Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Great Retreat from Moscow



From the Blog "Kelebek" by Miguel MartinezPosted on  by



Miguel Martinez was born in Mexico and is resident in Florence, Italy. He is a polymath and a polyglot, interested in history, politics, culture, literature, and much more. His blog is titled "Kelebek", "butterfly" in Turkish. In this post, Miguel takes the retreat of Napoleon's armies 
from Moscow as a paradigm for the present conditions of society, and of "the Left" in particular. We are retreating, but nobody seems to have realized that and "Le Pen's Grenadiers will not reduce the distribution of wood or food, no matter how cold it will get." The post is written from an Italian perspective; for the non-Italian reader it may help to know that Matteo Salvini (described as leading "paratroopers" in the post) is the leader of the extreme right "Lega Nord" Italian political party. The boldface and Italics sentences are in the original. Translated by UB.


by Miguel Martinez

On Sep 14, 1812, Napoleon entered Moscow.
It was the culmination of his Empire which had never reached such an extension in the Eastern Europe. It was also one of the rare occasions when a foreign leader had managed to occupy the Russian Capital, a feat that would never be repeated again.

So, simply by growing, Napoleon destroyed everything he had built and he caused the death by freezing of some 400,000 of his devout soldiers.

It is difficult to find a better example today of the destiny of the West.
A commenter to the Kelebek blog, Mirkhond, writes about the French elections:
“Unfortunately, the growing impoverishment of ever larger sectors of the European society surely doesn't help in generating trust for the Left who appears to be worried only about gay marriages. That gives space to Le Pen and others like her.
It is a diffuse kind of reasoning that reveals, and at the same time masks, a truth.
Let's start from what goes wrong when a single person makes a mistake. We can say, "Renzi didn't understand...."
But "the Left" is composed by millions of people in a whole continent. They don't make a mistake, they are the victims of history.
Let's go back to the image of the retraite de Russie.

Let's try to see it in this way.
The Left redistributes. It redistributes what capitalism plunders from nature, from the rest of humankind, and from future generations. Ayn Rand and other aficionados of universal destruction wrote brilliant criticism of the parasitic nature of the Left.
We haven't yet arrived to the showdown, but are already in the deflating phase of this immense bubble. More or less everyone today, except perhaps in India, where they still have to understand the point, would underwrite the simple statement, "I think my son will have a worse time than me"

In short, we have to manage the Retreat.
The Retreat is not a prophecy. We have been doing that for decades (many mark 1974 as the decisive date, but the concept is enormously complex). Not surprisingly, these are the same decades of the disorientation of the Left everywhere in the world.
Now, in the Retreat, there is little to redistribute, except for medals - Even Napoleon had coined medals expressly to remember the Retreat:

Not by chance, the principal activity of the Left today is the redistribution of medals. Be careful not to use the term "negro", try to free an Italian prisoner in Turkey (and how many Tunisian prisoners are there in Italy, for whom nobody says anything?). Scream because on Facebook someone said something unpleasant to someone else, celebrate because a multinational hires as manager a paraplegic lesbian.
Plenty of people go wild for these things. These hysterical reactions make the Left feel important and the hysterical people feel that they are defending the Western values. It is a game that makes everyone happy. 
On a more serious plane, there is the nationalistic proposal. The rest of the world may well retreat, we won't. We will keep following the path of progress, developing, building factories, being 20th century, in short.
Le Pen's Grenadiers will not reduce the distribution of wood or food, no matter how cold it will get.

This proposal is not without a certain logic, at least until we keep believing in growth, progress, and the bubble. And since the Left cannot cast doubt on these absolute truths, their reactions become as neurotic and irrational as those of the Right. 
But if instead we were to doubt these very assumptions, we would immediately see the limits of the answers given by Le Pen's grenadiers, Salvini's paratroopers, or Trump's Marines 

Monday, April 24, 2017

Evil leaders: what makes their brain work?



Benito Mussolini (1883-1945) led the Italian government from 1922 to 1943. During the final years of his career, he made a series of truly colossal mistakes that led to disaster for Italy and for him, personally. Was Mussolini mad? An idiot? Or brain damaged? We cannot say for sure, but the problem with the way the minds of leaders function seems to be more and more important in our times.



An evident trend that we observe in history is that, in times of crisis, strong leaders tend to take over and assume all powers. It has happened with the Romans, whose government system moved from democracy to a military dictatorship managed by emperors. It seems to be happening to us, too, with more and more power being concentrated in the hands of the man (rarely the woman) at the top of the government's hierarchy.

There are reasons for this trend. Human society, as it is nowadays, doesn't seem to show any sign of collective intelligence. It is not a "brain," it can't plan for the future, it just stumbles onward, exploiting what's available. So, in a certain way, it makes sense to put a real brain in charge. The human brain is the most complex thing we know in the whole universe and it is not unreasonable to hope that it could manage society better than a mob.

The problem is that, sometimes, the brain at the top is not so good, actually it may be horribly bad. Like in the movie "Frankenstein Junior," even with the best of good will, we may put abnormal brains inside society's head. Dictators, emperors, warlords, big men, generalissimos, strongmen, tycoons, and the like often indulge in killing, torturing, and oppressing their subjects, as well as in engaging in unprovoked and ruinous wars, in addition to being sexual perverts. The final result is that they are often described as the prototypical evil madman character of comics or movies, complete with bloody eyes, wicked smile, and Satanic laughing.

But simply defining leaders as "mad" or "evil" doesn't tell us what makes their minds tick. Could some of them be truly insane? Maybe brain-damaged? Or is it just a kind of personality that propels them to the position they occupy? These are very difficult questions because it is impossible to diagnose mental illness from one person's public behavior and public statements. Doing that is, correctly, even considered unethical for professionals (even though it is done all the time in the political debate).

Here, I am not claiming to be saying anything definitive on this subject, but I think we can learn a lot if we examine the well known case of Benito Mussolini, the Italian "Duce" from 1922 to 1943, as an example of a behavior that can be seen as insane and, also, rather typical for dictators and absolute rulers.

The mistakes that Benito Mussolini made during the last stages of his career of prime minister of Italy were truly colossal, including declaring war on the United States in 1941. Let me give you a less well known but highly significant example. In October 1940, the Italian army attacked Greece from Albania, a story that I discussed in a previous post. That implied having to cross the Epirus mountains in winter and how in the world could anyone think that it was a good idea? Unsurprisingly, the result was a military disaster with the Italian troops suffering heavy losses while stuck in the mud and the snow of the Epirus mountains during the 1940-41 winter, until the Germans came to the rescue - sensibly- in the following Spring. In a certain sense, the campaign was successful for the Axis because eventually Greece had to surrender. But it was also a tremendous waste of military resources that could have been used by Italy for the war effort against the British in North Africa. The blunder in Greece may have been a major factor in the Italian defeat in WWII.

The interesting point about this campaign is that we have the minutes of the government reunions that led to the ill-fated decision of attacking Greece. These documents don't seem to be available on line, but they are reported by Mario Cervi in his 1969 book "Storia della Guerra di Grecia" (translated into English as "The Hollow Legions"). It is clear from the minutes that it was Mussolini, and Mussolini alone, who pushed for starting the attack at the beginning of Winter. During a reunion held on Oct 15, 1940, the Duce is reported to have said the date for the attack on Greece had been set by him and that "it cannot be postponed, not even of one hour." No reason was given for having chosen this specific date and none of the various generals and high level officers present at the reunion dared to object and to say that it would have been better to wait for spring to come. The impression is that Italy was led by a bumbling idiot and the results were consistent with this impression.

What made Mussolini behave in this way? There is the possibility that his brain was not functioning well. We know that Mussolini suffered from syphilis and that it is an illness that can lead to brain damage. But a biopsy was performed on a fragment of his brain after his death, in 1945, and the results were reasonably clear: no trace of brain damage. It was the functional brain of a 62 year old man, as Mussolini was at the time of his death.

Mussolini is one of the very few cases of high level political leaders for whom we have hard evidence of the presence or absence brain damage. The quintessential evil dictator, Adolf Hitler, is said to have been suffering from Parkinson or other neurological problems, but that cannot be proven since his body was burned to ashes after his suicide, in 1945. After the surrender of Germany, several Nazi leaders were examined in search for neurological problems and, for one of them, Robert Ley, a post-mortem examination revealed a certain degree of physical damage to the frontal lobes. Whether that was the cause of his cruel behavior, however, is debatable.

That's more or less what we have. It doesn't prove that evil leaders never suffer of brain damage but the case of Mussolini tells us that dictators are not necessarily insane or evil in the way comics or movie characters are described. Rather, they are best described as persons who suffer from a "narcissistic personality disorder" (NPD). That syndrome describes their vindictive, paranoid, and cruel behavior, but also their ability of finding followers and becoming popular. So, it may be that the NPD syndrome is not really a "disorder" but, rather, something functional for becoming a leader.

There lies the problem: even in a democracy, a politician's first priority is being elected and that's a very different skill than that needed for leading a country. An NPD affected ruler may not be necessarily evil, but he (very rarely she) will be almost certainly incompetent. It happens not just in politics, but also in business. I could also cite the names of some scientists who seem to be affected by NPD. They are often incompetents, but they may achieve a certain degree of success by means of their social skills that allow them to accumulate research grants and attract smart collaborators. (Fortunately, they can't jail and torture their opponents!)

The problem with this situation is that, everywhere in the world, NPD affected individuals aim at obtaining high level government positions and often they succeed. Then, ruling a whole country gives them plenty of chances to be not just incompetents, but the kind of person that we describe as "criminally incompetent." The kind of disaster that can result may be illustrated, again, by Mussolini's case. During the Greek campaign the Duce ordered the Italian Air Force to "destroy all Greek cities with more than 10,000 inhabitants" as reported by Cervi and by Davide Conti in his "L'occupazione italiana dei Balcani" (2008). Fortunately, the Italian air force of the time was not able to carry out this order. But what would happen if a similar order were given today by a leader who can control atomic weapons?



Wednesday, April 19, 2017

How to talk about climate change at a party




This is a real conversation that took place a few days ago although, of course, the words that I report here can't be exactly what we said. The protagonists are me and an acquaintance of mine. Imagine us holding glasses while at a party. 


Her: Ugo, did you hear what Trump is doing? He wants to destroy the climate data!

Me: I heard something about that.

Her. But it is awful! How can they allow him to do that? Destroying the work of the climate scientists!

Me. You know this joke about Trump? The one that goes, "What happens when Donald Trump takes Viagra?"

Her. Ugo, you keep joking all the time. But don't you work in this field? Why don't you tell me what you are really thinking about climate change?

Me (looking somber). It is a long story.

Her. Seriously, I want to know what you think.

Me. Really?

Her. Absolutely. Tell me what's going on.

Me (after having taken a deep breath). The situation is out of control. The amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are larger than any value seen in the past 10 million years and it keeps rising. The icecaps are melting, droughts are destroying agriculture in the tropical regions, extreme weather phenomena are on the rise. Temperatures are rising and the commitments to keep the increase below two degrees are insufficient. In addition, we are in the middle of a mass extinction, destroying the fertile soil, poisoning everything, running out of mineral resources, and the planet is overpopulated.

Her ....................

Me ...................

Her. I read that we'll soon be able to colonize other planets, is that true?

Me. ........

She walks away, glass in hand.




Thursday, April 13, 2017

The dark side of the Internet: the "Quantum Code" scam and its implications



The alleged financial tycoon "Michael Crawford," together with his assistant, "Tasha," peddling the products of the "Quantum Code" company. You can find the whole movie at http://tqcode.com/special.php. Go ahead, click on it, it won't harm your computer. It is a fascinating trip into the depths of human gullibility. And it explains a lot about how communication really works. 



The debate on any issue is normally framed on the concept that facts matter. It is also called the "information deficit model" and it says that if you provide people with the right kind of information, say, about climate science, they will understand it and act accordingly. I don't think I have to tell you that it doesn't work like that. There are many examples of this, but some are truly luminous, such as this one by "Quantum Code." 

This clip is truly amazing: it is all based on greed and on the concept that happiness is based on conspicuous consumption. Over and over, you are shown all the perks of being filthy rich: a personal jet plane, big cars, jewels, expensive watches and, yes, a nice looking, uniformed personal assistant, Tasha, who looks totally subservient to her boss and ready to do anything for him. This clip is not just a scam, it is a work of art in its own right. Art, after all, is mostly based on some kind of make-believe process and when we watch a play by Shakespeare we don't worry about whether Hamlet is a historical character or not. 

The same is true, here, for the alleged financial tycoon "Michael Crawford." He is a purely fictional character, like Hamlet or Captain America. That's clear from the very first sentence that you hear in the clip: "my name is Michael Crawford, yes that guy you might have read about on Forbes and other financial magazines." It takes about one minute to verify that there doesn't exist anyone with that name who's described on Forbes as a financial tycoon of any kind. 

Maybe a lot of people, out there, are unable to use search engines for debunking this kind of stories. Still, anyone should be wary when hearing "Michael Crawford" telling them that he wants to make them millionaires in exchange for nothing, out of pure philanthropy. Don't they have a grandmother who told them that "there ain't no such thing as a free lunch"? To say nothing of the gaping holes in the whole idea. For instance, we are told that the software engineers of Quantum Code "make millions of dollars every year" using the code that they developed. If they can do that, why would they keep working for Quantum Code?

So, how would anyone believe in this so transparent scam? But for everything that exists, there has to be a reason for it to exist and this clip is a wonderful demonstration of how the messenger trumps the message in terms of effectiveness. The whole show is based on the quiet assurance of the actor playing "Michael Crawford". He is smooth, self-confident, a convincing fatherly figure.

Clearly, you are asked to believe the messenger, not the message. After all, it is what's normally done in politics. You vote for the candidates whom you think you can trust. And trust comes from consistency. The poor vote for the rich, as it happened for Donald Trump, not on the basis of facts or rational considerations. They do that because the personality of the chosen candidate is consistent with the fact that he (rarely she) is rich.

Note how, clearly, the fact that this clip is so easily debunked is not a bug; it is a feature (*). The script of the clip was thought from the beginning as a sucker's bait. Evidently, they want suckers and they make sure that those who fall for the trap are suckers. Later on in the clip, they ask people to pay $250 to open an account with them and I suppose that's how they make money.

But there is something strange, here. Won't they get a better success if they were a little more subtle? Why do they immediately give away the game and screen out everyone who has even a modest ability to verify facts? The trick, here, seems to be that scamming works according to special rules. Apparently, making the scam highly transparent triggers some kind of a short circuit in some people's mind. It makes them think something like, "if this guy is a scammer, why should he make the scam so obvious? Therefore, it cannot be a scam.

Strange but true. I have seen this mechanism at play many times with the story of the alleged nuclear device called the E-Cat. The many gaping holes in the narrative of this pretended energy breakthrough are consistently interpreted by believers as part of a grand strategy by the inventor to maintain secrecy about his invention. Howlers in the narrative make it more believable, not less! This is the main reason why "debunking" almost never works.

Maybe these considerations are sufficient to explain the Quantum Code story: nothing more than an average scam, although a little more transparent and aggressive than others. I don't know how much the clip may have cost to its developers, but if they manage to catch a few thousands of people who are willing to pay $250, then they can make a nice profit on their investment. Perhaps, just a few hundreds would be enough to get even. The site exists also in Italian and in other languages and is backed by an aggressive e-mailing campaign. I am sure they get a good number of contacts.

Yet, I keep thinking that there may be more to this story than just pulling a fast one on suckers. You know how the Internet works today. You are "profiled" and you are fed messages that you are supposed to be interested in. And that you are supposed to believe. So, my impression is that the Quantum Code scam is not so much about having some people paying a little money. Rather, the value of the whole enterprise may be in creating a list of "A-grade suckers" that they can sell to others. It is a list of people who are not just highly gullible, but also greedy and who have enough money to be able and willing to pay $250 for a scam. They are perfect targets for scammers everywhere. 

This list of A-grade suckers may also have a value for research purposes. How gullible are people on the average? Which fraction of the population would fall for such an obvious scam as this one? I am sure that there are government agencies who need this kind of data to calibrate their propaganda and for them it would be no problem to create this scam as a probe to launch on the Internet. The people on the list would also be a great asset for creating a political movement: they are natural born believers.

In the end, we always face the same problem: we create wonderful gadgets that we think will help us to make things better. And then we discover that, no, they are making things worse. That's the case also for the Internet. It was supposed to favor the free diffusion of information and, in some ways, it does. And that it would bring democracy by making people better informed. But we are discovering that there is a dark side to this capability: the manipulation of information that creates scams, disinformation, fake news, and all the rest. Where that will lead us remains to be seen, but the current omens are not so good (and we are still waiting for the "Internet of things" to appear!).




(*) Telling a lie from the very beginning may be described as the  "blue lie" strategy as described and explained in this article by Jeremy Adam Smith. Blue lies are statements that you know are false or at least very uncertain, but that you profess to believe - or maybe believe for real - in order to show that you belong to the tribe.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Crimea: from world war 0 to world war III



Today, we remember little about what we call the Crimean war (1853-1856), even though it was the largest war ever fought in history up to that moment. It prefigured many of the elements that would later reappear in the two world wars of the 20th century, so much that we might call it "World War 0." It included fossil fuels as the ultimate cause of conflicts, an enhanced role of propaganda, the tendency of leaders of losing control of the wars they have started, and the origin of the "Russophobia" still common in the West in our times. These elements may tell us a lot about what could be a "World War III" in our future. Above, you can see a painting by Vasilii Nesterenko (2005) that celebrates the Russian defense of Sevastopol in 1855. It makes clear that defending Crimea is not a trifling matter for the Russians, who lost some 400.000 men in the Crimean war.



There is much material scattered on the Web about the Crimean war, but nothing that I found really satisfactory in digging out the real reasons for the disaster that it was. So, this is an attempt of mine to create some order out of the chaos. It is not meant to be anything definitive: if you find the time to read it, it is up to you to judge.



One of the curious thigns of the Crimean war of 1853-1856 is that we remember so little about it. Ask anyone what the war was about, who won, who lost, and even who fought it and the answers are likely to be vague, at best. It seems that the only thing remembered today about that war is the disastrous charge of the British Light Brigade at Balaclava. It is as if we remembered the 2nd world war only for the episode of saving private Ryan.

Yet, the Crimean war was the largest ever fought up to that time. It was a global engagement that involved practically all the major military powers of the time, nearly two million combatants, and a number of casualties that can be estimated as between half a million and a million. In many ways, the Crimean war prefigured the world wars that would take place during the 20th century, especially for the increasingly important role of propaganda. For this reason, we could rightly call it "world war 0".

But why this war? And why was it so thoroughly forgotten, at least in the West? For anything that happens there has to be a reason and, also in this case, there are reasons. We may find them in a mix of economic factors and in the monumental incompetence of some leaders. But we have to start from the beginning.

Many of the struggles of the 19th century can be understood in view of the role of coal in history. Starting with the late 18th century, coal created the industrial revolution in those countries that had coal resources. That, in turn, generated an economic surplus that was used in large part to build up military power and - with it - empires. The two largest empires of the 19th century were the British and the Russian one; the first dominating the seas, the second the Eurasian landmass. England had the largest coal resources in the world and it was also the most industrialized country in those times. Russia was not so thoroughly industrialized as Britain, but it had enormous human and mineral resources that made it a major player in the world domination game. At that time, it became common to speak of "the Great Game," also well known as "Bolshoya Ikra" in Russian. And from the languages used to define the game, you can understand who were the players. It is still being played today, even though the capital of the Sea Empire has moved from London to Washington.

While the coal-powered empires were expanding, the regions that didn't have coal resources were in deep trouble. Of course, coal could be imported, but that implied having a system of canals that could distribute coal everywhere. No canals, no industry. No industry, no military power. That was the situation of the Ottoman Empire, called at the time "the sick man of Europe." But the old Empire was not sick: it was starved of coal. It didn't produce any and it controlled lands too dry to be suitable for waterways. It was a problem created by geology and, as such, it was not affected by politics. So, the Ottoman Empire was destined to be carved up among the coal-powered states, a process that would be completed with the first world war.

It was clear to both Russia and Britain that the Great Game was about competing for the spoils of the Ottoman State. The Russians were coming down from the North, in Central Asia and in the Balkans. The British were working their way up from the South, in the Middle East and in the Mediterranean Region. In a series of wars fought during the 18th century, the Russians had reached the shores of the Black Sea. During the reign of Catherine II, the Russians defeated once more the Ottoman Empire and, in 1783, they annexed the Crimean Khanate, once a protectorate of the Ottomans.

For the Russians, Crimea was not just one more piece of land for their already vast empire. With the military harbor of Sevastopol, Crimea was a springboard for further expansion southward. Sevastopol also gave to the Russian the possibility of projecting their naval power into the Mediterranean sea. Of course, the British didn't like the idea of sharing the Mediterranean with the Russians, but it seems that they had to put up with that. After all, if the Russians were at work at weakening the Ottoman Empire from the North, that gave to the British better chances to advance from the South. That was the situation until the French rocked the boat around 1850, starting a quarrel over a trivial question about the rights of the Christians living in the Ottoman Empire, eventually leading to a major, world-wide war.

In those times, France was another powerful empire. It had been one of the first states to engage in the large-scale use of coal and, during the early 19th century, it had become the dominating power in Central and Western Europe. That was the origin of the disastrous adventure of Napoleon in Russia, in 1812: it was the attempt of eliminating a major rival in the domination of Europe. Napoleon's colossal mistake was typical of leaders everywhere and of all times: overestimating the military might he commanded.

Mistakes tend to generate more mistakes and that's true for empires as well as for individuals. Some 40 years after Napoleon's defeat in Russia, France had rebuilt its military strength and Europe was set for a new military confrontation. As before, it was the result of economic factors and of the poor judgment of the people who controlled the most powerful states of that time. This time, the blunders were made mainly by Louis Napoleon, who had styled himself as "Emperor of the French" and taken the title of "Napoleon III."

To be a credible Emperor, Louis Napoleon needed the kind of prestige that can only come from military victories. Possibly, he would have liked to avenge the defeat of his uncle against the Russians in 1812 but, of course, he couldn't even dream to have the French army march on Moscow again. Still, he thought that the Russians were the enemies of France and he endeavored to build up a coalition that would fight Russia. He couldn't understand that the game in mid 19th century was not anymore the game that had been played at the time of the first Napoleon. Louis Napoleon was making the mistake that Lao Tzu described by saying that "tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat." That was exactly what was to happen with the Crimean war.

The escalation that led to an all-out war was probably something that none of the leaders involved in it could control, or perhaps even understand. It was an ominous presage of what would happen 60 years later, when Europe exploded in the first world war. Perhaps it was an even more ominous presage of what propaganda can do when the Western press started describing the Russians as ugly savages, as you see in this image from 1855. In those times, propaganda wasn't as sophisticated as it is today, but the idea is always the same: they are bad and we are good.

Eventually, the Ottomans declared war on Russia in October 1853, knowing that they were supported by France and Britain. Then, the war exploded along a ring of fire that followed the Russian borders, from the White Sea in the North-West, to the Kamchatka peninsula in the East. At the beginning, the idea of attacking Crimea doesn't seem to have been in the plans of the coalition. But, once they had built up a military force in the Black Sea, someone must have realized that the harbor of Sevastopol could have been an excellent objective to demonstrate the coalition's superior power. The idea suited Louis Napoleon very nicely: by conquering Sevastopol he could claim to have avenged the French defeat of 1812. In September of 1854, British, French and Ottoman troops landed in Crimea with an ambitious objective: taking Sevastopol.

They succeeded, but at a very high price. In August 1855, after nearly one year of struggle, the Russians abandoned Sevastopol after having destroyed most of what was left intact by the allied bombardment. The fall of Sevastopol effectively put an end to the war. There followed negotiations and the treaty of Paris (1856) that basically recognized that neither side wanted to continue fighting. By all means, the outcome of the Crimean war was a military defeat for the Russians but the only obligation that was imposed on them was to demilitarize Crimea.

At the same time, the war had been a military success for the coalition, but the costs had been enormous and the tangible results nearly zero. The allies had suffered tremendous losses and they couldn't possibly have kept the occupation of Crimea for a long time. Not many years later, in 1870, with France defeated by Prussia, there was no coalition that could stop the Russian from returning and re-militarizing Sevastopol - which they did. By 1877, Russia and Turkey were again at war on one another and, this time, the Western European powers didn't intervene to help Turkey. Rather, Britain profited from the occasion to snatch Cyprus away from the Ottoman Empire.

As it normally the case for wars, the whole Crimean war was fought for nothing. But perhaps, in this case, the futility of the whole enterprise was more evident than in others. It may be for this reason that in the following years most people in the West made an effort to forget everything about this ill-fated war. The only memory of it left was the colorful and dramatic charge of the 600 at Balaclava. We still remember that episode, today.

But mistakes, as we saw, keep begetting mistakes and a typical source of mistakes for leaders is their tendency to see the world in terms of "friends" and "enemies". After the Crimean war was over, it seems that the bad guys of the story were identified not so much with the Russians but with those European states which had refused to join the coalition against Russia: Austria and the Kingdom of Naples. These two states were singled out as worth punishing, in particular by Louis Napoleon. In 1859, the French engaged in a military campaign aimed at expelling the Austrians out of Italy, and they succeeded. One year later, Louis Napoleon did nothing to prevent Piedmont from defeating and annexing the Kingdom of Naples, creating the "Kingdom of Italy" in 1861.

In these actions, Luis Napoleon had shot himself (and France) in both feet. He hadn't understood the growing role of Prussia (another coal-powered empire) in central Europe and that weakening Austria meant giving to Prussia a chance to expand even more. At the same time, the new Italian state was a competitor of France for domination in the Mediterranean region and would stop France from further expanding in North Africa. Maybe Louis Napoleon thought that Italy would have become a French protectorate, as Piedmont had been. It was another colossal mistake: ten years after the unification, Italy was allied with Prussia in a war against Austria and France. At Sedan, in 1870, Prussia dealt a deadly blow to the French imperial dreams. From then on, the German Empire was to be the top dog of Western Europe. It still plays this role, today.

You see how a chain of events affecting Europe originated from the Crimean war of 1853-1856. Starting from that event, we could play the "what if?" game. What if Louis Napoleon had not pushed for war against Russia? What if he had prevented the Italian unification from occurring? It is one of the fascinating games you can play with history, and I have done that here and here. Perhaps all that happens in history is a game that leaders play with the lives of their subjects. And, in this game, Crimea seems to be often playing an important role, even in modern times.

Over the years, Empires changed names but the strategic struggle for the domination of the world remained unchanged. During the first world war, taking advantage of the turmoil in Russia, German forces took control of Crimea in April 1918. That was a short-lived occupation and the Germans withdrew in November. Tzarist Russia disappeared and in 1920 the Red Army occupied Crimea after that it had been briefly in control first of the anti-Bolshevik White Army and then also invaded by the French. During the second world war, history repeated itself once more. The Axis forces attacked Crimea in 1941 and managed to take Sevastopol after an extended siege. Then, the Red Army took back Sevastopol in 1944. A pattern appears in these events: Western armies seemed to be always able to occupy Crimea, but never to hold it for a long time.

The British Empire waned in the following decades, replaced by the US empire, The Soviet Union disappeared in 1991, replaced in part by the Russian Federation. But the importance of Crimea and the military port of Sevastopol remained unchanged. In our times, the focus of the struggle has moved more and more from traditional warfare to the kind of "hybrid" warfare that includes propaganda, infiltration, and psyops. In 1954, the administration of Crimea had been transferred to another Soviet country, Ukraine. When the Ukraine coup of 2014 moved the country to the Western sphere of influence, it seemed that the West had found an easy way to gain control of Crimea. It didn't work as planned. Less than one year later, Russia took back Crimea in a bloodless counter-operation of hybrid warfare. Again, we see how the the West can take Crimea but can't hold it.

Unsurprisingly, the return of Crimea to Russia (obrazovanje in Russian) in 2014 was not taken kindly in the West and that led to another round of hybrid warfare, this time based on economic sanctions. The struggle is still ongoing and the small peninsula of Crimea remains one of the major friction points of the world's strategic balance. Apart from the importance of the military port of Sevastopol, Crimea has the characteristic of being part of Russia but, at the same time, to be disconnected from the Russian mainland and to be vulnerable to attack from the sea. These characteristics make it a possible target for an aggressive Western leader. At the same time, the importance of Crimea for Russia is so high that no Russian leader could even dream to abandon Crimea before trying to defend it with all the available means. This is a recipe for disaster, today as it was at the time of Louis Napoleon. Whether it will take us to another world war, WW3, is all to be seen, but it can't be excluded.




Appendix: the viewpoint from Italy

A little known part of this story is the role of the Kingdom of Naples in the 19th century Crimean war. The Kingdom had a long story of friendship with Russia and, some 50 years before, Russia had sent troops to Naples to help (unsuccessfully) the Kingdom to repel an attack from France. It seems that the Russians saw the Southern Italian kingdom as their gateway to the Mediterranean region and maintained good relations with it. At the time of the Crimean war, there was no formal alliance between the Kingdom of Naples and Russia, but when the British asked to the King of Naples to send troops to Crimea to join the Anti-Russia alliance, the King refused. He didn't know that, in doing so, he was signing the death sentence for the kingdom. Even when it was clear that Russia was losing, the King of Naples refused to make the about-face that the Austrian empire did at the last moment. That turned the Kingdom of Naples into a pariah in the eyes of both the French and the British. Instead, the Kingdom of Piedmont (more exactly, the Kingdom of Sardinia) had been smarter and had sent an expeditionary corps to support the anti-Russian coalition. We can perhaps understand how harsh the Crimean war was if we note that, of the 15,000 troops sent to Crimea from Piedmont, it is reported that only about 2500 returned to their homes alive and all in one piece.

So, much of what happened in Italy after the Crimean War can be explained by these simple facts. The French and the British felt that the Kingdom of Piedmont was to be rewarded for its help, while the Kingdom of Naples was to be punished for the opposite reasons. The Kingdom of Naples had no coal and no waterways to import it, and it was in a desperately weak position. The defeat of Russia in Crimea had made it impossible for the Russians to send help to Naples and the kingdom found itself completely isolated against the industrialized, coal-powered Kingdom of Piedmont, well supported by Britain. There came the expedition of Garibaldi to Sicily in 1860, whose ships were protected by the British fleet. The Neapolitan army was defeated, the kingdom was invaded by the Piedmontese from the North and that was the end of the Kingdom of Naples and the birth of the Kingdom of Italy.




Saturday, April 1, 2017

President Silvio Berlusconi: Make Italy Grate Again!


Rome, April 1st, 2017

In a surprise move, today, the Italian Parliament held a joint session of the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies in which the resignation of the current president of Italy, Sergio Mattarella was accepted. The parliament unanimously designated Mr. Silvio Berlusconi as the new President of Italy.

According to a member of the parliament, the general feeling was that there was no alternative to returning Mr. Berlusconi to a position of political power, since the Italian political system had been unable to produce anyone who could take his place after he resigned from the position of prime minister, in 2011. Asked about the former prime minister, Mr. Matteo Renzi, as a possible candidate, the MP declined to provide an assessment. Later on, he was observed puking on the floor of the parliament.

Mr. Berlusconi said that he would be implementing a completely new policy designed to "make Italy great again". While some commentators understood this as implying a strong support for the Italian cheese producers ("make Italy grate again"), Berlusconi himself explained his economic and political reforms in a press conference held today. The main points are:

1. Italian energy independence. The Sardinian coal mines will be re-opened. It is anticipated that these mines won't be able to provide sufficient coal to replace oil imports, therefore, in an initial transitional phase, coal will be imported from England to operate new steel plants and convert the Italian economy to a fully coal-based energy system. Renewable energy installations will be encouraged, but only indoor wind plants will be allowed in order to preserve a pristine landscape. New photovoltaic plants will be permitted only if able to demonstrate 24-hours constant output (no batteries allowed).

2. Italian mining supported. The new President aims at re-opening the Etruscan iron mines in Tuscany, as well as the sulfur mines in Sicily that were closed in the early 19th century. This is expected to boost employment, creating many jobs for young Italians as miners.

3. Boosting employment. The Italian University System will be reformed. No more funds will be allocated for climate and energy research. New mining schools will be established with the objective of creating a new generation of miners. At the same time, the diffusion of coal in the Italian energy system will create many jobs as chimney sweepers.

4. Domestic industries supported. In a restatement of some old policies, tariffs will be slapped on all imports. At the same time, imported goods will be replaced with Italian-made ones. The new President sees a return of CRT, black and white television sets operated by vacuum tubes. Electric cars will be forbidden in order to support the domestic car industry which will be encouraged to develop coal-powered vehicles.

5. The Alpine wall. The new President aims at building a wall along the Italian Alpine border with Germany in order to keep the Germans out, as well as other German-like hordes (Austrians, Swiss, and the like). He said about the Germans, "They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people."

6. Climate Change. The new Presidents stated that climate change is not a threat and, in any case, its origin is wholly natural. Nevertheless, plans are being devised in order to dismantle Venice and selling it to the Germans who will re-assemble it near Bonn. The income from the sale of Venice will be used to finance the Alpine wall. Also, an agreement with Perrier is being implemented in order to fight the desertification problem in Sicily.

7. The Eurolira. Italy will abandon the Euro and move to a new currency called the Eurolira. The new currency and the old one will be exchanged at a strict, government enforced, 1:1 rate. Banknotes and coins will continue to be issued by the European Central Bank and will still be marked as "Eur" even though when they circulate in Italy will be referred to as "liras".

8. Foreign policy. The new President strongly supports an assertive foreign policy for Italy. If Carthage will threaten Rome again, the Carthaginians will be swiftly punished by a new fleet of triremes armed with a secret weapon whose characteristics are not known at present, but that goes under the mysterious name of corvus.


Sunday, March 26, 2017

The great fossil cycle and the story of a family.


My great-great grandfather, Ferdinando Bardi. The story of the branch of the Bardi family to which I belong is inextricably linked to the great world cycle of the fossil fuels. (this painting was made by Ferdinando's son, Antonio)


There was a time, long ago, when the Bardis of Florence were rich and powerful, but that branch of the family disappeared with the end of the Renaissance. The most remote ancestors of mine that I can track were living during the early 19th century and they were all poor, probably very poor. But their life, just as the life of everyone in Italy and in the rest of the world, was to change with the great fossil revolution that had started in England in the 18th century. The consequences were to spill over to Italy in the centuries that followed.

My great-great grandfather Ferdinando (born in 1822) lived in an age when coal was just starting to become common and people would still use whale oil to light up their homes. He was a soldier in the infantry of the Grand-Duke of Tuscany and then of the King of Italy, when Tuscany merged into the newly formed Kingdom of Italy, in 1861. The family lore says that Ferdinando fought with Garibaldi in Southern Italy, but there is no trace of him in the records as a volunteer of Garibaldi's army. He may have fought there with the regular army, though. In his portrait, we can see the medals that he gained. Today, I still have the ribbons, the medals were lost during the 2nd world war when they were given to "the country" to support the war effort.

Despite the medals, however, there is little doubt that Ferdinando was poor; his condition is described as "dire poverty" in some documents we still have. But things were changing and the conditions of the Bardi family would change, too. The coal revolution had made Northern Europe rich. England had built a World Empire using coal, France had its revolution and Napoleon, and the industrial age had started. Of course, Italy had no significant coal resources but, already in those times, coal started being imported from England and that changed many things. Tuscany was slowly building up a certain degree of prosperity based on a rapidly developing industry and on a flow of tourism from Northern Europe that, already at that time, had made of Florence a favorite destination.

That had consequences on the life of Florentines. Antonio Bardi (1862 - 1924), Ferdinando's son and my great-grandfather, seems to have started his life as a street urchin. But that changed when he was befriended by a "gentleman in the service of the Emperor of Brazil," then visiting Florence. It may have happened in 1877 and some of the newspapers of that time report the story of how this gentleman, whose name was "Pedro Americo," paid for the studies of this boy in whom he had somehow noticed a special artistic talent. The papers of that time don't seem to have considered the implications (obvious for us, today) involved in the story of a mature and rich gentleman befriending a poor boy, but those were different times. In any case, Antonio started a career as a painter.

That such a career was possible for Antonio was due to tourism becoming more and more common in Florence. Tourism had not just brought there the Emperor of Brazil, but a continuous flow of foreign tourists interested in ancient paintings and works of art. Color photography didn't exist at that time and this led to a brisk market of hand-made reproduction of ancient masterpieces. These reproductions were especially prized if they were made by Florentine artists, in some ways supposed to maintain the genetic imprint of the people who had created the originals. So, the main art galleries of Florence would allow local artists to set up their easels in their rooms and they would later provide them with a stamp on their canvases guaranteeing that it was "painted from the original". It seems to have been a rather diffuse occupation and, already at that time, Florentines were adapting to the opportunities that the world changes were offering to them.

Some of the paintings of Antonio Bardi are still kept by his descendants and, for what I can say, he seems to have been a skilled painter with a special ability with portraits. But he never was very successful in this career and, in his later life, he moved to a job as a guardsman. Still, he had escaped the poverty trap that had affected his ancestors. Many other Florentines of that time were doing the same, although in different ways. From our viewpoint, Tuscany in the 19th century was still a desperately poor place, but its economy was rapidly growing as a result of the ongoing coal age. That opened up opportunities that had never existed before.

My grandfather, Raffaello Bardi, was born in 1892. His instruction was limited, but he could read and write and perhaps he attended a professional school. When he was drafted for the Great War, he had a hard time with the defeat of the Italian Army at Caporetto, in 1917, but he managed to get back home, all in one piece. There, he married a seamstress, my grandmother Rita and he found a job in a Swiss company that had established a branch in Florence and that manufactured straw hats, exporting them all over the world.

There were reasons for that company to exist and to be located in Florence. One was that the manufacturing of straw hats was a traditional activity in Tuscany, having been started already during the 18th century. Another was that the Italian economy in the 20th century had gone through a rapid growth. Many Italian regions were playing the role that today is played by Eastern European countries or South-Asian ones. They were being colonized by North European companies as sources of cheap labor. Tuscany had a well developed hydroelectric energy system and could offer a skilled workforce. Swiss, German, and British companies were flocking there to establish profitable branches for their businesses.

That was the opportunity that my grandfather exploited. He was only a modest employee in the company where he worked, but he could afford a lifestyle that his ancestors couldn't even have dreamed of. In 1922, he bought a nice home for his family in the suburbs; very much in the style of the "American Dream" (although without a car in the garage). It had a garden, three bedrooms, a modern bathroom, and it could comfortably lodge my grandparents, their four children, and the additional son they had adopted: a nephew who had been orphaned when his parents had died because of the Spanish flu, in 1919.  Raffaello could also afford to take his family on a vacation at the seaside for about one month every summer. He could send his sons to college, although not his daughters; women were still not supposed to study in those times.

There came the Fascist government, the great crash of 1929, and the 2nd world war. Hard times for everyone but this branch of the Bardi family suffered no casualties nor great disasters. Raffaello's home also survived the allied bombing raids, even though a few steel splinters hit the outer walls. With the end of the war, the Italian economy experienced a period of growth so rapid that it was termed the "economic miracle". It was no miracle but the consequence of crude oil being cheap and easily available. The Italian industry boomed, and with it tourism.

During this period, the Italian labor was not anymore so cheap as it had been in earlier times. The activity of manufacturing straw hats was taken over by Chinese firms and the Swiss company in which my grandfather had worked closed down. Still, there was a brisk business in importing Chinese-made hats in Florence, adding to them some hand-made decoration and selling the result as "Florentine hats."  One of my aunts, Renza, continued to manage a cottage industry that did exactly that. My other aunt, Anna, tried to follow the footprints of her grandfather, Antonio, and to work as a painter, but she was not very successful. Tourism was booming, but people were not anymore interested in hand-made reproductions of ancient masterpieces.

For my father, Giuliano, and my uncle, Antonio, both graduated in architecture, the booming Italian economy offered good opportunities. The period from the 1950s to the early 1970s was probably the richest period enjoyed by Italy in modern times and the moment of highest prosperity for the members of the Bardi family in Florence. All my relatives of that generation were rather well-off as employees or professionals. Their families were mostly organized according to the breadwinner/housewife model: even a single salary was sufficient for a comfortable life (my mother was an exception, like my father she had graduated in architecture and worked as a high-school teacher). Most of them could afford to own their homes and, in most cases, also a vacation home in the mountains or on the seaside (also here, my family was somewhat an exception, preferring a single home on the hills). They also owned at least one car, often two when their wives learned how to drive. On the average, the education level had progressed: even the women often attended college. Few of the people of that generation could speak any language but Italian and very few had traveled outside Italy, even though some of my uncles had fought in North Africa.

Then, there came the crisis of the 1970s. In Italy, it was normally defined as the "congiuntura economica" a term that indicated that it was just something temporary, a hiccup that was soon to be forgotten as growth were to restart. It never did. It was the start of the great oil crisis that had started with the peaking of the US oil production. The consequences were reverberating all over the world. It was in this condition that my generation came of age.

Our generation was perhaps the most schooled one in the history of Italy. Many of us had acceded to high university education; we traveled abroad, we all studied English, even though we were not necessarily proficient in it. But, when we tried to sell our skills in the labor market, it was a tough time. We were clearly overskilled for the kind of jobs that were available in Italy and many of us had to use again the strategy of our ancestors of old, emigrating toward foreign countries. It was the start of what we call today the "brain drain".

I moved to the US for a while. I could have stayed there, but I found a decent position with the University of Florence and I came back. Maybe I did well, maybe not, it is hard to say. Some people of my age followed the same path. Some moved to foreign countries and stayed there, others came back to Italy. Some worked as employees, set up their own companies, opened up shops, they tried what they could with various degrees of success. One thing was sure: our life was way more difficult than it had been for our fathers and grandfathers. Of course, we were not as poor as our ancestors had been in the early 19th century, but supporting a family on a single salary had become nearly unthinkable. None of us could have afforded to own a home, hadn't we inherited the homes of our parents. Fortunately, families were now much smaller and we didn't have to divide these properties among too many heirs.

There came the end of the 20th century and of the 2nd millennium as well. Another generation came of age and they faced difficult times again. They were badly overskilled, as we had been, perhaps even more internationalized than we were; perfect candidates for the brain drain trend. My son followed my example, moving to a foreign country to work; maybe he'll come back as I did, maybe not. It will have to be seen. My daughter still has to find a decent job. The oil crisis faded, then returned. The global peak of oil production ("peak oil") was closer and closer. The Italian economy went up and down but, on the average, down. It was a system that could grow only with low oil prices and the period of high prices that started in the early 2000s was a hard blow for Italy, causing the start of a de-industrialization trend that's still ongoing.

Only agriculture and tourism are still doing well in Italy. That's especially true for Florence, a town that went through a long-term cycle that transformed it from a sleepy provincial town into a sort of giant food court. Tourists are still flocking to Florence in ever-increasing numbers, but they don't seem to be so much interested in art anymore; their focus today seems to be food. It is for this reason that, today, almost everyone I know who is under 30 is either unemployed or working in restaurants, bars, or hotels.

People in Italy keep adapting to changing times as they have always done, everywhere in the world. It is hard to say what the future will bring to us, but one thing is certain: the great cycle of the fossil fuels is waning. The hard times are coming back.


Monday, March 20, 2017

Zombie Apocalypse: will it be our future?




 Caution, this is probably the most catastrophistic post I ever published: famines, cannibalism, mass extermination and more. But, hey, this is just a scenario! (Image from "teehunter").



For those of us who delight themselves in studying long-term trends, the rise of zombies as a movie genre is a fascinating puzzle. There is no doubt that it is a strong trend: look at these results from Google Ngrams.


The term "zombie" was wholly unknown in English before the 1920s, then it slowly started gaining attention. In the 1970s, it exploded, mainly after the success of the 1968 movie by George Romero "The night of the Living Dead." The term "zombie" wasn't used in the movie, but the concept became rapidly popular and it created the genre called "zombie apocalypse".  Today, the idea is widespread: it involves the sudden appearance of a large number of undead people haunting suburbs and shopping malls, searching for live humans to eat. They are normally the target of the fire of heavily armed but much less numerous groups of people who have escaped the epidemics or whatever has turned people into zombies. 

Now, if something exists, there has to be a reason for it to exist. So, why this fascination with zombies? How is that we have created a genre that has never existed before in the history of human literature? Can you imagine Homer telling us that the city of Troy was besieged by zombies? Did Dante Alighieri find zombies in his visit to Hell? How about Shakespeare telling us of Henry the 5th fighting zombies at Agincourt?

I think there is a reason: literature always reflects the fears and the hopes of the culture that created it; sometimes very indirectly and in symbolic ways. And, here, it may well be that zombies reflect an unsaid fear of our times, a fear that is present mainly in our subconscious: hunger. 

Let's start with a typical feature of zombies: the black circles around the eyes.
Zombies are supposed to be "undead," cadavers that somehow returned to a semblance of life. But do cadavers have this kind of eyes? I must confess that I don't have much experience in autopsy (actually, none) but, from what I saw on the Web, it seems to me that it is rare that cadavers have those dark eye sockets; that is, unless they had developed bruises before dying. It is true that a decomposing cadaver will slowly lose the soft tissue and, eventually, the eyes will disappear leaving only dark holes in a mummified skull. But that doesn't seem to agree with the facial aspect of the zombies that appear in the movies. (I know, this was a ghoulish search, I did it in the name of science).

Instead, for what I could find, dark eye sockets may be a characteristic of undernourished people, often as the result of the development of a facial edema. Here is, for instance, a photo of a Dutch girl during the famine of 1944-1945 in Holland.

This is not always a characteristic of malnourished people, but it seems to occur rather frequently. Another example is the Great Famine in Ireland that started in 1845. We don't have photos from those times, but the artists who drew pictures of starving Irish people clearly perceived this detail. Here is, for instance, a rather well-known image of Bridget O'Donnell, one of the victims of the Great Famine. Note her darkened eyes. 

So, we have some idea of who these zombies could represent. They are starving people. And it is clear that they are hungry. In the movies, they are described as stumbling onward, desperately searching for food. They seem to be the perfect image of the effect of a famine. Look at the memorial of the Irish famine, in Dublin:

  
Do they look like the zombies of a modern movie? Yes, they do. This doesn't mean a lack of respect for the Irish men and women who perished in one of the greatest tragedies of modern times. It is only to note how, in our imagination, real starving people may be turned into imaginary undead zombies. 

Now, imagine that a famine were to strike our society, today. It is true that the world hasn't seen major famines for the past 40 years or so, but that doesn't mean they can't appear again. Today, our globalized commercial system is fragile, based on a long supply chain that involves maritime transportation and road distribution. The system needs low-cost fossil fuels to function and, more than that, it needs a functioning global financial system. If food travels all over the world it is because someone is paying for it. A currency crisis would make the whole system collapse. The consequences would be, well, let's try to imagine the unimaginable. 

People living in suburban areas have no other source of food than their shopping centers. Now, imagine that, suddenly, the ships and the trucks stop running. Then, the shelves of supermarkets can't be replenished anymore. The suburbanites would be first surprised, then angry, then desperate, and, finally, starving as their home stocks of food run out. Even before that, they would have run out of gas for their cars; the only system of transportation available to them. Now, assume that the elites would decide that it is easier for them to let the suburbanites starve and die rather than attempt to feed them. Suppose they decide to wall off the suburbia and instruct the army to shoot on sight anyone who tries to escape. Who could force them to do otherwise?

We can imagine what the results would be. The inhabitants of suburban areas would become emaciated, blundering, hungry people haunting the neighborhood and the shopping malls in the desperate search of something to eat; anything. Would they turn to cannibalism? Possibly, even likely. Some of them may be able to put their hands on a good supply of guns and ammunition, then they could play king of the hill, gathering most of the remaining food and shooting dead the poor wretches who still lumber in the streets, at least until the run out of food and ammo, too. It would be the zombie apocalypse, nothing less than that.

This is, of course, just a scenario, Nevertheless, I think it is interesting as an illustration of how the human mind works. In a previous post, I noted how the "overpopulation" meme disappeared from cyberspace as a result of how people gradually developed a kind of "infection resistance" to it.  The zombie meme seems to be related to the same issue, but it is a much more infective meme and it is still growing and diffusing in the world's population.

There are reasons for the success of the zombie meme. Fictionalized catastrophes ("it is only a movie!") are surely less threatening than those that are described as likely to happen for real. So, the concept of "Zombie Preparedness" is making inroads in many areas. Apparently, preparing for a zombie apocalypse is more socially and politically acceptable than preparing for the consequences of resource depletion and climate change. This is a curious trait of the human mind but, if this is the way it works, so be it. It makes the concept of "climate fiction" (cli-fi) an attractive one for generating preparedness for climate change.

It may be that the only way for our mind to understand catastrophes to come is to see them as tales. In Ireland, before the great famine, there was some premonition of the incoming disaster. Here is what the Irish poet Clarence Mangan wrote in 1844 about an undescribed "event" that he expected to take place in the future.

Darken the lamp, then, and bury the bowl,
Ye Faithfullest-hearted!

And, as your swift years hasten on to the goal
Whither worlds have departed,
Spend strength, sinew, soul, on your toil to atone

For past idleness and errors;
So best shall ye bear to encounter alone
The Event and its terrors. 
The Irish may have had some kind of premonition of the "event" that was going to hit them, the Great Famine of 1845, even though that didn't help them much to avoid it. Is a similar "Event" coming for us, too? Maybe it is already starting.





Thursday, March 16, 2017

Overpopulation: the life and death of a meme

The real problem with overpopulation seems to have to do with the fact that the human information dissemination and processing system (the "Cybersphere") is unable to deal with long-range planning. A single human brain is larger than a walnut, but that makes no difference. The system reacts to new information but doesn't really process it. And we are no better suited than dinosaurs to survive the challenges ahead.

Those of us who remember the 1970s and the 1980s may still have in mind how, in those years, speaking of overpopulation and birth control was not considered politically incorrect. Julian Simon (the "doomslayer") gives us a good description of the debate of those years (he was, needless to say, strongly against the idea that overpopulation was a problem).
Yet once again there is hysteria about there being too many people, and too many babies being born. Television presents notables ranging from Andrei Sakharov to Dan Rather repeating that more people on earth mean poorer lives now and worse prospects for the future. The newspapers chime in. A typical editorial in the June 3, 1989 Washington Post (p. A14) says that "in the developing world...fertility rates impede advances in economic growth, health, and educational opportunities". Nobel- winner Leon Lederman says in his statement as candidate for the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science that "overpopulation' is one of our "present crises" (2 June, 1989 Announcement, p. 2). The president of NOW warns that continued population growth would be a "catastrophe" (Nat Hentoff in The Washington Post, July 29, 1989, p. A17). The head of the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology calls for more funding for contraceptive research becasue of "Overpopulation, together with continuing deterioration of the environment..." (The Wall Street Journal, August 14, 1989, p. A9). And this is just a tiny sample of one summer.
Simon's analysis is in good agreement with the results of a Google Ngram search. The term "overpopulation" reached a popularity peak in the 1970s, then it started a decline that's still ongoing.



You can see the same behavior with concepts such as "birth control" and also using "google trends." So, what happened that made the very concept of overpopulation obsolete? Surely, population growth continue and it is still continuing (image from Gerald Marten):

And it is impressive to note how the decline in the interest on overpopulation started while the population growth curve continued its steep increase, in particular in the poor nations of the world.

So, why did people lose interest in overpopulation just while it kept becoming a bigger problem? Something similar took place with other concepts such as the limits to growth and peak oil: people are losing interest just now that these problems are becoming gigantic and probably unsolvable.


I can propose a tentative explanation based on the recent work we have been performing with my coworkers, Sara Falsini and Ilaria Perissi. We have been examining the behavior of memes on the web using a simple viral propagation model, the same commonly used in epidemiology. It is called the SIR (susceptible, infected, recovered) model. Here it is in a simple form (image on the right).


The model depends on two parameters that describe the kinetics of propagation of the meme in the cybersphere (humankind's system of information diffusion and processing). These two parameters do NOT depend on what happens outside the cybersphere. The world's population may continue growing but the meme will go through its path, oblivious to everything that's not reported in the media. While it declines, the meme doesn't disappear, but it remains dormant. It is not infective anymore.

The model can be modified to take into account re-infection, which causes the interest in the meme not to go to zero after the peak. Theoretically, this parameter could be affected by events occurring outside the cybersphere, but we found that, apparently, people rapidly become resistant to re-infection for most memes.

Eventually, we have a problem that has to do with the capability of the cybersphere to process information. The cybersphere is not a "brain." When subjected external forcings in the form of memes, it reacts by readjusting some of its parameters, but no more than that. It can't act on external problems by long-term planning; it doesn't have the tools for that. We may call it a "governance" problem or, perhaps, a "command and control" problem. In any case, the system is nearly completely blind to external threats. We see this most clearly for the question of climate change. And that makes it likely that we'll go the way the dinosaurs went.


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)