Sunday, September 24, 2017

We’ll always have the Sun: solar energy and the future of humankind

Above, Rick (Humphrey Bogart) speaks to Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) in the movie “Casablanca” (1942). Here, the sentence has been a little changed. In the film, the phrase refers to “Paris”, not “The Sun”. But in the debate on the future of civilization, there is only one certainty: we’ll always have the sun.

This post was originally published on Aug 15, 2017 by INSURGE INTELLIGENCE, a crowdfunded investigative journalism project for people and planet. Support us to keep digging where others fear to tread.

In this eight contribution to the INSURGE symposium, ‘Pathways to the Post-Carbon Economy’, Ugo Bardi, Professor of Physical Chemistry at the University of Florence, Italy, reflects on the importance of transitioning away from fossil fuels and how it, inevitably, means we should engage with some form of renewable energy. But, he points out, while such a transition requires us to recall the fundamental role of the Sun as the primary energy source for all our activities, it also means we will have to re-think and re-do civilization-as-we-know-it. Whatever happens, much of what we have taken for granted in our consumer-centric societies today will be increasingly meaningless in the post-carbon future. What we do know, concludes Bardi, is that we will always have the Sun: the question remains — what will we, and can we, do with it?

As it becomes clear that we must get rid of fossil fuels before they get rid of us, a question is being asked over and over:
“Can renewables replace fossil fuels?”
Some people have been sufficiently impressed by the rapid decline of the price of renewable energy that their answer is not only, “yes,” but that switching to renewables will be fast and painless. It will come simply as the result of the free market mechanisms, at most aided by a little magic called “carbon tax”. Then, economic growth will continue unabashed in the best of worlds.
Others take the opposite position. Noting that renewables require large investments in the energy infrastructure, that they don’t easily produce liquid fuels, that they can’t support energy “on demand,” and more, they conclude that renewables are useless; an illusion, if not an outright scam.
This viewpoint is further split in two views. One seems to welcome the collapse of an energy-starved economic system and the associated return to the Middle Ages, or even to extinction. The other simply sees fossil fuels as a good thing to be kept and subsidised. After all, CO2 is food for plants, isn’t it?
The debate is raging and, as usual in debates, rational arguments seem to have little weight in them, and we could go on forever debating arcane technological details.
But I would rather point out that maybe all this discussion is based on a wrong question.
Axiom 1: Asking if renewable energy can replace fossil energy implies that the only possible civilization is our civilization as it is nowadays, including SUVs parked on every driveway and vacation trips to Hawaii by plane for everyone.
But keeping these incredibly expensive wastes of energy will obviously be impossible in the future, even imagining that we were able to stay with fossil fuels for another century or even more.
We are hitting so many physical limits on this planet that the question is a completely different one. I could frame it as this:
How can renewable energy help us in getting rid of fossil fuels, while maintaining at least a minimum indispensable supply of energy to society?”
Seen in these terms, are renewables a help or a hindrance? I would say that they are not only a help, but a big help and a great hope. To explain this point, I think we need another little reframing.
Rather than speaking of “renewables”, I would use the term “solar energy.”
This term includes technologies which directly exploit sunlight, such as photovoltaics, and those which do that indirectly, such as wind turbines (this definition doesn’t include geothermal, but it is a detail).
Once we frame the question in this way, we see the following:
Axiom 2: Solar energy has been used by humans for a long, long time. Agriculture is the most ancient technology directly using sunlight, while windmills and watermills are indirect methods of exploiting sunlight, used for millennia in the past. What we have been doing recently consists of developing more efficient ways to do exactly what we have been doing in our remote past.
Photovoltaic energy is a sophisticated way to duplicate in a solid-state devicewhat biological photosynthesis does in the leaves of plants. The modern wind turbines are upgraded versions of the old windmills. The same is true for hydroelectric plants, today more efficient than in the past, but still basically the same.
The real oddball in the panorama is fossil energy; something that has been around in a massive form for just a couple of centuries and that will disappear in a century or less, no matter what dreams of energy dominance may be popular in Washington D.C.
This said, we could examine the arguments against solar energy that pervade the debate. For instance, that modern solar energy technologies are not really renewable because they cannot produce enough energy to replace themselves after their lifetime is over. Or that their energy yield is so low as to make them useless. Or that they need rare minerals that will soon run out. Or that an industrial civilization can’t survive without having energy “on demand”, that is available 100% of the time, always at the same price. And many others.
Here, in part we are dealing with people who can’t conceive a world different than the one they are used to. In part, we are dealing with objective difficulties which, however, may have some technological solutions.
As an example, consider the common objection of the low energy yield of solar energy. It is often expressed in terms of “EROI”( (energy return on investment) a concept made popular by professor Charles Hall.
It is said that the EROI of solar energy is very low in comparison to that of fossil fuels and that for this reason solar energy is useless. But this is just wrong.
Let me ask you a question: what was the EROI of fossil fuels at the time of the Apollo program that sent men to the moon? Was it an order of magnitude larger than that of solar energy, as it is sometimes said? No, it was around 20–30, about the same EROI that we have today for wind turbines and not much larger than that of photovoltaics.
Surely, then, these values are not so small as to make solar energy useless.
As another example, it is easy to find on the web that solar cells need expensive and rare elements. Once again, this is not the whole truth, as solar cells can be made using only materials that are common in the earth’s crust, mainly silicon, aluminum and oxygen.
We could spend a lot of time in this discussion, but the point that I would like to make here is this:
Insight: All these objections have been unable to disprove that solar energy today is a set of robust and economically viable technologies.
The most advanced ones (solar and wind) account for a significant, although still small, fraction of the world’s energy mix, about 6% of the global electric power production and around 1.6% of the total energy consumption.
Can they grow to 100% without the world’s economy collapsing and without climate going over the “tipping point”? They could, according to a study carried out by Sgouridis, Csala, and myself.
We used the term “Sower’s Strategy” for a concept analogous to what ancient farmers did, saving some of their current harvest for the future harvest.
Insight 2: We found that it is possible to move to a fully solar-powered society without collapsing and without wrecking the climate system, if we are willing to use the same strategy: that is, investing in solar energy a sufficiently large fraction of the energy produced today.
Will we follow the wisdom of our ancestors and save enough of our current energy harvest for our future?
Or will we waste our remaining resources in the desperate attempt to keep using fossil fuels, even putting our trust in untested and potentially counterproductive technologies such as carbon capture and sequestration? To say nothing about the risks and the uncertainties involved with a possible return to nuclear energy.
As usual, it is impossible to say what the future has in store for us, but there remains a certainty: we’ll always have the sun.

Ugo Bardi is Professor of Physical Chemistry at the University of Florence, Italy. His research interests encompass resource depletion, system dynamics modeling, climate science and renewable energy. He is a member of the scientific committee of ASPO (Association for the Study of Peak Oil) and blogs in English on these topics at “Cassandra’s Legacy”. He is the author of the Club of Rome report, Extracted: How the Quest for Global Mining Wealth is Plundering the Planet (Chelsea Green, 2014) and The Limits to Growth Revisited (Springer, 2011) and "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017).

Friday, September 22, 2017

The Hubbert Game - Teaching the Science of Collapse

My students playing the "Hubbert Game." It is a simple operational game illustrating the exploitation of a non-renewable resource and the phenomenon of overshoot and collapse. 

In my presentation at the recent Summer Academy of the Club of Rome, I stressed the point that the major stumbling block we face in managing the ongoing crisis is that most people, and in particular policymakers, lack the concept of "overshoot." As a consequence, they also lack the concepts of peaking and collapsing (also in the form of the "Seneca Cliff"). It is not surprising: the idea of overshoot and collapse is a new development in the science of complex systems. It goes back to a little more than 50 years ago when it was proposed first by Jay Forrester. Earlier on, it simply didn't exist.

So, most people think of the exploitation of natural resources in linear terms, assuming that we can continue extracting oil (a physical thing) as long as we have money (a non-physical thing) to pay for it. When depletion is taken into account, it is done only on the basis of oversimplified and misleading models such as the "resources to production ratio." It is something I have termed "Tiffany's fallacy" (the mineral pie is shrinking and most of what's left is in the sky).

The recent summer academy of the Club of Rome in Florence brought back to my attention the need of exposing people to the basic concepts of the dynamics of real bioeconomic systems. Young people who care about the survival of humankind and of the earth's ecosystem know a lot of things, but I noted that they too often miss the concept of overshoot and collapse. That's something that I had already noted years ago and it had led me to develop an operational game called "The Hubbert Game."

The Hubbert game is a simple boardgame that needs no computers and no special equipment except some black and white counters used to mark oil fields. It is designed to be run in a few hours at most and to provide to players a "hands-on" experience of what means to run a company that exploits non-renewable resources. Players take the role of oil companies which compete in exploiting the gradually dwindling oil resources. The game is competitive and some versions involve strategic choices; the game surely tends to capture the attention of the players. The final result is always the same, the pattern of oil production, in the game as in the real world, tend to look like the "bell shaped" Hubbert curve.  You can see the curve below, hand drawn from the results of a game session

The Hubbert game is described in detail in a paper that I presented at the 2016 conference of the System Dynamics Society in Delft, Holland. There is also an earlier version which I uploaded on the "" site. As I keep experimenting, new versions may appear.

In the meantime, the game seems to be enjoying a certain popularity, at least in Italy. It has been used by my colleague Luca Pardi for his class in environmental economics at the University of Florence. It was played in a high school and it is planned for the "night of the researchers" to be held this Sep 29 in Trento. You see here a snapshot of the flyer of the game for that occasion (h/t Luciano Celi and Luca Pardi).

Will this game have some positive effects? Well, in an earlier post I said that we need something like "a new axial age" to develop the tools we need to manage the earth's ecosystem (which includes humankind as an element). So, it is hard to think that a boardgame will save the world. But it is a step in the right direction and, after all, it is fun!

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Young activists: are they enough to save the world? Notes from the 1st Summer School of the Club of Rome

Above, an image that I think summarizes the spirit of the 1st Summer School of the Club of Rome, held this September in Florence. A lot of good will, enthusiastic young (and not so young) people, a stellar cast of speakers, in-depth discussions, and state of the art world modeling. But is it enough?

A week of full immersion in the First Summer School of the Club of Rome. Truly an experience for many reasons. One was the sheer physical fatigue of keeping track of everything. If you are one of the organizers of an event like this one, you can't even think that something could go wrong while many sessions are taking place together and people move from one place to another. I don't think that in my life it ever happened to me that I went to bed and I couldn't sleep because I was too tired. But, this time, yes, it happened.

Was it worth it? As far as I can say, yes. It was something that I would have loved to attend when I was in my 20s; it would have changed my life. Actually, my life changed anyway, as human lives tend to do. But for these young people (some young at heart) it was surely a positive experience. I was only marginally involved in assembling the school's program, but the staff of the Club of Rome did a great job in putting together a number of high level speakers and also organizing plenty of space for seminars and informal discussion. It was also a good idea to break the school in two halves, with the Sunday in between left free for the social program and for participants to relax and enjoy their time together. We offered them a chance to visit places that the ordinary tourist has no time to see. From the "Skeleton Room" of the "La Specola" science museum to the Roman Theater on the Hill of Fiesole and much more, including an "archeological dinner" where they were served the food that the ancient Etruscans ate (or that we believe they ate; the archaeology of cuisine is an iffy matter). Maybe these people won't change the world by themselves alone, but I think they will at least try. For sure, they will have a hard time; much harder than we had at their age. At least, they have been warned on what to expect.

In a series of posts on the Cassandra blog (just scroll down), you'll find descriptions and impressions of some of the talks. In this post, here are a few pictures to give you some idea of the friendly atmosphere of the Academy.

The Rector of the University of Florence, Luigi Dei, inaugurates the academy.

Ice-breaking games with the Secretary General of the Club of Rome, Graeme Maxton 

The discussion was always lively, with plenty of questions and comments during and after the talks. Here, the participants are crowding to ask question to Chandran Nair.

Testing state of the art world models in an interactive session. With Ilaria Perissi (red shirt) and Jordi Solé (standing with gray shirt)

Some participants Trying a "lampredotto" (organ meat) sandwich, a traditional Florentine food.

The skeleton room of the La Specola Museum, with curator Gianna Innocenti.

Visiting the Wax Room of the Specola museum. These ancient wax pieces had an important role in the progress of anatomy a few centuries ago. Now they are mainly a curiosity, but they have historical value and they are surely impressive. 

Some of the participants explore the ruins of the ancient Roman Theater of Fiesole

The Etruscan dinner: it included some plain food such as eggs, that seem to have been an Etruscan favorite dish, to reconstructions of the ancient "garum" fish sauce and something called "scottiglia", which is a curious mix of meat and strange sauces that (maybe) the Etruscans would eat.

And, finally, the traditional group photo in front of the university building of Via Capponi, in Florence

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Do we need a new "Axial Age" to find our place in nature? Peter Brown speaks at the 1st Summer Academy of the Club of Rome in Florence

Peter Brown of McGill University speaking at the Summer School of the Club of Rome in Florence, september 2017.

We might summarize our present human situation by the simple statement: In the 20th century, the glory of the human has become the desolation of the Earth. And now, the desolation of the Earth is becoming the destiny of the human. From here on, the primary judgment of all human institutions, professions, programs and activities will be determined by the extent to which they inhibit, ignore or foster a mutually enhancing human-Earth relationship. —Thomas Berry (Cited by Peter Brown in "Ethics for Economics in the Anthropocene")

We are deeply stuck in a wrong paradigm. Nature - or the ecosystem, if you prefer - is not, and never was, a "resource" for humankind to grab for free. We are part of Nature and if we don't respect Nature, then everything we do will be wrong and will damage ourselves as well as all living beings.

This was the basic point of Peter Brown's talk at the Summer School of the Club of Rome in Florence. I don't know if I can call it the best talk of the whole school, although I am tempted to do so. Surely, in any case, it was the one that went more in-depth into the core of the challenges we are facing. Eventually, it is all a question of ethics. And ethics means first of all respect. If we don't respect the Earth, we are not worthy of respect ourselves.

This is a fundamental point that underlies most of the current struggle. And to overcome the present impasse what we need, I think, can be summarized in the goals of the American Teilhard Association:

  1. A future worthy of the planet Earth in the full splendor of its evolutionary emergence.
  2. A future worthy of the human community as a high expression and a mode of fulfillment of the earth’s evolutionary process.
  3. A future worthy of the generations that will succeed us.

Clearly, these goals cannot come out of the postulates of current economics, nor from the optimization of an agent's utility function. It is something that goes beyond mere mechanical considerations. It is a new vision of the universe, something that I could call "A New Axial Age", a term that Peter Brown didn't use in his talk but that came to my mind while I was listening.

As you know, the term "axial age" encompasses the great changes that took place during the 1st millennium BC. Maybe the term has been overused with time, but it true that those centuries were a time of spiritual awakening, of a new vision of humanity that took place simultaneously and independently all over Eurasia, from China to Greece. And many of our current religious beliefs were laid down during that age.

It may be time for a new leap in human consciousness. A step to a higher level of understanding that would take us to include in our religious view not just our fellow human beings but all the fellow creatures inhabiting this planet. It might be a new religion if we were to follow a path similar to the ancient axial age. Or it might be a revisitation of our existing religions. After all, it is what Pope Francis is doing with Christianity, emphasizing the brotherhood (or, better, sisterhood) of all beings in an intuition that Francis of Assisi had already seen several centuries ago. 

At this point, I am sure that I have overinterpreted Peter Brown's talk, but I think this is the gist of the line of reasoning he was following. In any case, to make sure you understand Brown's ideas, here is a video of him that seems to me to be very similar to his presentation in Florence.

You may also be interested in Brown's paper "Ethics for Economics in the Anthropocene"

Monday, September 18, 2017

Reducing inequality: does it still make sense in a world of more than seven billion people? Kate Pickett's talk at the Summer Academy of the Club of Rome in Florence

Kate Pickett spoke at the Summer Academy of the Club of Rome, in Florence, on Sep 9, 2017. (the picture above is from another meeting)

Inequality is a subject rarely touched in the mainstream debate. Is probably safe to assume that the general public doesn't know that inequality not only exists, but it is rapidly growing. When the subject appears, such as when you read about Bill Gates and his ilk, the issue is normally dismissed by noting that "today, the poor have cell phones and flat-screen TVs" or maybe that "life expectancy keeps increasing."

Yet, things are not so simple and inequality is not just a question of which toys people have access to. It is also well known that the rich live longer than the poor. Inequality is a relative phenomenon and it is correlated to the perception of one's status in society. Perceiving oneself as being part of a lower stratum of society has negative effects on people's health, self esteem, social skills, and more. Kate Pickett correctly noted these issues in her talk in Florence and she built up an impressive series of data showing how inequality is bad for society as a whole. It was a point that deeply resonated with her audience. 

Of course, it is unlikely that we'll ever be able to eliminate social inequality and surely Kate Pickett doesn't propose to turn our society into some kind of Marxist paradise. But, by all means, she is right when she says that it makes sense to reduce inequality or, at least, to stop its growing trends. The problem is how. Here, Pickett's talk was weak. 

Mainly, Pickett seems to propose a return to the progressive taxes of some decades ago, but a reform in this direction seems to go against the grain of everything that's happening in our world. If the rich are in control of society (and they are) how can we convince them to tax themselves more? That underlies a bigger and unsolved problem: what are the origins of the "Great U-Turn" in the early 1980s that changed the trend from diminishing to growing inuquality? We are dealing with a poorly understood phenomenon and we don't know how to act on it. 

But there is an even bigger problem with the idea of reducing inequality: it is the size of the human population. In the 1960s, the Club of Rome had started its existence on the basis of concerns for social inequality rather than those for which it would become better known later on, the limits to growth. At that time, there were less than four billion people on the Earth. But, today, the number of people has doubled to 7.5 billion and it keeps growing. The stress on the remaining natural resources has increased, just as the problem of pollution in the form of global warming and the associated climate catastrophe. 

In these conditions, how to reduce inequality? Increasing the consumption levels of the poor implies further increasing the burden on the natural system. Maybe that could be compensated by forcing the rich to reduce their consumption levels. Unlikely, to say the least, but, even if that were possible, it wouldn't change the trend of increasing exploitation of the already overexploited natural resources. Redistribute consumption is not enough, we need to drastically reduce it if we want to avoid the Seneca Cliff awaiting our civilization. 

We should have done that 50 years ago, when it was still possible and when Aurelio Peccei and other founders of the Club of Rome were proposing it. Now, it may be too late. This apparently unsolvable dilemma was examined by Jacopo Simonetta in a post that appeared on "Cassandra's Legacy" last year, reproduced below. (see also a comment by Diego Mantilla)


Social Equality and the Destruction of the Planet

Cassandra's Legacy, Thursday, June 16, 2016

by Jacopo Simonetta

Exaggerated inequality is surely a major problem in today's societies, and it keeps increasing. I, too, certainly believe that this scandal must end, but the topic of the article is another one: is it true that redistribution of wealth would have a good effect on the Earth health? Many very influential people believe this, but I am not so sure.

Evidently, affluent people consume much more than poor people do, but how much? As far as I know, there are no studies correlating the environmental impact and social classes but, as starting point, we could compare how CO2 emissions change with income. (data Word Bank and Wikipedia respectively).  


Social equity and consumption: Comparison between per capita income (in blue) and CO2 emissions (in red). 

It is clear that CO2 emissions increase with income, but less than proportionally in the central part of the curve. In fact, in very low incomes, the increase in emissions is very fast against modest increases. Then they go up rather slowly, to return to peak with the very, very rich people. Important local fluctuations are also correlated to climate, geography, local traditions, social organisation and so on. 

Now, as a mental exercise, we can take for good the statement that 1% of the global population appropriates 50% of world income. This means that about 75 million people earn an average income of 500,000 $ per capita per year. So, let us imagine that we can distribute all this wealth among the remaining 99% of the world population (let's call it "Operation Robin Hood"). This means more or less 5,000$ per capita. Even for a large part of the western middle class, this would be a big help. For the majority of people this would drastically change one's life. Billions of people would finally eat to satiety, dress decently, live inside houses, send their children to school, heal the sick and much more. People a little higher in the income ladder could get a new car, go on holidays, and so on. 

Very good, but what would be consequences for the planet? 

Let's try to analyze the question. As a rough approximation, we can start classifying humanity in four meta-categories: the very rich (let us presume they are 1%, so about 75 millions); the affluent (let us presume 1 billion people); the Middle class (according to "The Economist", about 3 billion people); the poor (may be 2 billion), and the very poor (according to FAO, about 1 billion). 

Comparing per-capita income and emissions in different countries, and assuming that there are all the social classes in each country, we can argue that the very rich produce about 20 tons of CO2 each per year. The affluent 10 tons each; the middle 6 tons each, the poor 2 tons each, and the very poor 0,1 tons each. For a total amount of about 36 billion tons of CO2. “Operation Robin Hood" would lead to disappearance of the lower class and a perceptible improvement in the life style of the poor and the middle class. At the same time, also the super-rich would disappear, while nothing would change for the affluent people. 

And what would that mean in terms of total CO2 emissions? Well, we just multiply the per capita emissions by the total number of people per category. The result is a grand total of about 55 billions tons, that is a 50% increment with respect to the present emissions. Social equality doesn't seem to be so good for the planet.

But there is more: Operation Robin Hood would produce a sensible reduction in mortality, and probably an increment in natality too, among low wage people. So a sharp population increase, at least for one or two generations.

Evidently, that's just an example, not a realistic simulation. But the core conclusion, that a better life for the majority of people would be disastrous for the planet, is consistent with more sophisticated models available. In the 2004 edition (Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update), the Meadows group published a scenario where they supposed that since 2002 the birth rate is 2 children per woman and industrial production is equally distributed to everybody at a level 10% more than the global mean in the year 2000. It means much less for rich people and much more for the poor.

Word3 scenario with birth control and equal distribution of goods.(From Meadows et al. 2004)

Skipping the details, we can see that in this scenario there is a period of abundance that lasts some 20 years more than it does in the basic scenario (Business as Usual). But later the system collapses in a very similar way. And note that none of the people asking today for a more equal wealth distribution don't want any sort of birth rate control. We have no published scenario of what the outcome of these hypotheses wold be, but is not hard to argue that with a growing population andntemporary wealth distribution the system would collapse very quickly. 

Another model that's relevant to our topic is "HANDY, From a scientific perspective this model, derived from an ultra-famous one by Lotka and Volterra, is too simplified to represent a system as complex as an advanced society. In particular, it neglects feedbacks existing between hierarchy, social complexity, specialization and the capability of the societal system to absorb low entropy from the outside. Unfortunately, this is one of the core feedbacks which shape the evolution of human societies. This largely reduces the viability of the model and explains the absurdity of some of the scenarios proposed. Anyway, "HANDY" has the merit of being the first model to try to introduce the social element inside a dynamic model. Here are some of the results of the model.

The above result is rather absurd since it implies that the elites keep growing even after the commoners have collapse. However, on the whole, the results of this model can be seen at least as the indication that a low level of inequality tends to shape more stable and resilient societies. In my opinion, a cursory glance at history seems to confirm this hypothesis. It is consistent also with what we have said before and with Word 3. A low level of inequality produces a more cohesive society and a highly legitimate leadership which tends to lower and to extend the peak phase of a society.

But, and this is the point, social equality is not sufficient to avoid systemic collapse if society is based on non-renewable resources.

After all, we have already seen all of this in the real world. Please observe the curves of USA and China CO2 emissions from 1990 and 2010.

The US economy trudged along with a low GDP increase completely concentrated in the top class, with a deterioration of the life level in the middle and low classes. The result has been a modest reduction in emissions.

In the same time, in China the life of the large majority of people improved and emissions skyrocketed. Because of that, the population too increased, in spite of a low birthrate. Just imagine to duplicate the China experiment: do you really believe that the Planet will survive?


It is true that billionaires are rich and I am not; this makes it possible that they are greater experts than me about money and power. But, nevertheless, it seems to me that, historically, smart leadership have always managed to redistribute a part of their revenue in ways useful to consolidate their legitimacy and hence their political power. It means that a partial redistribution of incomes would be to the advantage, first of all, of the top class people. But this is a lesson that the present day élite, largely consisting of pirates and sociopaths, has apparently forgotten.

Secondly, such action surely would improve the life of the poor, but just for a short time because, if done worldwide, the experiment would end in an unimaginable global catastrophe. Does this mean we have to be thankful to our kleptocrats? I don't believe so. It means that the reduction of inequalities must be done by reducing the income of the very rich and not by improving the commoners' wages. But this perspective is refused by everyone: right and left, south and north, up and down.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Investment as Commitment. Tim Jackson at the Summer School of the Club of Rome in Florence

Tim Jackson speaks at the 1st Summer School of the Club of Rome in Florence, Sep, 2017 (image courtesy of Daniel Reinhardt)

There have been several interesting talks at the Summer School on Sustainability in Florence, but the one by Tim Jackson has been among the most focused and relevant ones. Jackson is the author of the book "Prosperity Without Growth"  (2017) and he goes straight to the core of the problem, which lies in our financial system. We are geared for growth, everything in the system pushes for growth, all the financial structures are rewarding growth. And, as Jay Forrester was perhaps the first to note, economic growth is taking us straight to the Seneca Cliff. 

So, we need to re-examine the basics of our economic system and propose ways to defuse the ticking bomb that we ourselves have created. There is much to be discussed about Jackson's proposals, but one that I noted, in particular, was the concept of "investment as a commitment." I asked Jackson how this is supposed to be different than the current way of investing, and his answer was that, today, investors tend to see the market as a "gamble" in which they may gain or lose; but their main motivation is for big, short-term gains. Clearly, this is not the way that will take us to a saner and safer world. 

The key point of the whole thing, as I see the situation, is in the financial system. If we found a way to divest from fossil fuels and to move financial resources to the transition in the form of renewable energy and the related infrastructure, then there is still hope to avoid the Seneca Cliff, at least in its most brutal form. The question, then, is how to move money to some kind of "investment as a commitment"; investing for something that will last for some time and provide a steady return, not necessarily a spectacular one. 

With Jackson, I discussed the idea of money which steadily loses value with time, or "expires" after a certain length of time. Or also to the old Sumerian idea of "amargi", periodic debt cancellation; a tradition that later led to the Hebrew Jubilee. Possibly, this kind of reforms would lead people to invest in real things. Is it possible? Hard to say. Maybe someone has other ideas? 

Saturday, September 16, 2017

The Donut Has a Hole in The Middle: Kate Raworth Speaks at The Summer Academy of the Club of Rome in Florence

Kate Raworth speaks at the 1st Summer Academy of the Club of Rome in Florence, Sep 2017

Kate Raworth is best known, nowadays, for her book titled "Doughnut Economics, Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist." In Florence, she gave a very professional presentation that was very appreciated by the participants. But I remained unconvinced.

The gist of Raworth's idea is that, historically, economics as a science has been shaped in such a way to look like physics; considered by the founders of economics as an example to follow. According to Raworth, this interpretation has distorted economics, making it unable to describe the real world and to do anything to avoid the troubles we are facing, from inequality to financial collapses. 

This is a correct position: economics tends to have an approach similar to that of the physics of 19th century (or even older). It is an approach that works well for simple, linear systems, such as Newton's apple when it falls down. But Newtonian physics cannot describe the biology of an apple, just as it can't describe the behavior of the complex, non-linear system we call "the economy". 

So far, so good: a lot of people are complaining about the shortcomings of the current interpretation of Economics; the problem is what to replace it with. It would seem to be obvious to use the modern approach based on the science of complex systems, sometimes called "biophysical economics", pioneered by the authors of the "Limits to Growth" study of 1972. It is not an easy approach, but it seems to be bringing results

The problem with Raworth's book - and with her speech - is that it correctly identifies the problem, but provides no credible alternative. The book is full of qualitative diagrams and discoursive suggestions, but few real world data. Many of the recommendation that Raworth provides are attractive, but they are never quantified, just as the "doughnut" that gives the title to the book. It is a nice diagram, but how to apply it in practice?

As I said, I remain unconvinced about this doughnut idea. It seems to be lacking something fundamental; maybe it is because it has a hole in the middle. 

In the following, I reproduce my previous comment on Raworth's book. 

by Ugo Bardi

Doughnut Economics: a step forward, but not far enough

Doughnut Economics, by Kate Raworth (Chelsea Green, 2017) is an interesting book that goes in the right direction in the sense that it promotes a circular economy, But it leaves you with the impression that it missed that extra step that would have led it to define the goal in the right way. Bridging the gap between standard economics and biophysical economics is still far away.

So, what is this "Doughnut" that gives the title to the book? Initially, I had imagined that it was supposed to be a sort of mandala representing the concept of circular economy. But that doesn't seem to be the case: circular mandalas often represent the cyclical movement of a wheel, but the doughnut doesn't (as, indeed, most doughnuts are not supposed to be used as wheels). Here is how it is represented in the book:

It is described as "a radically new compass for guiding humanity this century." Ambitious, to say the least, but how is that supposed to work, exactly? Maybe I am missing something, but I not sure I can understand why the numerous concepts appearing in the figure should be arranged in a "doughnut."

The problem with the doughnut is not so much understanding why it is shaped like a doughnut, but what it lacks. Look at the outer ring; you will see 10 sectors, all related to pollution: climate change, ocean acidification, chemical pollution, etc. Something is conspicuously missing and it is not a minor element of the overall picture. It is natural resources and, in particular, non-renewable resources (*)

Natural resources, their depletion, and the related concept of "overshoot" are not just missing from the doughnut, they go mostly unmentioned and unnoticed in the whole book. To give you an example, Raworth mentions only once the 1972 study "The Limits to Growth" that was the first to pinpoint the resource problem. In a discussion of less than two pages, I think her position can be summarized by the following statements:
Mainstream economists were quick to deride the model's design on the basis that it underplayed the balancing feedback of the price mechanism in markets. If non renewable resources became scarce, they argued, prices would rise, triggering greater efficiency in their use, the wider use of substitutes, and exploration for new sources. But in dismissing World 3 and its implied limits to growth , they too quickly dismissed the role and the effect of what the 1970s model simply called pollution ... World 3's modeling of pollution turned out to be prescient.... recent data ... find that the global economy seems to be closely tracking its business-as-usual scenario.
As it is often the case in this book, Raworth's statements need some work to be interpreted because they are always nuanced; if not vague, as when she says one should be "agnostic" about economic growth (**). Here, the interpretation seems to be that The Limits to Growth may have been right, but only because it took into account pollution. Instead, its treatment of non-renewable natural resources was wrong because depletion can be completely neutralized by market factors. Raworth doesn't seem to realize that she is contradicting herself, here: if the "business as usual" scenario produced good results in terms of comparison with the real world's economy, it is because it contained depletion as a major constraint. World 3 could also be run in the hypothesis of infinite natural resources, with pollution the only constraint, but the results would not be the same.

That's the thread of the whole book: natural resources are not a problem; we should be worried only about pollution. Raworth doesn't link the concept of the circular economy to recovering non-renewable resources; she proposes only in relation to abating pollution, with the corollary that it also brings about also better social equality. This is not wrong; it is true that a cyclical "regenerative" economy would be able, in principle, to reduce or eliminate pollution. Still, it is curious how the question of mineral resources is so conspicuously missing in the book.

Kate Raworth is described in the book flap as a "renegade economist", but she still reasons like an economist. The idea that the price mechanism will make depletion always irrelevant is old and it goes back to the 1930s, when the so-called "functional model" was presented, stating exactly what Raworth describes. The idea is that market factors will always re-adjust the system and magically make depletion disappear. By now, the functional model is deeply entrenched in the standard economic thought and there seems to be no way to dislodge it from its preheminent position.

The interesting point is that not only economists tend to dismiss depletion as irrelevant. In recent times, the whole "environmental movement" or the "Greens" have taken exactly the same position. All the debate about climate change is normally based on the supposition that minerals, and in particular fossil fuels, will remain cheap and abundant for the current century. If this is the case, it makes sense to propose to spend untold amounts of money for carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) rather than for renewable energy. It goes without saying that, if this assumption turned out to be wrong, the whole exercise of CCS, if it were undertaken at the necessary scale, would turn out to be the greatest resource misplacement of resources in human history, possibly even worse than nuclear energy.

Why is that? As a puzzle, it is difficult to solve. In principle, resource depletion and its negative effects would seem to be easy to understand. Easier than the complex chain of physical factors that leads from the emission of greenhouse gases to disastrous events such as sea level rise, heat waves, hurricanes, and the like. Maybe it is just a question of the lifetime of memes. The meme of depletion started before that of climate change and it is now in its downward trend. Whatever the case, we seem to be locked in a view of the world that misses some fundamental elements of the situation. Where this special form of blindness will lead us is all to be seen. 

Getting back to Raworth's book, despite the criticism above I can also say that it is worth reading for its broad approach and the wealth of concepts it contains. Its discussion on how the science of economics came to be what it is nowadays is, alone, worth the price of the book. Although it misses part of the problem, it may open up new views for you.

(*) You may also have noticed that the concept of "overpopulation" is missing in the doughnut. On this point, Raworth maintains in the text that if people are given the possibility of having a life free of deprivation, they won't reproduce like rabbits - a concept on which I tend to be in agreement; even though its practical implementation in the current world's situation is problematic, to say the least.

(**) The idea of a "zero growth" or "steady state" society would seem to be a fundamental feature of a circular economy, but it is barely mentioned in the book

Friday, September 15, 2017

The Way Nature Works: How Common is the Seneca Curve? Ugo Bardi's Speech at the Summer Academy of the Club of Rome in Florence

Ugo Bardi at the Summer Academy of the Club of Rome in Florence, September 2017. 

My talk at the Summer Academy of the Club of Rome was mainly a presentation of my latest book, "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017). In practice, of course, a book contains many more things than you can say in a 40 minute speech. So, I tried to concentrate on the idea that the behavior I call "the Seneca Curve" is very common, even universal. Below, you can see the Seneca Curve: things go up slowly but collapse rapidly, as the Roman philosopher Seneca said first some two thousand years ago. You may see the same curve also on the t-shirt I was wearing at the Academy.

You may have heard the old Latin motto, "Natura non facit saltus" (Nature doesn't make jumps) meaning that things change gradually, not abruptly. It may be true in many circumstances but, in practice, it is wholly normal that Nature accumulates energy potentials (as when you inflate a balloon) and then releases them all of a sudden (as when you puncture a balloon). This is the theme of the cover of the German version of my book.

There are reasons why Nature behaves in this way, but the point I made at the school was not so much about why the curve is so common but how human beings are not normally aware of it. In fact, our thought is often shaped by the idea that things will continue evolving the way they have been evolving up to a certain point. Just think about economic growth, and you'll notice how economists expect it to continue forever. It goes without saying that the economy is one of those complex systems which are most vulnerable to the Seneca collapse.

So, I tried to stress that the understanding that the Seneca Curve exists and it is common is a recent discovery. Even though Seneca had understood it by intuition already almost 2000 years ago, in its modern form it is less than a century old. It was proposed for the first time by Jay Forrester in the 1960s and it was enshrined in "The Limits to Growth" study of 1972, even though the term "Seneca Effect" was not used.

During my talk, I showed this image to evidence how our ideas on the path that complex systems follow evolved over time.

You see how modern the idea of "overshoot" (and the subsequent collapse) is. Malthus just didn't have it. Despite being often accused of catastrophism, he couldn't envisage societal collapse; he lacked the necessary intellectual tools. He was an optimist! Today, we have this concept. We know that complex systems tend not just to decline, they tend to collapse. But this perception is totally missing in the general debate.

When you mention societal collapse, there are two possible reactions. The most common one is that such a thing will never happen. Then, if you manage to convince people that it is possible, they endeavor to do everything they can to keep the system going; whatever it takes. They don't realize that when you exceed the carrying capacity of the system, you have to come back, one way or another. And the more you try to stay above the limit, the faster and the harsher the return will be. What you have to do is to ease the collapse, follow it, not try to stop it. Otherwise, it will be worse.

So, we seem to have a cultural stumbling block, here. Maybe we'll never overcome it, or perhaps yes, who knows? In older times, Emperor Marcus Aurelius, a stoic philosopher just like Seneca, had this concept rather clear. He knew that everything in the world is impermanent; including the Roman Empire.  Being a virtuous man, he did everything in his power to do his duty as Emperor. But he recognized his limits and that's what he said in his "Meditations."

We should recognize our limits, too. Follow change, don't try to stop it. Nature is changing all things we see and out of their substance it will make new things in order that the world will be ever new. This is the way Nature works.


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