main discussion remains dominated by concepts such as "making the country great again" and "restart growth," probably as impossible as it was for Italy to defeat the Soviet Union and the USA together, during WWII.



________________________________

Below you can see the last piece of news on the Italian newspaper "La Stampa" that mentions the "ARMIR", the Italian expeditionary force in Russia. It is dated 22 December 1942 and it only states that the defensive measures taken to contain the Soviet attacks are being successful. I was unable to find further mentions of the ARMIR in later issues that appeared during the war. By February 1943, the Italian forces in Russia had ceased to exist.





Wednesday, July 5, 2017

The "Seneca Cliff", how the concept evolved


An image taken at a recent meeting in Barcelona. You can see the evolution of the concept of "collapse", from Malthus to Forrester. The latter can be seen as the true originator of the concept that I call the "Seneca Cliff" or the "Seneca Effect



Malthus (1766 - 1834) is supposed to be the catastrophist in chief, the prophet of doom whose prophecies never came to pass. And yet, if you read what he wrote (not everyone does), you see that he never mentioned the concept, familiar to us, of "civilization collapse". Malthus was perfectly able to imagine pestilences, wars, and famines; all common occurrences at his time. But he wasn't aware of the idea that population could grow well above the "Malthusian limit" and then crash.

The idea of a cyclical pattern of growth and decline came much after Malthus, you find its origins in biological studies, with Lotka and Volterra being perhaps the first to propose it in the form of a mathematical model in the 1920s and 1930s. Later on, in the 1950s, Marion King Hubbert proposed his "bell-shaped" curve for the cycle of production of crude oil in a specific region. For us, it is a relatively well known story even though most people seem to remain convinced that - somehow - growth can go on forever.

Finally, the idea that the bell shaped curve is asymmetric was explicitly expressed in terms of a mathematical model by Jay Forrester, in the 1960s, Even though Lucius Annaeus Seneca had already proposed it in qualitative terms long before, Forrester can be seen as the true originator of the concept of "Seneca Cliff."

Over more than a century of work, humankind has developed tools that make us able to face the future. We only have a little problem: we are not using them; our current leaders don't even know that such tools exist. And so, our destiny is to slide down, blindfolded, along the Seneca Cliff.



Friday, June 30, 2017

The True Story of the Fall of Troy



According to my personal fantasy universe, Cassandra was not born in Troy. She was a Babylonian priestess who ended up in Troy after a series of weird circumstances related to the battle of Kadesh and she was adopted by King Priam and became known as his daughter. If you want to read the details, they are here, but the story that follows doesn't mention Cassandra's birthplace  and so it is compatible with the standard version.  (image from Marvel Comics)


Over time, I had learned the science of how to summon ghosts from Hell. That required some weird spells and rare materials, but it seemed to work and one of my first attempts resulted in the summoning of Cassandra, the Trojan prophetess, who told me the story of her life. Some time later, I was surprised to see her appearing all of a sudden in front of me without having done anything. 


Oh...Lady Cassandra, it is you! You scared me. 

I am sorry, you see, ghosts normally come unannounced; really, there is no way...

Well, yes, I understand. See, you are all bluish and transparent...

That's the way ghosts are.

Yes, I suppose that's true. But don't worry, it is a pleasure to see you again. 

Oh, well, it is nice to be here again. See, the Goddess seems to like you enough that she sent me here one more time. And she makes me speak this funny language.... you call it Ingliss, right?

Something like that, lady. It is a language I can understand.

But why don't you call me just Cassandra? Do you have to be so formal?

Well, after all you are the daughter of King Priam. You are a princess. 

Hmmm..... there are many stories about me. But when we move to the other side, I mean, to Hades, there are no more princes or princesses.

I think I understand. 

Hades is not a nice place. It is boring, too. So, I am happy to be here. And if you like to call me Lady Cassandra, it is fine with me. But how have you been doing?

Not so well, Lady. 

Still the same problem you were telling me last time, right?

Yes, you remember what we said last time. We call it climate change.

You told me about that. It is really a big problem. And you say it is getting worse?

Much worse.

And your kings are doing nothing, right?

I would say so, Lady. Our, well, let's call them 'kings', are doing nothing. They don't even recognize that the problem exists. 

But you told me that already. Did something change?

Yes, two years ago, something happened. The envoys of many of these, as you said, 'kings', got together in a city called Paris.....

Paris? Like one of King Priam's sons?

No, Lady Cassandra, not that Paris. It is the name of a city North of here. And these envoys agreed on doing something against this curse that befell us. To change things; to stop the curse of climate change. And the kings who had sent them agreed on that and they signed a pact that bound together almost all the people in the world.  

That seems to have been something very good.

Yes, it was good. And also, one of our religious leaders, we call him the Pope, he wrote something about this big problem of climate change we have. 

Your great priest. Maybe the Goddess spoke to him?

I am not sure about that, Lady.

Well, the Goddess speaks to everybody, even to a male priest, although she prefers female ones.

Again, Lady, I am not sure about that. But what the Pope said was very wise. And he also said that people should get together and do something about climate change. That was before the pact of Paris, and some said that it was one of the reasons why the kings agreed on the pact. 

That was good, too. But you said that something bad happened afterward?

Yes, one of our leaders.... let me call him a king. The most powerful king of all. He has carrot-colored hair, and he is burly, arrogant, and obnoxious.

That's the way kings are.

Yes, maybe you know kings better than me. Anyway, this king went to see the Pope and the Pope told him about what  - well - about what maybe the Goddess had told him. But this king said he didn't care about the Pope, he said he didn't care about the pact of Paris. He said that climate change is not a problem and that he will do as he pleases. And that he will make the country he rules great.

This is the way kings behave.

Shouldn't a good king care for his people?

Should all kings be good?

I guess you are right, Lady Cassandra. Still, I am disappointed. Many people are disappointed. Can it be that this man doesn't understand the danger of climate change? Can he really be so stupid?

I understand you, don't think I don't. See, I have had my share of meeting kings. And they are as you say. Burly, obnoxious, and arrogant. They are stupid, in a certain way, but not so stupid in another.

Lady Cassandra, you are a prophetess. Can you tell me more about this? Why do kings do these things?

Well, yes, but I have to tell you a little story.

I would love to hear it.  

So, let me see.... I already told you something of the story of Troy when the city was besieged by the Achaeans. And I told you of how the Acheans had built that big wooden thing that they had placed in front of the walls. And that the Trojans didn't know what it was and they thought it was a statue of a horse.

This is the story that everyone knows. It says that the Trojans demolished parts of the walls of the city to let the horse inside. 

Well, this is what the story says. Do you believe it?

It is a nice story, of course, but I figure there was more to it than what it tells. 

A lot more. Let me ask you a question: do you think the Trojans were stupid?

I wouldn't say that. But I guess you know this better than me. 

Yep. And I can tell you that they were not stupid. Oh, well, depends on what you mean. For people who would spend their time all clad in armor, exchanging blows with battle axes; well, you don't expect them to be very smart. But not stupid; I mean, how could it be that they demolished the walls to let this thing get in without worrying about what there was inside?

I had always wondered about that.

Well, the answer to the question has to do with what you were telling me.

About climate change?

Yes, about climate change. You were telling me about this stupid king of yours, the one with carrot-colored hair. You said he doesn't understand what the problem is. But I think it is not true. He does - at least his advisers know.

You think so? Why?

I am a prophetess, you know? Seriously, people do a lot of things that look stupid, but if you look carefully they are not so stupid. Let me go back to Troy. So, they say that the Trojans did something that doomed them - letting inside the Achaean horse. Stupid, right? Of course, if you think of "the Trojans" it is stupid. But if you think "some Trojans" then it may not be. But I have to explain this to you.

So, it all started when Hector was killed. He was Troy's best warrior and he was supposed to become the new king, to succeed his father, king Priam. Hector was a good man, overall, but not so smart, either. He was all up to fighting and upholding the honor of the Trojans. So, he went up to fight and he got killed by that big man of the Achaeans, Achilles.

That was bad for the Trojans; very bad, but the war went on. Achilles was killed by another son of Priam, that Paris I was telling you about, the one who had been so idiot to steal the wife of one of the Achaean Kings, this Helen, and so starting the whole circus. And then someone killed Paris, too. So, at this point, the oldest son of Priam took over; I mean the oldest still alive: Deiphobus, another idiot. He had this idea of marrying Helen after that Paris had died. Great idea, sure; and it did him quite some good! But let me go on.

So, after the death of Hector, the Trojans were still fighting; but some of them understood that the war wasn't going so well. But Deiphobus and the other big bosses said that those who were thinking that were defeatists and that Troy was winning. You know, it was not so easy for ordinary Trojans to understand what was going on outside the walls of the city. They only knew what the bosses were telling them. And they kept telling them, 'we are winning, there is nothing to be worried about, just keep on'.

It was the same for me. I was staying in the temple of the Goddess and I was supposed to spend my time making sacrifices and praying for the city of Troy. Boring, indeed. But I was a prophetess, you know, and I suspected that the war was not going so well.

At that time, I had befriended a priest of the temple of Apollo, his name was Laocoon. Nice man and if you ask me if I had been playing a little with him - you known what I mean - I would ask you what can a girl do when she is supposed to be a virgin priestess and there is nothing for her to do the whole day? So, we became good friends, indeed. One day, Laocoon came and he told me that Aeneas wanted to see me. This Aeneas was one of the big men of Troy. He was a warrior, but also a rich man with plenty of gold and slaves. So, I went to see him and we talked a lot. He was smart, I can tell you that.

Aeneas told me about how the war was going and I understood right away that the game was over for Troy. So, he asked me, 'Cassandra, you are a prophetess, can you tell me what we should do?' I told him, 'You don't need to ask a prophetess. We need to parley with the Achaeans before it is too late.' And he said, 'You are right, Cassandra. You will be the one doing that.' I looked at him, bewildered, and he laughed and he told me, 'aren't you a prophetess, Cassandra? You should have known what I was going to tell you.' These big men really have a twisted sense of humor. Anyway, he asked me to contact Odysseus, one of the Achaean kings, said to be the smartest of the lot.

Aeneas was no fool: I was a good envoy for Troy; a woman, a priestess, I could be seen as sort of neutral. And parleying was not going to be an easy task. The Achaeans were winning, they knew that and they wouldn't be appeased by just giving back to them that silly woman, Helen, that Paris had stolen from her husband. No, that wasn't going to work, no matter how beautiful Helen was said to be (and she was much overrated, this I can tell you). And the Achaeans knew that if they kept fighting, they could have had everything: not just Helen, but the gold of the city and its inhabitants as slaves. Still there was some space for a negotiation and that was my task. What would the Achaeans want to leave Troy standing and the Trojans alive? If we were willing to pay them a lot, maybe they would have accepted.

So, we freed an Achaean prisoner, officially he escaped, to tell Odysseus that a priestess of the Moon Goddess wanted to speak to him. And there came back a Trojan prisoner - again, officially he had escaped - and he said that Odysseus was waiting for the priestess in a certain place at night, at the rise of the moon. Which I took as a honor, because I was a moon priestess, as you know.

That was how I met Odysseus. I was accompanied by a bunch of Trojan warriors from Aeneas' retinue. It had been a mistake, as I understood later on, but Aeneas had insisted on that. Odysseus was there with some of his warriors, too. On both sides, we had these burly fellows armed to the teeth, looking at each other askance. But never mind that, as I said, Odysseus was a smart person and he wasn't there to fight and we had a nice chat. He understood what I wanted and he said that it was still possible to find an agreement if the Trojans were willing to pay. And that he wanted to discuss the price with Aeneas in person. So, I went back to Troy and I told the story to Aeneas. And he said that he would see Odysseus and that I should keep my mouth shut about this story.

This is what I did. I told nothing to anybody about having met Odysseus, nor that Aeneas was seeing him at night. Days went by and I expected something to happen. I would have imagined to see Aeneas coming up in the central square of the city, standing on a pedestal, and telling people something like, 'Fellow Trojan citizens, we found an agreement with the Achaeans. If every Trojan is willing to sacrifice some of his wealth, then the city can be saved.'

But nothing like that happened. Quite the opposite: Prince Deiphobus came up in the central square of Troy and gave a speech to the Trojans saying that the honor of the city of Troy was not negotiable, that the Gods were with Troy, that the walls were solid, and that those stupid Achaeans were all but demoralized. Victory was all but certain for Troy, it was just a question of not listening to the defeatists among us. And he said that he was going to make Troy great again. I remember that Aeneas was with him, nodding and smiling as if he agreed on every word that Deiphobus was saying.  It was weird, but what could I say?

It was at about this time that the big wooden thing appeared in the field in front of the city, the 'horse'. So, there was a lot of head scratching with the Trojans and what the hell was that? But I knew what it was: not for nothing I was a prophetess and I had studied the ways of the world. So, I went up to the walls, I looked at the supposed 'horse', and I said, 'look, that thing is a siege engine! We have to burn it down before it is too late." And there came up my friend, Laocoon, and he also said, 'look, you have to listen to Cassandra. She knows a lot of things, and she is wise. We must destroy that thing.' And some people understood what we were saying, because they knew that I was a priestess and I knew many things. And also Laocoon was known to be a smart person and people respected him a lot.

Then, disaster struck. I should have known what was going to happen, am I not a prophetess? But even prophetesses sometimes ignore things they wouldn't like to happen. So, we were in the middle of a public debate on how best to burn the wooden horse when, suddenly, some people came up and accused me of betraying the Trojans: they said that I had secretly met the Achaean king Odysseus at night. Then, they called up some of Aeneas' bodyguards and they testified that, yes, it was true. They had accompanied me to meet Odysseus at night. Laocoon tried to defend me, but people started saying that he was my lover and that we had defiled the temple of the Goddess. We had committed sacrilege and we couldn't be trusted in anything we said.

At this point, Hell broke loose, as you may imagine. I tried to say that it had been Aeneas who had sent me to meet Odysseus, but they took that as a confession of guilt. Things went kinetic, as you say in Ingliss, Laocoon was killed and I was lucky to be able to escape with my life. I took refuge in the temple of the Goddess and  King Priam protected me; he was a good man, even though he was too old to understand what was really going on.

So, I stayed put inside the temple and I can't tell you exactly what happened afterward. Maybe the Achaeans used the siege engine to smash open the walls of the city, or maybe it is true that the Trojans were so stupid to demolish the walls and let the 'horse' in. Whatever the case, when the Trojans understood the danger, it was too late. Troy went up in flames, lots of people were killed, those who survived were taken as slaves, including me; I became the slave of the big boss of the Achaeans, King Agamemnon. Deiphobus, too was killed. In a sense, he got what he deserved: killed by King Menelaus, Helen first husband. You know the story? Helen told Menelaus where Deiphobus was hiding and Menelaus went in and hacked Deiphobus to pieces. And then, Helen undressed in front of Menelaus and she gave herself to him in that same room, with the floor still wet of Deiphobus' blood. At least this is what they told me - but I think it is true. I knew that woman. She was, well, in Ingliss you use this term, 'female dog', right?

It is right, we use a term with that meaning, Lady Cassandra. 

But those are details. The point of the story is about Aeneas. You know the story, don't you?

They say that Aeneas escaped from Troy when the city fell, yes. 

Not just him. Several Trojan notables; with their families, their gold, their slaves, their weapons. And not a single Achaean would raise a finger against them. Come on, they even had boats waiting for them to take them away from the mess; all the way to Italy. You see? It had been all prepared. It was all planned from the first time when Aeneas met Odysseus, and I came to think that it had been even before I had spoken with Odysseus. It was a trap, a perfect trap. And the people of Troy fell in it so perfectly. They were completely fooled!

You say that Aeneas betrayed the Trojans? How could that be? He was said to be so pious.

Pious, yeah, sure. And even the son of the Goddess herself; that was what was said of him. I think there is a world in your language, in Ingliss... you say 'propaganda', right?

Well, yes. we use that term, propaganda. I didn't know that it could be such an old idea.
  
Yes, people are always the same, they are easy to sway. I suppose they haven't changed much in your times.

No, Lady, propaganda is still very much used with us. 

Yes, the poor people of Troy were fooled. It was all propaganda, it was all agreed. Even that I was to become the mistress of King Agamemnon. I had been agreed before everything happened. You see? Most of the people who kept saying that Troy was going to win the war understood perfectly well that it wasn't true. But they had to keep saying that Troy was going to be great again if they wanted to fool the Trojans. And they succeeded beautifully. They saved themselves and the other Trojans died or were enslaved.

Well, it is a way of seeing the story that I had never imagined. But it sounds true. And you think it is related to our times?

Yes, you were telling me about this king of yours, the one who has carrot-colored hair. You say that he denies that you have a problem?

That's what he does. People say he is not very smart. 

Maybe he is not so smart, yes. He may be like Deiphobus, I mean, he may really believe that there is no such a thing as a climate change problem. But I bet he is not the only one. Am I right?

You are right. After all, you are a prophetess!

That was an easy prophecy! But I think that the people around him, around that silly king, I am sure they are lying. They know very well what's happening. And they are fooling him and many others. They have to if they want to save themselves.

You think so?

Yes, of course. You have been telling me that because of this 'climate change' a lot of people will die, right?

Well, I hope they won't....

You know better than that. You told me about seas rising, droughts, heat waves, storms and more. Do you think people won't die because of all that?

Yes, it is a possibility.

And those who will die will be the poor, right. Do you think your kings care about the poor?

Well, I guess, really, you are right, but.....

Your carrot-haired king may be part of the plot or not. It doesn't matter. But those behind him are surely planning to move to safer and cooler places. And leave the poor to drown or to starve - or to die of overheating.

I am not sure I believe you, Lady Cassandra.

As if it were something new......

Oh, I am sorry, Lady. I didn't mean to offend you. 

You are not offending me. After all, I am Cassandra, the prophetess nobody believes.

Really, I am sorry. I shouldn't have said that. 

No, no.... don't worry. I understand you. Some things that I say are really difficult to believe.

But are you really supposed to be always right?

It is part of the curse of being a prophetess. You should know that; you told me that you are a kind of - say - prophet, with those 'models' you make. You told me that people don't believe in what you say.

It is part of the job, indeed. So, what should I do?

The Goddess may help you, but in the end it is for the Moirai to decide.

You mean the fate?

Yes, in Ingliss you use that word. There is not much you can do. The Moirai, the Fate, will decide.

I see.....

You look sad. I am sorry.

You don't have to be sorry, it is not your fault. 

Let's see.... actually, there is something you could do. Why don't you offer me a beer?

A beer? But you are a ghost, Lady Cassandra! 

But I always loved beer. And there is no beer in Hades. I was thinking, well, the Goddess is very powerful and I could pray her a little....

That's strange, Lady Cassandra, you are not bluish and transparent anymore. 

See? I told you that the Goddess is powerful.

Well, you look real now. That much I can say. 

And I think I could drink a beer. Do you have beer, here?

Yes, we do. It would be a pleasure. 

But, now that I think about it, don't you think I am dressed a little strange? Wouldn't people be surprised at seeing me?

Let me see... Linen tunic, woolen cape, golden arm rings, golden bracelets, and leather sandals. No, I don't think people will be surprised. You may be more surprised at seeing how some of my students are dressed! 

So, let's go for that beer! Hades can wait.


Monday, June 26, 2017

Facing the Climate Bear: The "Camper's Dilemma"



Imagine that you and a friend are facing a bear in the middle of a forest. You are both unarmed and the bear can run faster than you. What's your best strategy, cooperate or betray? I might call this situation the "Camper's Dilemma," in analogy with the well known "Prisoner's Dilemma" 



You and a friend are camping in a forest that you know is inhabited by hungry bears. Imagine that for some reason you lost contact with the civilized world and that you are on your own to get back home. You are both unarmed and bears can easily outrun you and kill you. What's the best strategy for you to survive? Here are some considerations on the "Camper's Dilemma" based on the level of danger.


1. Danger is low -> collaboration. You know that there are bears in the forest, but you have no evidence that there is one close by. You and your friend agree that you should cooperate and make as little noise as possible, leave no food leftovers, give no evidence of your presence.

2. Danger is high -> deception. You saw the bear the bear saw you, but your friend didn't. You don't tell what you saw to him, on the contrary you deny having seen any bear around. At the first occasion, you tell your friend that you will take a short walk in the forest, looking for berries, while he should take care of the camp until you come back. As soon as you are out of sight, you start running as fast as you can, leaving your friend to face the bear, alone. Your friend may run faster than you, but this strategy gives you a good start, at least.

3. Danger is immediate -> competition. The bear suddenly appears in front of you, attacking. You and your friend may try to fight the bear together, or you may fight each other so that the loser will not be able to run away. In any case, there is no space for cheating anymore: it is pure emergency.


You may know the story of the two campers and the bear which has been a source of inspiration for the idea of the "Camper's Dilemma". More than that, the camper's dilemma is closely related to the model termed the "Prisoner's Dilemma." It is an operational game in which each of the two players must choose whether to cooperate or to betray the other, without knowing what strategy the other will be choosing. Betrayal brings a benefit to one of the players only if the other player cooperates. If both defect, they both suffer heavy penalties. Below, you can see an example of the payoff matrix for this game. 



The prisoner's dilemma game has no optimal strategy; empirical studies have shown that the simple strategy called "tit for tat" is the one that performs best in the long run, but there is no guarantee that it will always work. So, the prisoner's game reflects well the complexity and the unpredictability of the real world, although in a simplified form.


The camper's dilemma, as described here, is very similar to the prisoner's dilemma with the difference that the outcome is not just a penalty: if you lose the game, you die. The camper's dilemma is also "graded" in the sense that the best strategy depends on the level of danger. In a low danger situation, both players should easily understand that collaboration is the best strategy. But, as danger becomes more and more evident and immediate, betrayal starts to look like a better strategy. 

It doesn't seem to me (but I may be wrong) that theorists have examined this kind of game, so for the time being these considerations must remain qualitative. They are nevertheless enlightening when applied to the current world situation, in particular if we think of the bear as "climate change" whereas the campers are entire populations or social strata. 

For instance, the Paris climate treaty may be seen as part of a collaborative strategy, but considering that it has been always know that it is insufficient to avoid the climate disaster, it may also be seen as part of a deception effort. At the same time, some governments have taken an more or less explicitly denialist stance; for instance the US, Canada, and Russia. These governments may believe that their geographical situation may allow them to outrun the climate bear or, anyway, that they have sufficient resources to avoid the worse, at least for a fraction of their population. As I discussed in a previous post, some of the world's elites may have already reached the conclusion that the climate bear is coming fast and that they might as well save themselves by moving to some higher ground, while letting the poor drown or be boiled alive

Of course, this interpretation cannot be proven and it may well be wrong. It is also true that there is still space for a collaborative strategy that would solve the climate problem by means of a fast energy transition. Nevertheless, the camper's dilemma game provides a perspective of the current situation that I wouldn't dismiss as impossible, and not even as unlikely. . 





Note: this post was inspired by a story told by Filippo Musumeci, published (in Italian) on the blog "Effetto Risorse"

Who

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). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" to be published by Springer in mid 2017