Welcome to the age of diminishing returns

Friday, May 22, 2015

The future of humankind after the great crash: extinction or the human hive?



"Hellstrom's Hive," written by Frank Herbert in 1973, is one of the few sound explorations of how an "eusocial" human society could be patterned on the lifestyle of social insects, such as bees and ants. Could this be what the remote future has in store for humankind? It is impossible to say but I, for one, welcome our new hive overlords.



I have no doubt that we are heading at full speed toward a major ecosystem crash. We are wrecking the climate, destroying the biosphere, poisoning the seas, dispersing heavy metals all over, creating radioactive isotopes that had never existed in the four billion years of the Earth's history. Whatever is going to happen, it will not be a pretty sight for those who will be alive to see it.

But does the upcoming crash mean the end of the human species? That can't be excluded and the concept of "Near Term Extinction" (NTE) even became rather popular, nowadays (*). But the problem with human extinction is not so much how likely it is. The problem is that it is boring. We go extinct and that's it; end of the story. We may even wreck the ecosystem so badly that we would sterilize the whole planet, having everything else dying with us. Even more boring, isn't it?

Yet, the future remains a fascinating subject and the remote (or "deep") future is the most fascinating one. So, suppose that not everybody dies in the great crash; what future is in store for homo sapiens? (**).

As a first hypothesis, the great crash might not be so great, after all. Maybe it could be just a bump along the way; more or less like the Middle Ages were for Europe. So, humans could emerge into the after-crash future still as a few billion strong and still having most of the technologies we have today. They could have energy from renewables, enough to keep going in the form of an industrial society.  But this would imply a capacity of long range planning that we just don't seem to have.

More likely, humans would emerge out of the great transition as few, battered, and poor. They would find themselves stranded on a planet badly depleted of the energy and mineral resources they had before the crash. Then, what could happen to them?

Much depends on what the after-crash climate will be. After the great warming "pulse" generated by fossil carbon burning, the Earth will stay very warm for a long period - at least some thousands of years. Gradually, it will cool down as the atmospheric carbon dioxide created by the industrial revolution will be gradually - very gradually - re-absorbed into the Earth's crust. It may well take a hundred thousand years to return to the pre-industrial CO2 concentrations. Only at that point we may see again the climate conditions which were typical of an Earth unperturbed by human activities; perhaps with the series of ice ages that characterized the "Pleistocene," the epoch preceded the more stable Holocene - in which we are still living.

So, we can say that our after-crash descendants (if any) will live in a warm, possibly extremely warm, climate. But the Earth is big, so it would be possible for them to find areas cool enough that they could survive, perhaps in the far north or even in Antarctica. On the whole, we can expect that, after the great crash, humankind could face several tens of thousands of years of survivable conditions, perhaps even a few hundreds of thousands of years.

A lot of things can happen in several tens of thousands of years, but we can be reasonably sure of one: humans will not see another industrial revolution. Fossil fuels will be gone and it will take millions of years, for the ecosystem to create them again - maybe they will never be recreated. Then, the after-crash world will also be badly depleted in mineral resources. Our descendants won't be able to mine much, but they will be able to scavenge what their predecessors had left in the ruins of their cities. They will have plenty of iron from the skeletons of old bridges and buildings; perhaps they'll be able to put their hands on some ancient vault filled with gold ingots. But they will lack the abundance of rare metals that we are used to and an even more serious limit will be the vegetable charcoal they will need in order to process the metals they scavenge. For them, most metals will always be rare and expensive.

So, we can imagine that future humans will have to settle back to simple ways of living. Perhaps they will have to revert to hunting and gathering, but they may also be able to cultivate the land, even though we can't be sure that this future climate will be stable enough for that. Whatever the case, it will be a low-tech world.

It doesn't look very much like an exciting future. Hunting and gathering by hominids has been going on for millions of years, always more or less the same. And agricultural societies are static, hierarchical, oppressive, and have been described as "peasants ruled by brigands." (attributed to Alfred Duggan). Is this what we should expect for the next 100,000 years? Just new peasants ruled by new brigands? Not necessarily.

The fact is that humans can evolve. And they can evolve fast, substantially changing even in a few thousand years. The recent results of genomic research opened up a Pandora's box of discoveries. Our ancestors did evolve, oh, yes, they did!. The idea that we are still the same guys who hunted wooly mammoths during the ice age badly needs an update. We are similar to them, but not the same; not at all.

A lot of things happened to humans during the transition from hunter-gatherers to farmers and pastoralists. We lost a good 3-4% of the cranial capacity, many of us became able to digest milk, we developed resistance to many diseases and the capability to live on a diet that was very different and much poorer than that of hunters and gatherers. These changes were genetic, resulting from the need of adapting to a different lifestyle and to a more complex society.

So, if humans can survive the great crash and keep going for more millennia - perhaps many more millennia - there is plenty of time for more and deeper changes. Actually, humans are going to change a lot over such a long time span. How will they change? Of course, it is a difficult question, but we can at least identify some trends. In particular, we can imagine that some present tendencies that today we tend to see as mainly cultural, may eventually become enshrined in the human genome.

Something that might happen is that humankind could speciate. That is, they could gradually branch out into two or more separate species. We have already seen a considerable divergent specialization among at least three different human groups: hunters/gatherers, shepherds, and farmers. Each of these three branches exploits different ecological/economic niches and has developed cultural (in  part also genetic) adaptations to different lifestyles. Extrapolate this trend into the far future and you have two (or even three) species of hominids; repeating the situation that was common long ago, when different hominids co-existed at the same time. Neandertals and Sapiens, indeed, lived in overlapping times but they were different species and they had limited (although non zero) capabilities of interbreeding with each other.

If the future will see more than one species of "homo", then each one will independently specialize and adapt to their environment. Hunters/gatherers will probably revert to the already optimized tool makers of the Pleistocene. Shepherds will become more and more adapted to their nomadic lives in areas which are poorly productive for agriculture. Farmers will keep living in villages and cities at high population densities. They will build cities, temples, and palaces. They will create armies, fight against each other, and build up kingdoms and empires. And it is there that things have a chance of getting more interesting. 

The past genetic and cultural evolution of agricultural humans has been all along the development of more "social" characteristics: an increase in the ability of living in large groups of highly differentiated categories (farmers, soldiers, craftsmen, priests...). If the trend continues, we may see cultural characteristics becoming more and more embedded in the genome of the species. In the (very) long run, we could see the birth of a "eusocial" humankind; the same kind of social structure of bees, ants and termites. That is, a society of sterile workers, sterile soldiers, "queens" that generate most individuals, and dumb males (on this last characteristic, we are already pretty advanced). It is not impossible. There already exist eusocial mammals, one is the naked mole rat of Central Africa. So, maybe the future for humans will not involve advanced technological gadgetry (of which we are so fond) but, rather, advanced social engineering, with the development of more and more efficient and stratified societies.

Is the future of humans a beehive? We can't say, but it looks more and more likely that some old ways of seeing the future are now wholly obsolete. Likely, our descendants will have no flying cars; no spaceships, no robot butlers bringing the martinis to them as they relax on the pool's edge. But the powers of a human hive could still be impressive even without the gadgetry of our times. Maybe the "superintelligence" that some see as developing in our computers could actually appear in an eusocial human organization (this is one of the themes of Frank Herbert's novel "Hellstrom's Hive").

Will these superintelligent entities avoid the mistakes that we have done? We can't say; of course, it is a future that none of us will ever see. But it is a fascinating future and the interest in the future is part of the fact of being human. Perhaps, our hive descendants will have think in the same way.


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George Mobus' take on the future evolution of humankind. 

George Mobus contributed to the discussion started by RE of the doomstead diner with these considerations that I am reproducing here with his consent.

With respect to ideas about extinction as a possible outcome, I would like to reiterate that extinction of species is apparently inevitable. Some 99% of all species that have ever lived (it is estimated) have gone extinct, and the current batch of biodiversity is probably no more than one million years old, on average.

But there are alternative pathways to extinction and alternate subsequent outcomes. Much has to do with the "evolvability" of the stock species. I posted a piece on this notion some time back: http://questioneverything.typepad.com/question_everything/2013/02/how-did-mammals-and-birds-survive-the-end-cretaceous-event.html 


Human evolution is still underway, but is tightly coupled currents with cultural evolution, that is co-evolution is driving mutual selection in both the biological species and the artifactual, human-built world. Biological evolution is still very much slower than cultural innovation owing to a lower generation of novelty rate (e.g. genetic mutation). Nevertheless, we humans are still undergoing biological adaptations (not individual adaptations) to cultural influences.

The capacity for evolvability, however, affords many kinds of opportunities for species to radiate even when occupying the same geographic and ecological environment (see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sympatric_speciation and an article in Scientific American, Vol 312, Issue 4, on "The Extraordinary Evolution of Cichlid Fishes," http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-extraordinary-evolution-of-cichlid-fishes/).

All of this leads me to expect (and hope) that some form of hominid, specifically derived from our current genus, will survive the almost certain change in the cultural devolution due to decline of energy and the environmental stresses due to climate change and, given enough time, produce a new species of Homo, indeed perhaps several new species, over the next several million years. Technically, then, Homo sapiens, as we understand our species now, will be extinct even while new species carry on under the future selection conditions that will exist.


Though speculative (trying to second-guess nature is always a shot in the dark!) I have used some evolutionary historical patterns of emergence of cooperation throughout the history of life (from origins of life to eusocialization in humans) to envision some future possibilities. See:
http://questioneverything.typepad.com/question_everything/2013/11/the-future-of-evolution.html
All of which is well and good, and stimulating to think about. But I still think the immediate concern is for the dynamics of collapse. Can collapse be "managed" so as to minimize, in some practical way, the suffering that will attend it?


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Albert Bates also commented on this subject at "PeakSurfer

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(*) The reasons of the popularity of the concept of "Near Term Extinction" are a fascinating subject in themselves. One reason could be that many of us are truly fed up with the many awful things we are doing to this planet (and to ourselves). So much, that human extinction doesn't look so bad; it actually becomes almost a relief. But near term extinction could be seen as an extreme form of BAU-ism. That is, some people seem unable to conceive that there could be life for humankind in forms different than the present one. Some of them take refuge in a form of technological BAU, hoping that the present society can be maintained forever by means of technological progress. Others seem to realize the impossibility of the technological dream and hence take refuge in self-annihilation. It is a little like the many Japanese citizens who committed suicide after the surrender of Japan at the end of the second world war. They couldn't conceive a world where Japan had been defeated, and so they decided to leave it.

(**) The considerations made here about the homo sapiens species are long term enough that they could be applied to other, similar species. So, if humans go extinct, the path to eusociality could be taken by other primates; such as chimps and bonobos (the latter may well be more advanced than us in social technologies). Even some non-primate species, hyenas for instance, are very advanced in terms of social organization. And then, there are mammals which are already eusocial. Could naked mole rats take over the planet? Why not? 




Monday, May 11, 2015

The oil crash: something wicked this way comes



The recent oil price crash signals the impending demise of the oil and gas industry as a major world energy producer. That should be a good thing, in principle, but something wicked may still come out of the process.


With the ongoing collapse of the oil prices, we can say that it is game over for the oil and gas industry, in particular for the production of "tight" (or "shale") oil and gas. Prices may still go back to reasonably high levels, in the future, but the industry will never be able to regain the momentum that had made its US  supporters claim "energy independence" and "centuries of abundance." The bubble may not burst all of a sudden, but it surely will deflate.

So, what's going to happen, now? The situation is, to say the least, "fluid". A great rush is ongoing to convince investors to place their money where there is still some chance to make a profit. I think we can identify at least three different strategies for the future: 1) more of the same (oil and gas) 2) a push to nuclear, and 3) a push for renewables. Let's see to examine what the future may have in store for us.


1) A push for more gas and more oil. The oil&gas industry has not yet conceded defeat; on the contrary, it still dreams of centuries of abundance (see, e.g. this article on Forbes). It seems unthinkable that investors would still want to finance uncertain enterprises such as squeezing more oil from exhausted fields or, worse, from difficult and expensive technologies such as coal liquefaction. But you should never underestimate the power of business as usual. If people feel that they absolutely need liquid fuels, then they will be willing to do anything to get liquid fuels.

The main problem with this idea is not so much its technical feasibility. By throwing every resource at hand at the task (and beggaring the whole economy in the process) it would not be impossible to fool peak oil for a few more years. The problem is a different one: it is with climate change and with the fact that we are running out of time. If we keep burning hydrocarbons, we just can't make it: the industrial society cannot survive the resulting warming and the associated troubles. That is true if we keep burning at the "natural" rate, that is along the bell shaped curve. Imagine if we try to keep growing, instead (as all politicians in the world say we should).

All this is becoming well known and, as a result, a push toward further hydrocarbon production (or, God forbid, more coal) will be possible only if accompanied by a strong propaganda campaign destined to silence climate science and climate activism. Some symptoms that something like that is in the making are evident enough to be disturbing. Consider that none of the Republican candidates for the US 2016 elections supports the need for action on climate change, that in Florida government employees are not allowed to use the term "climate change" or "global warming," that NASA has been defunded on anything that has to do with climate change, and more. Then, a certain logic starts to appear: "muzzle the science and keep on burning". Something very wicked this way comes.....


2. A new push for nuclear. This option would not be so bad as the first, more hydrocarbons. At least, nuclear plants do not directly generate greenhouse gases and we know that it is a technology that can produce energy. Nevertheless, the hurdles associated with its expansion are gigantic. The first and foremost problem is that the uranium mineral production is not sufficient for ramping up nuclear energy from a few percent of the world's primary energy production to a major fraction of it - to be able to do that would require investments so large to be mind boggling. To say nothing about the need for rare minerals in nuclear plants: beryllium, niobium, hafnium, zirconium, rare earths, and more; all in short supply. Then, there are all the nightmarish problems of nuclear waste disposal, safety, and strategic control.

Nevertheless, if it were possible to convince investors to pour money into nuclear energy, then it would be possible to see an attempt to restart it, despite the various problems and disasters that have given to nuclear a bad name. An attempt to do just that seems to be in progress. President Obama is said to be considering a massive return to nuclear and investors are told to prepare for a gigantic surge in uranium prices. Will it work? Unlikely, but not impossible. Something wicked this way comes......

hafnium as a neutron absorber, beryllium as a neutron reflector, zirconium for cladding, and niobium

Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2011-05-nuclear-power-world-energy.html#jCp

3. A big push for renewables. Surprisingly, the renewable industry may have serious chances to take over from a senescent oil industry, leaving the nuclear industry standing still and gasping at the sight. The progress in renewable technology, especially in photovoltaic cells, has been simply fantastic during the past decade (see, e.g., the recent MIT report). We have now a set of methods for producing electric power that can compete with traditional sources, watt for watt, dollar for dollar. Consider that the most efficient of these technologies do not need critically rare materials and that none brings the strategic and security problem of nuclear. Finally, consider that it has been shown (Sgouridis, Bardi, and Csala) that the present renewable technology could take over from the current sources fast enough to prevent major damage from climate change.

It looks like we have a winner, right? Indeed, the atmosphere around renewables is one of palpable optimism. If renewable energy picks up enough momentum, there will be nothing able to stop it until it has catapulted all of us, willing or not, into a new (and cleaner) world.

There is a problem, though. The renewable industry is still tiny in comparison to the nuclear industry and especially in comparison to the oil and gas industry. And we know that might usually wins against right. The sheer financial power of the traditional energy industry may well be enough to abort the change before it becomes unstoppable. Something wicked may still come....... (*)





(*) "Something wicked this way comes" is mainly known today as the title of a 1962 novel by Ray Bradbury. Actually, it comes from Shakespeare's Macbeth..

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Great Oil Game: Resource Crisis in Russia?

Weekly pageviews of "Resource Crisis." My blog seems to be having a remarkable success in Russia, but do the Russians understand the problem of resource depletion?


Complex structures, such as states and empires, are always prone to collapse and they usually give little or no previous warnings. The collapse of the Soviet Union, indeed, had not been predicted by anyone and it came completely unexpected. In the present crisis, instead, Western analysts seem to have fallen in the opposite mistake, predicting the rapid demise of the Russian Federation. But that didn't happen. On the contrary, the Russian economic system showed a remarkable resilience and it strongly rebounded after a bad moment, last year. (image below from Bloomberg).




So, predicting collapses is always very difficult in a world's situation that looks more and more like a Russian Roulette (an appropriate name in this context), but played with nuclear weapons. It might well be that some states which at present look very solid could be the ones to experience a sudden and unexpected Soviet-style implosion (let me not say which ones these states could be).

Let's go more in depth in this matter. The collapse of Russia was expected in the West mainly as the result of the recent crash of the world's oil market. That repeated the situation of the late 1980s, when the old USSR was bankrupted by a similar effect: a rapid fall of oil prices which strongly reduced the revenues from oil exports. However, the present situation is not exactly the same. The main difference is related to the perspectives of the oil market. In the 1980s, low oil prices were generated by new oil fields entering the market after the first oil crisis - for instance the North Sea. The supply increased and prices collapsed around 1985 at levels that today we can't even dream any more - around 20$-30$ in current dollars - and they remained there for nearly two decades.

Today, there is no equivalent of the new resources that had entered in production in the 1980s and the price collapse has been generated mainly by a demand slump. Additionally. what we call today "low prices" are at least twice as high (in current dollars) than they were in the 1980s. And these "low" prices are bankrupting the whole US tight oil industry. That can't be without effect in bringing back oil prices to the levels which were considered "normal" up to last year. Consider also that Russian production costs are not the highest in the world, as shown in this figure


The values shown in the figure are very uncertain but, as long as oil prices do not fall below US 40 $, Russia should be able to survive; and they seem to be doing exactly that. In the short term, at least, the "oil weapon" that some analysts saw as unleashed against Russia, failed to obtain its purpose.

Certainly, however, the question of the long term management of the Russian mineral resources cannot be ignored. There are elements indicating that Russia's oil production is peaking this year and, according to Ron Patterson, USA and Russia may peak together. How would their respective economies react to that? More in general, how will Russia manage the unavoidable long term depletion of the country's resources? What do the Russians want to do with their mineral wealth? Who is going to use it and for what purpose? Planning on the basis of the fundamental elements of the depletion process (*) would be the best for Russia to avoid a future resource crisis.


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(*) The problem of oil depletion is very poorly understood everywhere in the world, but, according to my personal experience, it may be that it is even less understood in Russia. For instance, over more than a decade of existence of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO) there have been many national chapters (including ASPO-Italy). However, there has never been an ASPO-Russia (if you google for "ASPO Russia" you'll find the Astrakhan Shipbuilding Production Association, which is not exactly the same thing!). 







Monday, April 27, 2015

Saudi Arabia: the great oil game




Saudi Arabia just increased oil production to a record level, never reached in previous history. They are doing that in a moment of record low oil prices. What do they have in mind? (Image from Arthur Berman)


When the collapse of the oil prices started, in the summer of 2014, everyone noticed that Saudi Arabia was not playing their traditional role of "swing producers", that is varying their production in such a way to maintain reasonably constant prices. Facing a slump in demand, they should have reduced production; but they didn't.

Initially, I thought the Saudis were simply taken by surprise and they were slow to react. But now, with the recent increase in Saudi production, it is clear that they have something in mind. Maybe they haven't engineered the market collapse, but in some way they are riding it.

Though this be madness, yet there is method in it. But what method could there be in raising production just when prices are lowest? Every single textbook in economics will tell you that the market should adapt to changes in demand and offer in exactly the opposite way: facing a reduced demand, production should go down, too. 

Of course, as we all know, what you read in textbooks of economics has little to do with the real world. And, in the real world, there is a well known market strategy that consists in bankrupting your competitors by selling below cost. The idea is to create a monopoly and recoup later what the winner of the struggle has lost at the beginning. It is, of course, illegal, but the very fact that there are laws against it, means that it is done.

However, there is a little problem in applying this strategy to the oil market. It has to do with the fact that oil is a finite resource. So, if producers manage to obtain a monopoly, that means they will run out of the resource before the others. Imagine you are an art dealer: would you sell your Picassos at low cost in order to undercut the other art merchants and gain a monopoly? Of course not, what you would obtain is simply to run out fast of your precious Picasso paintings and then leave the market fully open to the others. 

So, what are the Saudis doing, exactly? Art Berman suggests that they are fighting against the banks that created the tight oil bubble possible. After the elimination of the bubble, the market might return to relatively high oil prices and maximize the revenues for Saudi Aramco. 

Berman's interpretation is surely possible, but, as in all these cases, we are looking at governments as if they were "black boxes", trying to understand the inner mechanisms that make them move. This is very risky: just as we see in clouds faces that aren't there, we may see in a government's actions a plan that is not there. Are the Saudis really planning for a long term profit? Or are they simply misjudging the extent of their resources? 

After all, we have several examples of non-renewable resources having been managed as if they were infinite. Just consider how the North Sea oil was extracted at the highest possible rate when the oil market was experiencing historically low prices. That left producers with declining oil fields when market prices started increasing. It was not a very smart strategy, to say the least.

In the case of the North sea, there was no long term planning; it was just that the long term depletion problem was not understood. So, are the Saudis blind to the very concept of "depletion"?(*) That's impossible to say at present. The only certain fact is that age of cheap oil is gone; even though some wild oscillations may make us believe that the good times have returned - but just for a while. 




(*) About being unable to perceive that a mineral resource is running out, an especially tragic case is that of Yemen. For a few years, I have been following the "Yemen Times" and. in all this time, I never could read any statement that indicated that the problem of oil depletion in Yemen was understood. Whenever the decline in production was mentioned, it was attributed to terrorism, civil unrest, and other temporary problems. From what I could read, it seems to me that the Yemen society was (and still is) completely and totally blind to the fact that they have been gradually running out of oil and that oil depletion is the root cause of all the troubles that they have experienced, and that they are experiencing right now. (graph from "our finite world")



Saturday, April 25, 2015

The mind of empires: the story telling approach to strategy




This video is making the rounds on the Web. Here, Mr. George Friedman speaks of strategic matters in Europe and argues that the objective of the United States is to contain Russia in order to maintain their world empire.



What is that motivates governments in taking decisions that so often turn out to be tragically wrong? The problem is that we have no data on the inner functioning of most governments; that is, we don't know what leaders say to each other when discussing in private. We can, however, have some idea on the way of thinking of governments if we look at the public pronouncements of that category of "experts" that go under the name of "strategic advisers".

I have no direct experience in military matters, but I do in a field that is just as strategic; that of the energy supply and, more in general, the supply of mineral commodities that makes a country's economy function. In this field, I have encountered several specimens of the category of the "policy advisers" who are supposed to whisper wisdom in the ear of the world leaders. These people tend to use a story-based approach; something that I would define as "story telling based strategy."

I have already reported how someone who advised the Spanish governmen described the world's oil market in purely narrative terms; giving roles to each major producer and having them play in the great theater of the world. And his narration was totally unencumbered by facts and data. The clip shown at the beginning of this post has a very similar style. Mr. Friedman's epistemology of international matters seems to be based on a basic narrative concept: major world governments are given roles and then they are described as playing these roles in the world theater. The resulting play is not encumbered by data; it is, after all, pure narrative; story telling based epistemology. 

Least you accuse me of speaking without data myself, let me bring up at least one historical example of this approach. I can picture in my mind a cabinet reunion of the Italian government at some moment, in late 1941. I can imagine Mr. Mussolini standing up and saying, "You know, guys? I have an idea: we should declare war on the United States!" And everyone in the room nods and says, "Yeah, great idea, chief! Let's do that!"

What led the Italian government to take this disastrous decision? I think it can be explained in terms of the narrative models that they had in their minds. The documents we have from that time tell us that, in their minds, the dominant narration was that the Mediterranean Sea was an Italian lake. The US - as they saw the situation - had no more interest in controlling the Mediterranean Sea than Italy had in controlling the Gulf of Mexico. I don't know if Mussolini was influenced by some policy advisers in developing this narration, but it is clear that he and the whole Italian government badly misjudged the quantitative factors involved; that s the tremendous US military potential in terms of the human and natural resources it could muster.

Do you think this example is an exception? I don't think so. Imagine a reunion of the Japanese government, also in 1941, with someone standing up and stating: "gentlemen, it is obvious that if we attack the Americans at Pearl Harbor, they will surrender to us immediately afterward.." Their story telling models cast the Americans as weaklings who could be easily intimidated. Again, lack of quantitative data on the extent of the US human and natural resources led to disaster.

There are several more recent examples of monumental mistakes made by governments; we could discuss more of them, but it seems that the concept that government officers work on the basis of narrative models can explain most of what has been happening and is happening in the world. And, if they continue in this way, God knows what kind of monumental mistakes will be made.

Mr. Friedman's speech is a good example of a narrative (unencumbered with data) that could shape the strategic thought of a government. It cannot be understood simply from the clip which is making the rounds on the Web. The complete speech is not just about warmongering, it is not simply an imperial advocacy speech (in part it is, though). It is a fascinating speech that deserves to be listened at. The problem with this kind of speeches that the fascination of story telling hides the ugly details of reality. There is no mention in the speech of the fact that not even an empire can plan wars without worrying about where it can find the resources needed. To be fair, Friedman does mention that if Germany and Russia were to form an alliance, they would have the resources to challenge the American Empire. But he never seems to wonder where the resources that created and maintain the American Empire are coming from right now and for how long they can keep coming. For instance, when he mentions oil prices, he says that low prices are "the new normal". And that, I think, says a lot the limits of storytelling as a guide to understand the world. (To say nothing about the lack of any mention about the grim reaper character waiting to go on stage: climate change).

In the end, these narrative models for leaders are just somewhat more sophisticated versions of the ones used by the media for "consensus building". These are based on the simplest and most primitive narrative device we know: "we are the good guys and they are the bad guys". In their public declarations, high level government officers will often follow the media narrative. Occasionally, however, as with these declarations by Mr. Friedman, their inner mental models briefly surface up from the depth of cabinet reunions. Do some governments know what they are doing? Probably yes, but, from the historical record of humankind, it must be a rare condition.

Our curse as human beings seems to be that we keep trying to force the world to behave according to mental models that were developed by our ancestors of long, long ago. Role playing models were probably working well when we were living in tribes of a few hundred individuals. They don't work anymore with those entities we call "states" or "nations", encompassing tens or hundreds of millions of people.  Will we ever understand that we have to base our decisions on reality? Maybe, but we'll have to be taught some more harsh lessons by the real world before we learn.














Monday, April 20, 2015

Climate change: can the Seneca effect save us?


The "Seneca Cliff" (or "Seneca Collapse"). The ancient Roman philosopher said "The path of increase is slow, but the road to ruin is rapid." A "Seneca Collapse" of the world's economy would surely reduce the chances of a climate disaster, but it would be a major disaster in itself and it might not even be enough.  



Nothing we do (or try to do) seems to be able to stop carbon dioxide from accumulating in the atmosphere. And, as a consequence, nothing seems to be able to stop climate change. With the situation getting worse and worse (see here for an example), we are hoping that some kind of international agreement can be reached to limit emissions. But, after many attempts and many failures, can we really expect that next time - miraculously - we could succeed?

Another line of thought, instead, has that depletion will save us. After all, if we run out of oil (and of fossil fuels in general) then we'll have to stop emitting greenhouse gases. Won't that solve the problem? In principle, yes, but is it going to happen?

The gist of the debate on the future of fossil fuel production is that, despite the theoretically abundant resources, the production rate is strongly affected by diminishing economic returns generated by depletion. This factor forces the production curve to follow a "bell shaped", or "Hubbert," curve that peaks and starts declining much before the resource runs out, physically. In practice, most studies that take into account the diminishing economic returns of production arrive to the conclusion that the IPCC scenarios often overestimate the amount of fossil carbon that can be burned (see a recent review by Hook et al.). From this, some have arrived to the optimistic conclusion that peak oil will save us from climate change (see this post of mine). But that's way too simplistic.

The problem with climate change is not that temperatures will keep smoothly growing from now until the end of the century. The problem is that we will run into big troubles much earlier if we let temperatures rise over a certain limit. Sea level rise, oceanic acidification, and land desertification are just some of the problems, but a worse one could be the "climate tipping point." That is, over a certain point, the rise in temperatures would start to be driven by a series of feedback effects within the ecosystem and climate change would become unstoppable.

We don't know where the climate tipping point could be situated, but there exists a general agreement that we should keep temperatures from rising above 2 deg. C to avoid a major catastrophe. From the 2009 paper by Meinshausen et al. we can estimate that, from now on, we should not release more than about 1x10+12 t of CO2 in the atmosphere. Considering that we have released so far some 1.3x10+12 t of CO2 (source: global carbon project), the grand total should not be more than about 2.3x10+12 t of CO2.

So, what can we expect in terms of total emissions considering a "peaking" scenario? Let me show you some data from Jean Laherrere, who has been among the first to propose the concept of "peak oil."



In this figure, made in 2012, Laherrere lists the quantities of fuels burned, with a "U" ("ultimate") measured in Tboe (Terabarrels of oil equivalent, see below for the conversion factors used). As a first approximation, if all the emissions were from crude oil, we would emit some 4.5x10+12 t of CO2. Things change little if we separate the contributions of the three fossil fuels. Crude oil, alone, would produce 1.3x10+12 t of CO2.  Coal would produce 2.8x10+12 t and natural gas 0.95x10+12 t. The final result is nearly exactly 5x10+12 t of CO2.

In short, even if we follow a "peaking" trajectory in the production of fossil fuels, we are going to emit around twice as much carbon dioxide as what some people (probably optimistically) consider to be the "safe" limit.

Of course, there are plenty of uncertainties in these calculations and the tipping point may be farther away than estimated. But it could also be closer; much closer. And we should take into account the problem of the increasing CO2 emissions per unit of energy as we progressively move toward dirtier and less efficient fuels. So, we are really toying with disaster, with a good chance to run straight into a climate catastrophe.

This conclusion holds in the assumption that the "peaking" scenario is not too optimistic in the amount of fossil fuels that can be produced and burned in the future. But these scenarios are normally termed "pessimistic" in mainstream studies, so that little would change as long as we work with nearly symmetric, bell shaped curves. At best, we can assume that peaking could take place a few years earlier than in Laherrere's estimate; but that still leaves us facing the very real possibility of a climate catastrophe.


Could we, instead, consider a different shape for the production curve? The symmetric "bell shaped" or ("Hubbert") curve is the result of the assumption that extraction is performed in a fully  functioning economy. But, once the economic system starts unraveling, a series of destructive feedbacks accelerates the decline. This is the "Seneca collapse" that generates an asymmetric production curve (the "Seneca cliff").

A Seneca shaped production curve would considerably reduce the amount of fossil carbon that can be burned in the future. Tentatively, if the collapse were to start within the next 10 years and it were to cut off more than half of the potential coal production, then, we could remain within the estimates of the 2 deg. C limit, hoping that it could be enough. Hubbert can't save the ecosystem, but Seneca could (maybe).

But, even if that came to pass, a Seneca collapse is a major disaster in itself for humankind, so there is little to rejoice at the thought that it could save us from runaway climate change. In practice, the only hope to avoid disaster lies in taking a more active role in substituting fossils with renewables. In this way, we can force the production of fossil fuels to go down faster than it would do as an effect of gradual depletion, but without losing the energy supply we need. It is possible - it is a big effort, but we could do it if we were willing to try (see this paper by Sgouridis, Bardi and Csala for a quantitative estimate of the effort needed)




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Unit conversion

One Boe of crude oil = 0.43 t CO2 (http://www.epa.gov/cleanenergy/energy-resources/refs.html)

One Boe of coal = 0.53 t CO2 (calculation from https://www.unitjuggler.com/convert-energy-from-Btu-to-boe.html?val=1000000 and from http://www.epa.gov/cpd/pdf/brochure.pdf 

One Boe of natural gas: 0.31 t CO2 (calculation from https://www.unitjuggler.com/convert-energy-from-Btu-to-boe.html?val=1000000 and from http://www.epa.gov/cpd/pdf/brochure.pdf 






Thursday, April 16, 2015

Breath of Life: the elders speak



This recent film by Susan Kucera is a survey of the sad state of the world. The film presents stunningly beautiful imagery together with together with interviews with a group of scientists and intellectuals (including myself). The overall impression is of something primeval, certainly consistent with the many sections of the film shot in Hawai'i. The people speaking on screen give the definite impression of being the elders of the tribe telling to the young hunters that they should not kill that mammoth; it could be the last they'll ever see! But the young hunters don't listen. It is the story of our species.   

Watch it, if you have a chance.  Here is the film's site.



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)