Friday, June 30, 2017

The True Story of the Fall of Troy



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


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


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

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

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

That's the way ghosts are.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think I understand. 

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

Not so well, Lady. 

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

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

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

Much worse.

And your kings are doing nothing, right?

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

But you told me that already. Did something change?

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

Paris? Like one of King Priam's sons?

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

That seems to have been something very good.

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

Your great priest. Maybe the Goddess spoke to him?

I am not sure about that, Lady.

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

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

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

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

That's the way kings are.

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

This is the way kings behave.

Shouldn't a good king care for his people?

Should all kings be good?

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

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

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

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

I would love to hear it.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I had always wondered about that.

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

About climate change?

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

You think so? Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You think so?

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

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

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

Yes, it is a possibility.

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

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

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

I am not sure I believe you, Lady Cassandra.

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

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

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

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

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

But are you really supposed to be always right?

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

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

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

You mean the fate?

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

I see.....

You look sad. I am sorry.

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

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

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

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

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

See? I told you that the Goddess is powerful.

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

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

Yes, we do. It would be a pleasure. 

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

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

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


Monday, June 26, 2017

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



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



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


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

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

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


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



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


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

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

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

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





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

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Climate Change: How Desperate Can You Be?


The legend of the city of Ys has that it was swallowed by the sea. Many modern islands risk to suffer the same fate as the result of Global Warming (Image source). But their inhabitants tend to deny that, and for good reasons: they are desperate. 



Sometimes, what you read in the news really looks like the stuff legends are made of. So is the phone call that President Trump gave to the mayor of the island of Tangier, who had appeared in TV, worried that his island on the Chesapeake bay risked to disappear into the Ocean. Here is an excerpt from the "Washington Post".

Trump thanked the mayor and the entire island of Tangier, where he received 87 percent of the votes, for their support. Then the conversation turned to the island’s plight.
“He said we shouldn’t worry about rising sea levels,” Eskridge said. “He said that ‘your island has been there for hundreds of years, and I believe your island will be there for hundreds more.’”
 Eskridge wasn’t offended. In fact, he agreed that rising sea levels aren’t a problem for Tangier.
“Like the president, I’m not concerned about sea level rise,” he said. “I’m on the water daily, and I just don’t see it.”

Do you realize the eerie lunacy of this exchange? Trump who tells the mayor, "don't worry, your island will be there for hundreds of years" Does he think he is Moses who can command the waters? And the good mayor of Tangier who says, "I'm not concerned about sea level rise, I'm on the water daily and I just don't see it." Ahem... Mr. Mayor, do you really expect to see a sea level rise when you are "on the water"? And then the mayor goes on, saying that despite the fact that the sea is not rising, the islands are sinking. Absolutely fantastic. Is this madness or what? Maybe not or, at least, there is method in it.

In a previous post of mine, I described how the government of the Maldives Islands also denied that sea level rise was a threat I wondered "Is this an epidemics of brain disease? Or do the Gods really drive crazy those whom they want to destroy?" A question that applies also to the inhabitants of Tangier, in the Chesapeake bay.

But no, this is not an epidemics of madness. There is a perfectly rational explanation for what's happening. I wrote in my post,

Imagine that you are part of the elite of the Maldives. And imagine that you are smart enough to understand what's going on with the Earth's climate. As things stand today, it is clear that it is too late to stop a burst of global warming that will push temperatures so high that nothing will save the Maldives islands. Maybe not next year but in a few decades, it is nearly certain. 
So, given the situation, what is the rational thing for you to do? Of course, it is to sell what you can sell as long as you can find a sucker who will buy. Then you can say good riddance to those who remain. 
What we are seeing, therefore, is a game in which someone will be left holding the short end of the dynamite stick. When the elites of the Maldives will have left for higher grounds, the poor will be stuck there. For them, the Seneca Cliff ends underwater.

The same considerations apply to the islands of the Chesapeake bay. Imagine you are mayor Eskridge. Imagine yourself telling Trump over the phone, "Mister President, I believe that you made a big mistake when you decided to leave the Paris Agreement. Insteas, you should promote emission cutting and renewable energy development." Yeah, can you imagine that?

The problem is not so much that Trump wouldn't listen, but that it is just too late for that kind of actions being able to save the Chesapeake islands, just as the Maldives islands. The only hope for the inhabitants of Tangier is that Trump will tell the US army to build a wall around the island. He may; he seems to like walls. But if you want him to do that, you should be nice, very nice, to him. 

The human mind is a curious contraption that has been perfected to what it is today by hundreds of thousands of years of natural selection. The minds that made the wrong choices were ruthlessly eliminated when the bodies they inhabited were eaten by sabertooth tigers or suffered equally bad fates. So, it may well be that in the current climate change drama, people are making the best possible choices in order to save (or try to save) their ass. The rich deny climate change because they plan to save themselves and dump the poors. The poor deny climate change because they hope to court the favor of the elites and be among those who will be saved by them. And so it goes.

So, when you read some absurd form of denial of climate change on the Web, don't think that the people who write are stupid, or evil, or paid by the PTB (Powerst That Be). They may, but they may simply be more desperate than you. 



You can find the same concepts expressed in narrative form in "The True Story of the Fall of Troy"

See also this post by Gaius Publius "Finding the Greater Fool"




Monday, June 19, 2017

The Fall of the Western Empire: Collapse is Not a Bug, It is a Feature

Esset aliquod inbecillitatis nostrae solacium rerumque nostrarum si tam tarde perirent cuncta quam fiunt: nunc incrementa lente exeunt, festinatur in damnum.”  Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE)


In my book "The Seneca Effect", the first chapter is titled "Collapse is not a bug, it is a feature". The idea is that the evolution of complex systems is discontinuous, it goes on oscillating and collapsing. It is part of the way the universe works and if there were no collapses, nothing would ever change. It is a rule that applies to political systems and it is described with stark clarity by Alastair Crooke, as reported by Raoul Ilargi in "The Automatic Earth" in a post titled "Coming Apart: The Imperial City At The Brink." Here is an excerpt


Alastair Crooke: David Stockman routinely refers to President Trump as the ‘Great Disrupter’. But this is not a bad quality, he insists. Rather, it is a necessary one: Stockman argues (my paraphrasing) that Trump represents the outside force, the externality, that tips a ‘world system’ over the brink: It has to tip over the brink, because systems become too ossified, too far out on their ‘branch’ to be able to reform themselves. It does not really matter so much, whether the agency of this tipping process (President Trump in this instance), fully comprehends his pivotal role, or plays it out in an intelligent and subtle way, or in a heavy-handed, and unsubtle manner. Either serve the purpose. And that purpose is to disrupt.
Why should disruption be somehow a ‘quality’? It is because, during a period when ‘a system’ is coming apart, (history tells us), one can reach a point at which there is no possibility of revival within the old, but still prevailing, system. An externality of some sort – maybe war, or some other calamity or a Trump – is necessary to tip the congealed system ‘over’: thus, the external intrusion can be the catalyst for (often traumatic) transformational change.
Stockman puts it starkly: “the single most important thing to know about the present risk environment [he is pointing here to both the political risk as well as financial risk environment], is that it is extreme, and unprecedented. In essence, the ruling elites and their mainstream media megaphones have arrogantly decided that the 2016 [US Presidential] election was a correctible error”.
But complacency simply is endemic: “The utter fragility of the latest and greatest Fed bubble could not be better proxied than in this astounding fact. To wit, during the last 5,000 trading days (20 years), the VIX (a measure of market volatility) has closed below 10 on just 11 occasions. And 7 of those have been during the last month! … That’s complacency begging to be monkey-hammered”, Stockman says. 


Read the whole article: Coming Apart: The Imperial City At The Brink

Saturday, June 17, 2017

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 lead 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 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


Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Wind Power: the True Story




They say that a good book should always tell a story. And this is true for this book by Paul Gipe. Titled "Wind Energy for the Rest of Us" is not just about the technology, but it tells the whole story of the development of the field, starting with the first windmills, all the way to the modern, high-power towers. And it is a book of excellent graphic and textual quality. Something that's becoming rare in a time when publishers provide less and less editorial services. Highly suggested if you want to learn about wind energy.

The book is choc-full of data, explanations, illustrations, descriptions, stories, and more, including a thorough discussion of the legends that surround wind power; from the idea that it causes various kinds of sicknesses to the one that it is a bird-destroyer. It includes a critique of the just as legendary "improvements" that crackpots keep proposing in terms of wonderful innovation meant to improve a technology that already works well enough for what we need and for what the physical system in which it operates can give.

So, this is one of the best books on renewable energy that I happened to read in recent times. But, of course, no matter how positive a book review can be, one need also to discuss shortcomings. In this book I found very little that I didn't like, but I may criticize the way airborne wind energy (AWE) (also known as "kite power") is described; dismissed as a useless dream in a few paragraphs. I understand that for people used to deal with Gigawatts and giant wind towers, the idea of getting energy from small kites looks a little ludicrous. And it is also true that, after that so much has been said about AWE, there is not a single machine on the market that can reliably operate continuously at a few kW of power. Still, I think there is the possibility for kite power to grow into a useful technology, if we don't expect it to save the world (as, unfortunately, some people keep saying).

Finally, I can note that it is disappointing that the development of such a good and reliable technology as wind power seems to be experiencing a slowdown. Here are the latest data from GWEC.
 

According to our calculations, wind power, just as other forms of renewable power, should grow much faster if we are to replace fossil fuels before the Paris emission targets are breached. Yet, despite the slowdown of 2016, wind power is still going strong worldwide, so we can hope it will play an important role in the future of energy supply. And so, we keep going onward!






Friday, June 9, 2017

The First Summer School of the Club of Rome: this September in Florence, Italy

May 12, news: The call for applications for the school has been successful with about 80 applications, which is close to the initial target. At a first examination, they all seem to be of good quality from young people and from people who are young in heart. But we still have some space, as we could arrive up to a maximum of 100 participants. So, the deadline has been extended to next Sunday (18/06). You still have time to apply! 




We are having a very busy time in putting together all the details of the Summer School that will be held in Florence this September. It is co-organized by the Club of Rome and the University of Florence and it promises to be a very interesting meeting. Just take a look at the list of the speakers - and there are more interesting people and events that will take place, as described in the program (we keep updating it).

In addition to talks and seminars, we also have a busy social program that will lead the participants to discover some angles of Florence not commonly seen by ordinary tourists, with real Florentines volunteering as guides. We are planning a dinner in Florence's "Secret Garden," a real gem right inside the town. You will be able to a visit a very peculiar science museum that will shock you, unlike the average science museums. You'll see amazing gardening technologies developed in Florence. Finally, the "Secret of Medusa" will be revealed to you.

The deadline for applications is this Monday (NOTE: EXTENDED TO SUNDAY 18th of June). There are still places available, so hurry up! The school calls for young people to attend, but your chronological age doesn't matter. It is important that you are young at heart.





Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Interview with Ugo Bardi: Climate, Fossil Fuels, Resources and All That

The MEDEAS project team at a recent meeting in Barcelona. At the center, the project coordinator, Jordi Solé, Another group of well-intentioned people engaged in saving the planet. Yes, we know it is difficult: we are doing our best. 


This interview was recorded this February and is reported here from the site of the European Project MEDEAS, only minimally edited. Take into account that none of the people involved (interviewers and interviewed) are native English speakers and you can understand why the grammar and the syntax are, well, let's just say "not perfect". Then, as in all non-edited interviews, the flow of the concepts is also far from being perfect. However, I thought to reproduce it here because it contains much of what I have been trying to say, lately. Maybe you'll find it interesting (U.B.)


On 17th February 2017, during MEDEAS first General Assembly in Brno, Czech Republic, Ugo Bardi from INSTM, partner of MEDEAS Project was interviewed by Mikuláš Černík for Deník Referendum, an independent online newspaper focused on social and environmental issues. The interview discussed how science nowadays can address challenges as climate change and possible limitations of resources for the transition to a low-carbon economy. The whole interview can be found below in English, while the original version is published in the newspaper’s webpage



INTERVIEW WITH PROF. UGO BARDI (UNIVERSITY OF FLORENCE, ITALY), IN BRNO, CZECH REPUBLIC (17.2.2017) DURING MEDEAS GENERAL ASSEMBLY.

Your main topic is resource depletion. Since the release of your book on the Limits to Growth, how has the situation changed?

The thread that runs through everything I study is resource depletion in the broadest sense. You can restrict its sense to minerals, which is to take the core meaning, but then there is also climate change. Climate change can be seen as the depletion of the atmosphere’s ability to absorb greenhouse gases without overheating. So it’s also depletion—everything’s a question of depletion. And everything is a question of resources. People have spoken about limits to growth, which at one time was a very innovative concept, but these limits on growth derive from limits on resources, and that’s something we’re still working on.

You’re writing a blog called the Cassandra Legacy. How did you, as a scientist, decide it was necessary to write a blog?

Because many people speak about there being two cultures, humanist culture and scientific culture. And in my modest opinion, this is completely wrong. There are no two cultures, there is only one culture. And so a scientist should be within the limits as much as possible, should be a humanist as much as possible within the limits, should know something about hard science such as thermodynamics and physics, and so on. But unfortunately our world has fallen into the trap of overspecialization, which means that a lot of people study so much that eventually they know everything about nothing—which is the definition of a specialist. So we have specialists who know absolutely everything about nothing, which is a little useless in my opinion. So we need a modern view of science, and this is a concept that some of us are working on. It’s a new conceptualization that tends to deemphasize what we call “reductionist science”. To emphasize what we call “systemic science”, which looks at changes at the whole-system level. Because if you are a reductionist, you would say What is the problem? I’m slowly running out of fuel for my car. So you say, No problem, hydrogen will fix everything. If you follow a systems approach, you say well, okay, maybe hydrogen is a way to change the system, but how will the system react? I think that’s a fundamental part of the MEDEAS project we’re working on. To take a systems approach. We have a valuable collaborator in Brno as well. We’re sure we can get this done.

Do you think that, as a scientist, when you publish a scientific paper, it has any impact on a broader readership and on the general public and policymakers? How do you perceive the relationship between science and politics?

There is no difference. Scientific communication is just one of many kinds of communication. And that has to do with the fact that we communicate within a system. The world—call it the mediasphere or the cybersphere or the brainsphere—the world is a huge system in which ideas, comments, novelties, the news and everything moves and competes in a space. All these things grow, they evolve, they change and they take over spaces, and that’s the most “systemic system”, if you like. It is hugely interesting to study, and that’s what we’re doing. You might not have noticed, but my coworkers and I are developing models for dissemination, for spreading ideas in the websphere, the world wide web, in the mindspace. What we’ve discovered is that your message—you want to know the theory of messaging my coworkers and I are developing? Messages are made up of two parts—the message itself and the communicator who sends it. So the message must be simple enough that it can reproduce, but that’s not enough. The message has a signature that makes it recognized as ‘self/nonself’ and if it is not recognized as “self” it is discarded and the whole attempt to transmit it is useless. So what you do when you send the message is you send yourself. And that’s it. You don’t always hit people with facts. The relevant fact is you, because you are relevant. If you are relevant, you send a message which is understood. You need to understand who is sending the message, you need to understand what a person is. So if you don’t know what you are, you can’t send the message.

This leads me to the next question. Don’t you think that, when scientists put out messages to the public, the public may believe in their correctness and yet feel that what they say is overly pessimistic? That they’re not enough to make them change their behaviour? I’m talking about alarmism. Some people argue that when you scare people too much, as a consequence they won’t be willing to change their behaviour. Do you agree?

This is because most scientists are children when it comes to communication. They know very little, nothing in this field. I won’t use the term ignoramus, but the definition is that when you don’t know anything about something, you are an ignoramus on that topic. Scientific education doesn’t cover communication. So when you try to do work in a field you’re ignorant of, you may achieve zero. And you’re likely to make mistakes. Just think of riding a bicycle for the first time. You don’t know what a bicycle is, what pedals or brakes are, and so on. You don’t really know how a bicycle works. You fall off the bike straightaway. This is what happens when scientists try to communicate all these pessimistic things about climate science to the public. They’re using the wrong communication model. Their message—its penetration—doesn’t depend upon pessimism or optimism. This is a mistake. Think about Christianity. What is the message? It is that there will come an apocalypse. And it is spread easily. Even though it’s predicting an apocalypse. Because Christians knew much better - the old, the ancient Christians, they knew how to promulgate their message. They were able to emphasize the messenger. If you’re willing to get eaten by lions, then the message is important for you, it carries weight. But you must be ready to be eaten by lions to demonstrate the message is real and that, I think, scientists are not willing to do for Climate Science. Maybe we don’t need to arrive to that point but the essence is the same - it doesn’t matter if the message is optimistic or pessimistic. The power is not in the message, it’s in the messenger. The messenger must be believable and this is the problem with climate science. Scientists have made a lot of mistakes and they are presenting a contradictory message. Some scientists say, “don’t worry, we have the solution: you don’t have to do anything” and maybe they start babbling about hydrogen or nuclear energy or whatever. Other scientist say, “well, you have to make sacrifices” and they talk about investing in double paned glasses, using bicycles and the like. But these two messages are not compatible with each other. And if the messenger doesn’t send a coherent message, he or she is not believed.

What about the term peak oil—which was much more widely used in the recent past than it is today. Could you tell us how this term has evolved in public debate?

It’s a good example of how to spread a message. Generally because the message was simple: just two words. “Peak oil”. It has a ring to it, it was interesting, and it was simple enough to spread. And spread it did. These messages have a cycle. They peak, and then they go down. But I think the spread of this message was successful in the sense that it was not only viral, but became part of our culture. Its greatest diffusion came around ten years ago. Then it lost popularity a bit because people had difficulty understanding the term. They see that oil isn’t expensive right now and think that’s because it’s abundant. But that changes. It’s like limits to growth. It was criticised, rejected, demonised, but it was a successful concept, because it is still with us. We debate it, maybe over a long period, but still we debate it. And that’s what we can do with messages. They don’t necessarily need to take over the world, but they remain with us. They can’t be ignored.

Could you also tell us something about the project you’re currently involved in? About MEDEAS; and how it is changing the debate?

MEDEAS is an extremely important project, as a next step after Paris. Paris COP21 told us what we should do, and it was a very good meeting with a huge impact because the communication was taken care of by people who knew what they wanted to do. To have a message which will take root, it must be simple. So Paris - we had thousands of people, hundreds of models, tens of thousands of scenarios, the whole climate science with uncertainties and things like that and final result was one number: 2 °C. You condense everything into something like a piece of genetic code which will then be unpacked. You send a little virus to the mind with a very tiny chink of genetic code. It takes up residency in your brain. It reproduces and grows.

So do you really think the Paris agreement is a step forward in tackling climate change?

Absolutely. It was a remarkable success because it was well packaged. But the numbers in it are not enough, because we don’t know how to achieve them. And that’s what MEDEAS is answering. We give you another number—how much it will cost? If we can afford it and the degree of sacrifice it entails. How much are you willing to pay for your survival?

Let’s imagine that we achieve a post-carbon future. Who will be the loser and who the winner in the transition?

Some scientists in the MEDEAS group have developed a concept they call Thanatia, which refers to a world not meant to be—one in which people have survived, but the planet has died in terms of minerals. This means there is no longer any ability to mine rare minerals, and these minerals are what allowed us to build our civilization. The result is a future that is completely different. There are no more mineral resources like oil and cobalt, because these mineral resources are concentrated—you can’t just find them anywhere you want. If you need something that you lack but someone else has, you may have to fight to get it. But in the future, this will no longer be done, because we will stick to resources that are abundant, like sunlight, silicon, aluminium, magnesium, etc. Society can be built in a locally-structured way that may give rise to less competition for resources and fewer wars.

In our country, the Czech Republic, if we want to achieve what was promised in the Paris agreement, we need to cut our coal consumption, despite its abundance as a resource. How would you advocate this position with the public?

I don’t think this is such a big problem. I mean, the Czech Republic is a very small part of the world and of what’s going on in the world. And if the world starts moving in a certain direction, the Czech Republic will follow. We have coal in Germany, in Poland, in Ukraine, and these regions are burning it. It has to be phased out slowly, and I think we are moving in that direction because the cost is really increasing. Coal is not as cheap as it seems. In the future, you won’t be able to afford to burn the coal, whatever the politicians may say. Mr. Trump said “we have a thousand years of coal” and this is an alternative fact, in other words, a lie. I think we will cease to burn coal sometime over the next decade or two. And hopefully we will do so because we have agreed to stop burning coal and also because we have agreed to deploy renewable energy and replace it.

So basically what you’re saying is, the sooner we make the move, the more we gain?

Yes, that’s correct. The change is going to take place anyway. People talk about problems and that’s bad. Once you say there are problems, you begin to think of solutions. But not all problems are problems, and not all solutions are solutions. If you remember the “Jewish Problem” at the time of Adolf Hitler, well, once you start to say the Jews are a problem, you start thinking of the solution, and the solution they found was a very bad idea – as we all know. So we don’t have to think in terms of problems/solutions – that may lead us to very bad ideas. Instead, we must emphasize change. That change is ongoing, and you have a choice: either you go along with the change, or you reject it. If you reject it, the change will change you, and you will not be happy but will be swept away by the change. In other words, you can solve a problem but there is no solution for a change. There is only one way to face change: to adapt to it.

Ok, thanks very much.

You’re not going to ask me anything about Italian football...?

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

What We Do in Life Echoes in Eternity - Also for Climate Change


"What we do in life echoes in eternity" is a line from "Gladiator"  (actually from Marcus Aurelius). What our politicians are doing now, and will be doing in the near future, for the climate will echo for a long time in the future of our planet. 



President Trump's decision to exit the Paris agreement has been correctly vilified almost everywhere outside the US, but some commentators noted that Trump may have done the right thing, even though for the wrong reasons. It seems that for many politicians and industrialists, the Paris treaty was seen as the perfect tool to appear to be doing something while at the same time doing nothing. Personally, I tend to agree with this interpretation, especially from what I know about Italian politicians.

So, here is a link to a text where Trump's decision is discussed in these terms. I am impressed by Graham Readfearn's statement that the Paris treaty was seen by the coal industry as a way to get financed for "clean coal" and other useless technologies. Again, knowing the people involved in this kind of tricks, it doesn't surprise me at all.

In the end, Trump's attempt to revitalize dying industries, such as coal, are bound to fail and this may give a bad reputation to some bad ideas that really deserve that. And that may create a momentum for doing the right things as argued, for instance, by Jean-Marc Jancovici.

What we do now will echo on the future of our planet and for a long time to come.

Here is an excerpt from Graham Readfearn


"At least two coal companies, Peabody Energy and Cloud Peak, had tried to convince Trump to remain in the Paris deal. Oil and gas giants Exxon and Conoco also voiced support for the Paris deal.

This internal fight represented two different approaches from a fossil fuel industry trying to sustain itself. One approach is to bulldoze and cherry-pick your way through the science of climate change and attack the UN process — all to undermine your opponents’ core arguments.

Another approach is to accept the science but work the system to convince governments that “clean coal” and efficiency gains are the way forward.

The latter was exactly the rationale reportedly deployed by coal firms like Peabody Energy and Cloud Peak.

According to White House officials quoted by Reuters, these firms wanted Trump to stay in the Paris deal because this gave them a better chance of getting support for “low-emission” coal plants. They might also get some financial help to support the development of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology."


Friday, June 2, 2017

Climate: limits and opportunities for the new economies


A post by Ilaria Perissi, from her blog "Systems". Ilaria is a researcher at the University of Florence, Italy, currently working at the EU "MEDEAS" project aimed at modeling material fluxes of the EU economy. 








by Ilaria Perissi

In a previous post titled Information, Energy and Human development, I concluded saying that we don’t know what will happen to our society if the planet will be overheated. I don’t have the answer, and maybe I will never have it, but I have surely been gaining new insights on what has been the influence of the climate on the history of civilisation, and what could be its role, if there is any, into a more equitable future and a sustainable society.

I start exactly from this last point: how are we now imagining a future civilisation?

We need a new source of energy that should be renewable (in the way we do not risk total depletion of it, at least till the sun will shine), also thinking about a new economy not based on an intensive exploitation of fossil fuels. That would represent a powerful tool to make a step forward to a better future. But, recently, interesting currents of thought are emerging in the economic scenario promoting alternatives to the incessant growth that already in the 70's revealed, thanks to the study of ‘Limits to Growth’, the weakness of continuing this economic vision on a planet with a limited carrying capacity.

One of these currents is the ‘Circular Economy’ (CE) that proposes a greater resource productivity aiming to reduce waste and avoid pollution, including the shift from fossil fuels to the use of renewable energies, promoting the role of diversity as a characteristic of resilient and productive systems, so that it represents an interesting way out from the limits of the present ‘Linear Economy’.

Another idea is the ‘Degrowth Economy’ (DE) that not only is based on the previous pillars of the CE, but it is also a new philosophy of lifestyle. The DE affirms that prosperity can be of better quality and more equitable for all the humankind even with fewer materials things, abandoning the frenetic rhythms of today's life and harmonising the economy production according to the natural cycles (and I completely agree).

We can grasp from the previous description why this current is called 'Degrowth': it simply pushes in the opposite direction of the widespread concept of 'Growth' economy, whose prosperity is based on the increasing demand of always new goods and services.

To be more precise, 'Degrowth' refers to the lowering of the indicator called Gross Domestic Product (or GDP), that measures the economic performance of a system according to, in simplified terms, the number of goods and services it can provide. Therefore, the DE assesses that more valuable prosperity is possible if we consistently lower the value of this indicator, in particular in those countries we call ‘Developed Countries’, that stand out for their very high level of GDP in comparison to the world average. DE underlines also that this difference in GDP exists because there is a huge gap, both in economic and development terms, between the North and the South of the planet. The predominance of the North holds hostage the South's socio-economic system, slowing down also its potential alternative trajectories toward a better life.

Look at this paragraph, extracted from the very interesting book 'Degrowth: Vocabulary for a new era':




The message is clear and the reality too: the condition of the South of the Planet is very different from that of the North of the Planet. The DE aims at re-equilibrating this difference, conquering a new welfare for all the humans based on more equity and environmental justice. Mumble ..how to do it?

Usually, when we want to change something in any situation, it is a good idea to check some facts in the past, probably the reasons of the existence of certain things in the present have their roots in history.

Thus, when, in the past this predominance of the North economy started, was it due to random factors or are there any facts/evidence in the history of civilisation that advantaged the North in comparison to the South?

Take a look at the following picture:




Figure 1. Chronology of the most important ancient civilizations.


All the most ancient cultures were born in the North hemisphere.

I started to think this fact can not be ‘only’ a coincidence. Why civilization and the economy historically have progressed more in the North than in the South? Could this mainly due to a ‘physically different ‘ space instead of a ‘conceptual different space'?

I think so…The economy is made by humans exchanges, interactions, cooperation: all these conditions in which humans live and lived in the past determine the economy and the characteristics of their civilization (Here, I refer to 'civilization' as the attitude of humankind to dominate the environment according to the fundamentals of rationalism). In particular, the capacity to produce (manufacturing) and the capacity to distribute (transport) are the foundations of any world economic system.

Let’s start to examine which could be the macroscopic differences, in terms of the capacity of transportation and productivity, between North and South of the Earth.

First, we are terrestrial creatures, we move more easily by land than by sea. Also many domesticated animals that have been crucial for transportation, hunting, agriculture and so on, are terrestrials too. Take a look at the following picture:



Figure 2. The surface extension of emerged lands.


As we can see in figure 2, between the parallels - 60°S and + 60° N, i.e. in a climate that is not polar, the available land is much larger in the North than in the South.

Thus, an important macroscopic physical difference between North and South of the planet is the extension of emerged lands in temperate zones.

Moreover, the South portion of emerged lands is fragmented in 3 continents: South America, Africa and Oceania: if we move in the direction West- East (W-E, or vice-versa) we note that these three portions of land are at a distance of several hundreds of kilometers of water. Thus, any civilization born in the South would expand preferentially along the N-S direction.

Quite different is the availability of movement W-E in the North hemisphere. Here, Asia and Europe cover the largest portion of Northern emerged land. It was in these two continents that the most ancient civilizations in the history of humankind were born: China, Egypt, Greek, Romans and others, as already shown in figure 1. Probably, the presence of the Mediterranean sea, that is an almost ‘close’ sea in a temperate zone, permitted the development of navigation techniques and the development of commercial trade routes in more safe and protected areas.

We can summarize saying that the larger the available surface of emerged lands, the more there are possibilities of creating a network of connections and more are it possible to develop cities and manufacturing centers.

So, you will say that today the problem of the trade connections have been overcome by technology, so let’s say that the oceans or the extension of emerged lands don't represent any more serious obstacles in exchanging goods or information also in the South hemisphere.

But there is another problem, if you note, that still remains: along the N-S pathways (meridians), in any point of the globe, we had/have to face with a change in the climate conditions (figure 3).





Figure 3. The figure shows a rough, but significant split, of the three climate zones of the planet: polar, temperate and tropical zones.

Thus, I go back to the opening question of the post: did the climate have any impact on civilization? And could it be related to the productivity of the human beings?

There is an interesting book, ‘Civilization and Climate’ by E. Huntington, that for the first time examined this issue at the beginning of the 1900s.

Huntington, as himself reports, had the mission to investigate: “step by step, the process by which geologic structure, topographic form, and the present and past nature of the climate have shaped man's progress, moulded his history; and thus played an incalculable part in the development of a system of thought which could scarcely have arisen under any other physical circumstances."

I admit I haven’t yet read the entire book but if you search accurately in this treatise you can find that the author clearly reports that the temperate climate is the best environment for the development of civilization, under several points of view. And figure 3 shows that the portion of temperate climate zone in the North of the globe is decisively larger than in the South one.

Here, as one of the examples that reinforce the thesis of the author, I just report the following graphs, from his book:




This figure reports the main temperature in which a man, employed in a factory job, is able to reach his best performance in terms of productivity, intended as the best combination of mental and body energies. This temperature it is around 50 °F or 10 °C.

More recent studies assess that, in an office, the ideal temperature for mental activities is around 20-22 °C, and it makes sense: we probably need a warmer environment to reach the optimal mental-body energy combination to work in an office in which we stay sitting almost all the time. And we are sure enough that these average values of temperature are typical of the temperate climate zones.

The book from Huntington offers several more interesting examples, worth thinking about. It simply reveals that the human activities, and even the moral issues, still depend upon Nature. And this is a positive aspect, the author says, because it gives us the opportunity to correct our behaviour, knowing that there are climate physical conditions to take into account, even in planning a new economy.

Especially in a Degrowth Economy, the relationship between our body energy and the climate is, probably, the most important to keep in mind if we want to achieve more equity in the opportunity of future sustainable development for all the cultures, independently of the latitudes they are.
What I would like to point out with these ideas, is that the productivity of humans, on which civilization and economy both rely, have been and still remains highly conditioned by climate.

The North and the South of the planet are different environments, have different availability of space and climate, i.e. a mainly physical differences, that, reasonably, have affected the history of the world economies with an active role in originating the inequalities we are observing now.

Changing our economy implies to face these climate diversities, maybe now more than in the past, to image a future more equitable civilization as it is described in the vision of a Degrowth Economy, or another new desirable more equitable Economy, that I think, we need so much precisely ‘now’.

The message of Huntington is full of hope, he concludes his treaty saying: ‘If we are able to conquer the climate, the whole world will become stronger and nobler”.

But something is telling me…that we are going exactly in the opposite direction. The domain on climate risks to go out of our hand, and for this reason, the climate issue remains, in my opinion, the most urgent problem to face to leave a dignified human legacy to the future generations.


Who

Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" to be published by Springer in mid 2017