Monday, March 19, 2018

The View from Les Houches: The Seneca Collapse

I gave a presentation focused on the Seneca Effect at the School of Physics in Les Houches this March. Here I show various concepts associated with overshoot and collapse with the help of "Amelie the Amoeba" (This picture was not taken in Les Houches, but in an earlier presentation in Florence).

Here are some commented slides from my presentation. First of all, the title:

And here is an image I often use in order to illustrate the plight of humankind, apparently engaged in the task of covering the whole planet Earth with a uniform layer of cement, transforming it into Trantor, the capital of the Galactic Empire of Asimov's series "Foundation"

I moved on to illustrate the "new paradigm" of resource exploitation: the idea that mineral resources never "run out", but simply become more and more expensive, until they become too expensive.

It is not a new idea, it goes back to Stanley Jevons in mid 19th century, but for some reason it is incredibly difficult to make it understandable to decision makers:

Then, I spoke about the Seneca effect, there is a lot to say about that, but let me just show to you one of the slides I showed during the talk: the Seneca Cliff does exist!

Fisheries are an especially good example of overexploitation (or perhaps a bad example, there is nothing good about destroying all the fish in the sea. And this leads to a rather sad observation:

I also showed how the Seneca Effect can be used for good purposes, that is to get rid of things we need to get rid of. This is an image from a paper that we (Sgouris Sgouridis, Denes Csala, and myself) published in 2016.

You see the Seneca cliff for the fossils, the violet part of the curve. It is what we want to happen and it would be possible to make it happen if we were willing to invest more, much more, in renewable energy. But, apparently, there is no such idea on the table, so the future doesn't look so good.

But never mind. We keep going and, eventually, we'll arrive somewhere. In the meantime:

Saturday, March 17, 2018

The View From Les Houches: What is the origin of Collapse?

At the physics school of Les Houches, in March 2018, Gregoire Chambaz of the University of Lausanne gave a talk on the phenomenon of "collapse caused by diminishing returns of complexity." (The image above is not from Les Houches but from a meeting in Lausanne last year).

In itself, it is already interesting that a meeting of physicists gives space to the idea of societal collapse, but the school of Les Houches was one of the rare cases of a truly interdisciplinary meeting. The result was a wide variety of approaches, including the talk by Gregoire Chambaz who approached the problem examining the concept of "diminishing returns of complexity" proposed by Joseph Tainter already in 1988. You can find a summary (in French) of Chambaz's work at this link.

If you are a reader of this blog, you probably know Tainter's graphic to explain his concept. Here it is.

The idea is that, as societies become larger, they must develop more and more complex control systems in order to manage the whole system. These control systems may be in the form of bureaucracy, an imperial court, the army, the church, the legal system, and more. And, as these systems become larger, they become unwieldy, rigid, and unmanageable. The effort needed to increase their size is not matched by the benefit they provide. According to Tainter, this is the ultimate reason for the collapse of large societies.

As a model, Tainter's one has proved to be hugely popular and surely it is a "mind sized model," easy to understand and providing an immediate grasp of the evolution of the system. The problem is that Tainter's model has no evident basis in physics. There is no precise explanation of what would cause the behavior that Tainter proposes, not it is possible to measure concepts such as "the benefits of complexity." It is only a qualitative model.

Can we model this kind of collapse using physics? Perhaps. In principle, there could be two reasons why the system stops improving its performance as it grows in size. One could be an effect of entropy. If you work in a large organization, you understand how, over time, it becomes a tangle of contradictory rules and of people and offices which seem to exist only to prevent any work being done (OK, I have in mind the University of Florence, but I am sure it is not the only case in the world). But how to quantify this effect?

Then, the reason for this behavior could be another one. Maybe it is not an intrinsic property of a large system to lose efficiency as it grows, but an effect of the slow decline of the net energy that it uses. That would explain many things and I put together a tentative dynamic model a few years ago which seemed to work. We are working on improving it taking into account the dynamics of the Seneca Effect. It is a work we are doing together with my coworkers Sara and Ilaria, but it will take a little time before we publish it.

Overall, the impression I have is that we are starting to develop an extremely rich field of studies, that of critical phenomena in complex networks. Tainter gave us a first indication of the way to go, but there is much, much more to do before we can say we have a solid theory explaining the periodical collapse of civilizations we observe in history.  But we keep going.

Friday, March 16, 2018

The View From Les Houches: The Return of Space Mining?

Robert Ayres, well known for his work on biophysical economics, gave a talk dedicated to space mining at the School of Physics in Les Houches this March. Ayres just touched the subject that gave the title to his talk, spending most of the time to describe the plight of the mining industry, faced with the shortage of rare minerals. Yet, the fact that he used that title is an indication of the increasing popularity of the meme of mining space. It is still a marginal subject of investigation, but you can see the trend in Scopus, here, for the search term "space mining":

In a previous post of mine, I was not optimistic about space mining. I said that there was nothing interesting to mine in space and that the whole idea was proposed by people who knew little or nothing about geology. Asteroids and other small space bodies contain no ores because they never went through the processes of deposit creation that took place on the Earth. No ores- no mining. Basically, the growth of interest in the subject may be more a symptom of growing desperation rather than something that could be plausibly done.

I remain more or less of this idea: going to space to bring minerals back to Earth makes little sense, But, recently, I have been re-examining the concept and I discovered that there may be a logic in it if we just we change the target market from the Earth to space.

Space is a growing business with plenty of interesting applications: communication, exploration, astronomy, earth monitoring and more. Elon Musk is no fool and if he developed a heavy rocket launcher, it is because he saw the need of it. So far, every gram of the devices and the structures sent to space came from the Earth's crust. And sending things to space is awfully expensive. So, it could make sense to examine the possibility of assembling space structures using materials mined in space.

It would still be difficult, perhaps impossible, to mine rare minerals in space, but asteroids are rich of elements such  such as iron, nickel, aluminum, titanium, silicon and even carbon and water in the form of ice. These minerals are not there in the form of ores, but they form a sufficiently large fraction of some asteroids that extracting and purifying them could make sense. Take also into account that space is rich in solar energy that can be transformed into electric power by PV panels and that in space you have little to worry about pollution and greenhouse gases.

Of course, putting together a mining industry in space is a task which was never attempted so far and the unknowns are enormous. It was discussed back in the 1970s when the concept of "space colonies" became popular. But, over the years, it became clear that humans are not made for space; too expensive and too dangerous. Instead, space is a good place for robots which can do the same things human can do in a better and cheaper way. And these robots could be made, at least in part, from materials obtained from asteroids.

Is it possible? It depends on the trajectory of the world's economic system. If we manage to collapse as badly as some models predict, then space robots will soon become something made of the stuff dreams are made of - just like the angels which once were thought to be pushing planets along their orbits. But if humankind manages to keep a functioning industrial economy, then why not? Our robot-children could explore space and maybe build a new silicon based ecosystem, out there. The future is beautiful because it is always full of possibilities.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

The View from Les Houches: Of Rare Metals and Cute Kittens

Les Houches, March 2018. José Halloy of the Université Paris Diderot discusses mineral depletion in his presentation. Note how he utilizes Hubbert curves to estimate the trajectory of mineral extraction. He predicted that the dearth of very rare elements will negatively affect the electronics industry, perhaps killing it completely.

José Halloy's presentation at the Les Houches school of physics was focused on the availability of rare minerals for electronics. This is a problem that's rarely discussed outside the specialized world of the "catastrophists", that is of those who think that mineral supply may be strongly restricted by depletion in a non-remote future. In this field, Halloy seemed to side with the "hard" catastrophists, that is expressing the option that depletion will make certain things, perhaps even the whole electronics industry, impossible.

The problem, indeed, is there: modern electronics is based on the unrestricted use of very rare minerals - the term "very rare" indicates those elements which are present only in traces in the earth's crust and which, normally, do not form exploitable deposits of their own. If you pick up your smartphone, you probably know that it contains several of these very rare elements gallium (for the transistors), indium (for the screen), tantalum (for the condensers), gold (for the electric contacts) and more.

Most of these elements are "hitch-hikers" in the sense that they are produced as impurities extracted from the production of other elements: for instance, gallium is a byproduct of aluminum production. Whether we can continue to supply these elements to the electronic industry in the future depends on a host of factors, including whether we can continue to extract aluminum from its ores. In this sense, recycling is not a good thing since recycled aluminum, of course, does not contain gallium, because it has already been extracted during the refining phase. Note also that recycling tiny amount of very rare elements from electronic devices is extremely difficult and very costly. So, in the future, the supply of these elements is going to become problematic, to say the least.

Does it mean the end of electronics? José Halloy seemed to be very pessimistic in this sense, but I think the question was not posed in the correct way. If you ask whether current electronic devices can survive the future dearth or rare mineral, the answer is obvious: they can't. But the correct question is a different one: what kind of electronic devices can we build without these elements?

Here, I think we face a scarcely explored area. So far, the industry has been produced all kind of devices focusing solely on performance on the basis of the assumption that there aren't - and there won't ever be - mineral supply problems. Can we make a smartphone without gallium, indium and all the rest? That is, limiting the elements used to the basic ones, silicon, aluminum, and other common materials? It is a difficult question to answer because, really, it has never been addressed, so far.

Yet, I think there are excellent possibilities to develop a new generation of electronic devices which are both using very little (and perhaps zero) rare elements and which are designed for complete (or nearly complete) recycling. The basic element of all electronic circuits, transistors, can be made using silicon and, in general, there are alternatives to rare metals for most devices, even though in most cases not with the same performance. For instance, light emitting diodes (LEDs) are currently based on gallium nitride (GaN) and there seem to be no comparable substitutes. Without LED, we would have to go back to the old cathode ray tubes (CRTs) which we consider primitive today. But, after all,  CRTs performed well enough for us up to not many years ago. So, it would be an inconvenience, but not the end of the world.

So, it is clear that we'll have to settle on reduced performance if we want an electronics without rare elements, perhaps on a strongly reduced performance. But maybe we don't need the kind of performance we have been used to in order to keep going. Think about your smartphone: it is an incredibly complex and powerful device used mostly for trivial tasks such as looking at clips of cute kittens and sending likes and thumbs-up to other machines. Does "civilization" really need these devices? It is all to be seen.

For a fascinating discussion of an industrialized world running without rare metals, see the excellent book by Pierre Bihouix "L'age Des Low Tech" (in French - alas!)

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The View From Les Houches: What Are Models For?

Sandra Bouneau, researcher and lecturer at the university of Paris-Sud, shows her model at the School of Physics in Les Houches, France, in March 2018. As you can see from the image, her model is complex and detailed. It is one of the several models presented at the school which attempt to describe the trajectory of the transition.

Overall, all the models based on physics (including Bouneau's one, as far as I understood it) arrived to similar conclusions, confirming the calculations that myself, Denes Csala, and Sgouris Sgouridis published in 2016. In practice, the transition is possible, but it won't happen all by itself. The economic system needs to be pushed in the right direction, in such a way that it will be able to provide the necessary investments.

The problem is that the system is not being pushed hard enough. Some parts of it, including the US governments, are pushing in the wrong direction, dreaming of an impossible "energy dominance" (and even if it were possible, what good would it be for America?).

At the bottom of the whole problem, it is the fact that policy-makers don't believe in models, although they may declare the opposite. There have been many models developed during the past century or so which would have created a different world if the powers that be had acted on the advice provided - first and foremost "The Limits to Growth" of 1972. But that model was not only disbelieved but positively demonized.

In the end, All models are made to search for trajectories which avoid collapse, so ignoring models ensures collapse. And that's what we are doing!

Monday, March 12, 2018

The View from Les Houches: Thermodynamics vs. Economics

School of Physics in Les Houches, France, March 2018. Juergen Miknes shows some of the concepts that he has developed in his parallel analysis of thermodynamics and economics. It is a remarkable synthesis that you can find described in detail here. In the slide above, he suggests to replace the Cobb-Douglas function, commonly used in economics, with a function based on the concept of Shannon's entropy.

I am not sure of a number of things in Miknes' work, in particular the idea of equating (in some ways at least) the growth of entropy with the growth of production. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating work.

Something that surprised me (but probably I shouldn't have been surprised) was how strongly Miknes was challenged by an economist in the audience. Apparently, economists don't like their field invaded by those pesky physicists. So far, economists have been able to keep physics away from their secluded garden and continue keeping the field open only to people with the right credentials (according to them). For how long, it is all to be seen.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

The View from Les Houches: the Revenge of Lotka and Volterra

Les Houches, March 2018. Fatma Rostom of the University of Paris, shows the basis of her model of the energy transition. It is the good, old Lotka-Volterra model, also known as the "Predator-Prey" or the "Rabbits and Wolves" model. (the LV model, among friends)

Perhaps surprising, this model, presented first in the 1920s, is enjoying a new life today and it was mentioned in several talks. Long considered a toy for freshmen in biology, it turns out to be extremely rich in its capability of describing the stepped dissipation of thermodynamic potentials in a nonequilibrium system.

Dr. Rostom modified the model in order to take into account economic and monetary factors, but even the "raw" LV model can describe real-world phenomena. It was found to be at the basis of the Hubbert Curve (Bardi and Lavacchi, 2009) and it was recently shown to be able to describe the cycle of exploitation of fisheries (Perissi et al. 2017). And, of course, the model is at the basis of the dynamical interpretation of the "Seneca Effect"

The talk by Dr. Rostom was very good for several reasons, one for her emphasis on "mind-sized" models, a concept that I had introduced some years ago under the influence of Seymour Papert. In the current situation of confusion and even of despair, we badly need models that policymakers can understand if they have to act in a meaningful way

But, in the end, what results did Dr. Rostom reported. Well, not very optimistic ones, as you can see in this paper of hers and others


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" (Springer 2017)