Welcome to the age of diminishing returns

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Waiting for the big wave

Guest post by Antonio Turiel


Cassandra's legacy publishes this post by Antonio Turiel that appeared first on Nov 18, 2011 on "The Oil Crash" blog (in Spanish). Here, Turiel examines the Spanish situation, seen a few days before the recent elections that saw the victory of the right wing "Partido Popular". In this lucid analysis, Turiel compares the present situation of Spain - and of the other states in trouble in Europe - to the apparent calm that arrives just before the great tsunami hits. (translation from Spanish by Ugo Bardi)





By Antonio Turiel, 18 Nov, 2011

"People willing to trade their freedom for temporary security deserve neither". Benjamín Franklin.


Dear readers

among the most interesting phenomena that are part of the fields of oceanography and geology, there are tsunamis. A sudden vertical displacement of a fault at the bottom of the sea, by the enormous energy it releases, can displace all the mass of water above it for a not too big height, maybe 50 centimeters, maybe one meter. The problem is that the displacement affects the whole water column, which may be four or more kilometers of height. The wave generated simply by gravity propagates at speeds of hundreds of kilometers per hour; in some cases - if the earthquake takes place in very deep waters - it may arrive to supersonic speeds. When the wave gets close to the coast, the slope of the sea floor creates an effect known as shoaling. 

The solitonic wave breaks up and decomposes in several packets which propagate at much lower speeds (some km/h) but, because of the accumulation of water, their height grows and grows. Because of this, it is much safer to wait for the tsunami at sea, where the wave, of some centimeters, will pass without generating major damage; but its height on the coast will arrive to several meters; in some case as much as 15 (there are documented historical cases of monster tsunamis of almost 50 meters of height) and able to penetrate inland for several kilometers, razing to the ground everything with their enormous power and pressure. Just before the first wave of a tsunami arrives to the coast, the sea retires rapidly of several kilometers; revealing a rocky seafloor of unreal aspect. Some people are fascinated by the phenomenon and find themselves looking at it, captivated, without understanding that, if in that moment they had started running inland, perhaps they will be able to get far enough, or reach a ground sufficiently high, to survive. It is a question of a few crucial minutes; those few vital minutes before the arrival of the first wave. Another fact that people often ignore is that the first wave is almost never the largest one; and sometimes it happens, as in the case of the  tsunami in Hawaii of April 1st 1946 (day of the innocents),  that people go to the beach to see what had happened during the half hour that separates the first and the second wave, horribly increasing human losses when the second wave, usually is larger, unleashes all of its violence over the unfortunates.

Yesterday, the spread of the Spanish treasure bonds with respect to the German ones arrived, according to what we are told, to about 500 basic points. That means that the yield given to these debt issues is about 5% larger than that of equivalent German titles. As the information given by the media is always brutally incomplete and antiquated, I never know for sure to what it is referred to: whether we are speaking of one year bonds, or five or ten, or all together. I understand, anyway, that this spread with respect to German titles is being observed in the secondary market - that means, the individuals who possess Spanish debt are selling it to other individuals with a certain discount (because, obviously, they couldn't renegotiate the conditions expressed on the bond issue). That, if you think about it a little, is even more serious than if it were Spain to sell its debt with a larger kind of interest (which happens, because the debt issue usually follows the secondary market: Spain cannot obtain cheaper money than what the market perceives). It is more serious because, in summary, those people who keep Spanish money and are selling it are accepting a certain percentage of loss (perhaps no real losses, but surely on their expectations of gain) and that means in the end that the credibility of Spain as a trustworthy debtor state is falling.

But, in the end, this is not a blog dedicated to the economy and there is no need to spend time on these questions. The interesting part of what we observe is that the Spanish debt is arriving to levels that have motivated the "rescue" of Greece and which forced a "change of government" in Italy, last week. Here in Spain, we are just two days before the general elections which all polls indicate will be won by the conservative Partido Popular with a large majority. The party's leader, Mariano Rajoy, has already anticipated that they will take appropriate measures to try to heal the Spanish accounts, hinting that we'll see more reduction in the social services and salaries than anything that was seen in the past year. In addition we could say, as a matter of coherency, that for being an amateur in applying these measures, the Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, was shot down by the entity that the media sometimes call the "European Troika."

We are facing, then, general elections which will radically change the orientation of the governing party, from socialist to conservative, in a country were the perception is that the right is a better manager and that, as a consequence, will be able to ride out better the difficult economic situation. In reality, the result will be the same, because after having seen what has happened to the fatuously democratic European union during the past few week, with Greece and Italy, it is clear that decisions are not taken in single countries and much less reside with the people: our new leaders will do what they are told to do - full stop. This situation will lead to a growing disillusion of the Spanish people; a disillusion that will turn into rage when the new recession which we are starting to see will increase the jobless level from the present 21,5% to 25 o 26% in a couple of years. And, no doubt, the only thing that we are doing is to follow a known path: collapse. It is sure that, about collapse, Dimitri Orlov recently revised his model of the five phases of collapse (financial, commercial, of the state, of the community and of the family) and his conclusion can't be more disheartening; according to him, it seems that the great effort of states to stave off financial collapse - which should have occurred in its full magnitude during the past 2-3 years - will cause the real financial collapse to arrive at the same time as the commercial one and, eventually, that of the state - this latter entity being dragged in by the giant weight of the debt incurred with the financial rescue. In summary, Orlov's model was too gradual and suave when compared with the abrupt road where the BAU (Business as Usual) is dragging us. It is another piece of evidence of the fact that the descent along the right side of  the Hubbert curve will be dominated by non linear effects. And the present events in Greece indicate that, indeed, the financial collapse will take place at the same moment as the commercial one. Greece had no choice but turn to Iran as its major supplier of oil (thanks to Ángel, for the reference), since the other countries don't trust the Greek solvency. The descent that us, the Spanish, are starting, following the same path of Greeks, Irish, Portuguese and Italians, will take us from our pretended "First World" condition, where arrogantly we believe to belong because of our merits, to the Second or the Third in which we are being pushed down without the rest of the planet giving a damn; and it will help us little that until a couple of years ago we considered ourselves to be with the rich and the powerful; they have their own concerns and right now we are just a hindrance for them.

These days before the elections are like the sea which retires before the first tsunami wave. There is a strange and unreal calm while a vague and ominous shade is appearing at the horizon. In reality, if we know a little of history and how economy has been practised in the 20th century, we know what it is going to pass in Spain. Starting with Monday, they'll start saying that now it is the time to keep quiet, that it is urgent to find the means to contain the damage, that it is intolerable that the Spanish deficit doesn't stay within the established bounds (fixed by the government for this year at 6%, which could reach 8%). It is possible that the socialist government, in function until January, will be forced to take already some drastic measures; measures that in any case will be adopted by the Partido Popular when it will take charge: immediately lowering the salary of public workers - once more; perhaps 10% in this occasion - cutting even more health services, education, and, ouch, public works, because Germany and France are very sensitive about those multi-million airports without passengers and other stupid infrastructures build during the golden age of concrete. There will be, possibly, an increase in the VAT and surely a generalized reduction of the subsidies and help (that is affecting me, research grants and projects). All that will bring a larger economic contraction and more unemployment, with the result of lower tax revenues and there will be a general tendency to pay more in subsidies - at some moment there will be talk of reducing the unemployment subsidy and the minimum salary. All that in a context where basic goods will see an increase in price while the non basic ones will become cheaper while stocks are being liquidated, to return to high prices, later on. In the end, we'll become poorer, much poorer....


The sun is darkening, the wave is obscuring it, it is here already. I wanted to write somewhere a number of truths in the midst of so many lies as we are being told now. What is being done to countries are not "rescues", they are liquidations; they are not "changes in government for technocratic governments", they are coups that give control of the state to our creditors; it is not austerity, it is increasing financial ruin; it is not order, but repression, it is not for the common interest, but for the private one; it is not returning to growth, but it is the road to poverty; there is no growth, but the end of growth. We are left only with the poor satisfaction that these waves will arrive, eventually, also to Berlin and to New York.

The water is arriving already.

Greetings

AMT

Postscript: This post is not about energy, indeed, but I wanted to write it.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Why is economic growth so popular?


When the new Italian Prime Minister, Mr. Mario Monti, gave his acceptance speech to the Senate, a few days ago, he used 28 times the term "growth" and not even once terms such as "natural resources" or "energy". He is not alone in neglecting the physical basis of the world's economy: the chorus of economic pundits everywhere in the world is all revolving around this magic world, "growth".  But why? What is that makes this single parameter so special and so beloved?


During the past few years, the financial system gave to the world a clear signal when the prices of all natural commodities spiked up to levels never seen before. If prices are high, then there is a supply problem. Since most of the commodities we use are non-renewable - crude oil, for instance - it is at least reasonable to suppose that we have a depletion problem. Yet, the reaction of leaders, decision makers, and economic pundits of all kinds was - and still is - to ignore the physical basis of the economic system and promote economic growth as the solution to all our problems; the more, the better. But, if depletion is the real problem, it should be obvious that growth can only make it worse. After all, if we grow we consume more resources and that will accelerate depletion. So, why are our leaders so fixated on growth? Can't they understand that it is a colossal mistake? Are they stupid or what?

Things are not so simple, as usual. One of the most common mistakes that we can make in life is to assume that people who don't agree with our ideas are stupid. No, there holds the rule that for everything that exists, there is a reason. So, there has to be a reason why growth is touted as the universal cure for all problems. And, if we go in depth into the matter, we may find the reason in the fact that people (leaders as well as everybody else) tend to privilege short term gains to long term ones. Let me try to explain.

Let's start with observing that the world's economy is an immense, multiple-path reaction driven by the thermodynamic potentials of the natural resources it uses. Mainly, these resources are non-renewable fossil fuels that we burn in order to power the whole system. We have good models that describe the process; the earliest ones go back to the 1970s with the first version of "The Limits to Growth" study. These models are based on the method known as "system dynamics" and consider highly aggregated stocks of resources (that is, averaged over many different kinds). Already in 1972, the models showed that the gradual depletion of high grade ores and the increase of persistent pollution would cause the economy to stop growing and then decline; most likely during the first decades of the 21st century. Later studies of the same kind generated similar results. The present crisis seems to vindicate these predictions.

So, these models tell us that depletion and pollution are at the root of the problems we have, but they tell us little about the financial turmoil that we are seeing. They don't contain a stock called "money" and they make no attempt to describe how the crisis will affect different regions of the world and different social categories. Given the nature of the problem, that is the only possible choice to make modelling manageable, but it is also a limitation. The models can't tell us, for instance, how policy makers should act in order to avoid the bankruptcy of entire states. However, the models can be understood in the context of the forces that move the system. The fact that the world's economic system is complex doesn't mean that it doesn't follow the laws of physics. On the contrary, it is by looking at these laws that we can gain insight on what's happening and how we could act on the system.

There are good reasons based in thermodynamics that cause economies to consume resources at the fastest possible rate and at the highest possible efficiency (see this paper by Arto Annila and Stanley Salthe). So, the industrial system will try to exploit first the resources which provide the largest return. For energy producing resources (such as crude oil) the return can be measured in terms of energy return for energy invested (EROEI). Actually, decisions within the system are taken not in terms of energy but in terms of monetary profit, but the two concepts can be considered to coincide as a first approximation. Now, what happens as non-renewable resources are consumed is that the EROEI of what is left dwindles and the system becomes less efficient; that is, profits go down. The economy tends to shrink while the system tries to concentrate the flow of resources where they can be processed at the highest degree of efficiency and provide the highest profits; something that usually is related to economies of scale. In practice, the contraction of the economy is not the same everywhere: peripheral sections of the system, both in geographical and social terms, cannot process resources with sufficient efficiency; they tend to be cut off from the resource flow, shrink, and eventually disappear. An economic system facing a reduction in the inflow of natural resources is like a man dying of cold: extremities are the first to freeze and die off.

Then, what's the role of the financial system - aka, simply "money"? Money is not a physical entity, it is not a natural resource. It has, however, a fundamental role in the system as a catalyst. In a chemical reaction, a catalyst doesn't change the chemical potentials that drive the reaction, but it can speed it up and change the preferred pathway of the reactants. For the economic system, money doesn't change the availability of resources or their energy yield but it can direct the flow of natural resources to the areas where they are exploited faster and most efficiently. This allocation of the flow usually generates more money and, therefore, we have a typical positive (or "enhancing") feedback. As a result, all the effects described before go faster. Depletion can be can be temporarily masked although, usually, at the expense of more pollution. Then, we may see the abrupt collapse of entire regions as it may be the case of Spain, Italy, Greece and others. This effect can spread to other regions as the depletion of non renewable resources continues and the cost of pollution increases.

We can't go against thermodynamics, but we could at least avoid some of the most unpleasant effects that come from attempting to overcome the limits to the natural resources. This point was examined already in 1972 by the authors of the first "Limits to Growth" study on the basis of their models but, eventually, it is just a question of common sense. To avoid, or at least mitigate collapse, we must stop growth; in this way non renewable resources will last longer and we can use them to develop and use renewable resources. The problem is that curbing growth does not provide profits and that, at present, renewables don't yet provide profits as large as those of the remaining fossil fuels. So, the system doesn't like to go in that direction - it tends, rather, to go towards the highest short term yields, with the financial system easing the way. That is, the system tends to keep using non renewable resources, even at the cost of destroying itself. Forcing the system to change direction could be obtained only by means of some centralized control but that, obviously, is complex, expensive, and unpopular.  No wonder that our leaders don't seem to be enthusiastic about this strategy.

Let's see, instead, another possible option for leaders: that of "stimulating growth". What does that mean, exactly? In general, it seems to mean to use the taxation system to transfer financial resources to the industrial system. With more money, industries can afford higher prices for natural resources. As a consequence, the extractive industry can maintain its profits, actually increase them, and keep extracting even from expensive resources. But money, as we said, is not a physical entity; in this case it only catalyzes the transfer human and material resources to the extractive system at the expense of subsystems as social security, health care, instruction, etc. That's not painless, of course, but it may give to the public the impression that the problems are being solved. It may improve economic indicators and it may keep resource flows large enough to prevent the complete collapse of peripheral regions, at least for a while. But the real attraction of stimulating growth is that it is the easy way: it pushes the system in the direction where it wants to go. The system is geared to exploit natural resources at the fastest possible rate, this strategy gives it fresh resources to do exactly that. Our leaders may not understand exactly what they are doing, but surely they are not stupid - they are not going against the grain. 

The problem is that the growth stimulating strategy only buys time (and buys it at a high price). Nothing that governments or financial traders do can change the thermodynamics of the world system - all what they can do is to shuffle resources from here to there and that doesn't change the hard reality of depletion and pollution. So, pushing economic growth is only a short term solution that worsens the problem in the long run. It can postpone collapse but at the price of making it more abrupt in the form known as the Seneca Cliff. Unfortunately, it seems that we are headed exactly that way.




This post was inspired by an excellent post on the financial situation written by Antonio Turiel with the title "Before the Wave" (in Spanish).



Sunday, November 20, 2011

The empty Earth

And here is my new book, just published on Nov 15th. The Italian title sounds like, "The Emptied Earth", but in English it sounds better to me as, "The empty Earth." In any case, I think you can imagine from the title what the book is about. It is the history of mining on this planet; it starts from the first flint mines dug in limestone more than 10,000 years ago, arriving the modern mining rush that is, literally, emptying the earth of its mineral treasures accumulated over billions of years of geological activity.

I am sorry that most of you won't be able to read this version, but I am working at an edition in English planned for March of next year (not the same book, it will be a version reworked for the international readership). For those of you who can read Italian, you can find a description of the book at the site of the Editor and also on my Italian blog.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Technocrats

On the left, Marion King Hubbert (1903-1989), originator of the "Hubbert Model" of oil production. On the right, Mario Monti (1943-), prime minister of the Italian government. They seem to share a certain style and both of them have been defined as "technocrats". 


Marion King Hubbert had foreseen many things correctly in his career, mainly about oil production. But he had also joined a group called the "technocrats" who proposed that technical experts should run governments. Maybe he was right also in this prediction, as the recent events in Italy may indicate.

Professor Mario Monti has been appointed by the President of the Republic as the new head of the Italian Government, replacing the democratically elected, but disastrous, Silvio Berlusconi. I am not sure of whether Mr. Monti likes to be defined as a "technocrat,"  but the term fits his present job very well. Is this the start of a new trend? It is too early to say but, who knows?


Big Gav has an interesting post on "peak Energy" about the rise of Mario Monti in Italy .

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Strauss Kahn's downfall: "Peak Males"?


To the question "what is best in life?" Conan answers, "crush your enemies, see them driven before you, hear the lamentation of the women" (from "Conan the Barbarian", 1982). This kind of macho style was probably out of fashion already in Atlantean times; surely it is even more so in our times. So, the downfall of powerful "alpha males," such as Silvio Berlusconi (and, earlier this year, Dominique Strauss Kahn) may be a sign of an ongoing change: this kind of aggressive leaders may be outdated.

Modern political leaders seem to have evolved over the years with the ability of leading people into battle. Have you ever been close to a high level political leader? They beam charisma all around. They are aggressive, self assured and often display a strong sex drive - they may well be serial womanizers, like Berlusconi and Strauss Kahn. But we may not need them any more: the development of robotic warfare may spell their demise. With robots doing the fighting, controllers can sit comfortably in air conditioned rooms and drink coffee while they kill people at the push of a button. It is another kind of warfare: more like pest extermination than the kind of glorious activity that war used to be. The people engaged in this activity don't need to be macho types a la Conan and, for them, being serial womanizers is definitely a disadvantage. For Berlusconi, at least, it was the case, although not the only reason of his downfall.

So, in analogy with the concept of "peak oil" we might think of a peak followed by a decline for the presence of this kind of males at the top levels of governments. Perhaps, we can call it "Peak Males."

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Peak oil narratives


In examining the debate on global warming and on peak oil, I came to the conclusion that the elementary unit of communication in the public discussion is always a story - a narrative of some kind. In other words, we tend to interpret reality in narrative terms, as you can understand by just a glance to the titles of any newspaper.  

I argued in a recent post that the remarkable success of the denialist position in the climate debate is due to the development of a fictional narrative that describes how a group of evil scientists manipulated the temperature data in order to persuade the public of a non-existent global warming. This narrative is so seductive for human perception that it is almost impossible to fight it using just data. There are other examples; one is the case of the "wrong predictions" that the Club of Rome is often said to have proposed with the 1972 study "The Limits to Growth". It is a stubborn narrative which turns out to be almost impossible to demolish by simply showing that the pretended "mistakes" don't exist.

So, people tend to be attracted more by pleasant fables rather than by inconvenient truths. That doesn't mean that truth needs to be unpleasant, negative, or apocalyptic. However, if we want to pass our message to the public, data alone are not enough; scientific results must be presented in ways that take into account the human side of the problems. How to succeed in this task is an open question, but Antonio Turiel, who keeps the blog "The Oil Crash", has examined it in a recent post titled "running away from reality dedicated to the "Chemtrails" legend. 

As you may know, chemtrails are said to be the result of a heinous plot that involves the use of planes to spread poisons that appear as white stripes in the sky. Obviously, there exist no data that could even vaguely imply that the well known "contrails" generated by flying planes are anything more than harmless water vapor. Nevertheless, the narrative of the "chemtrails" concept is seductive in suggesting that our troubles are the result of the action of an evil group of enemies of humankind acting behind the scenes. Again, trying to contrast this fictional account by means of data results ineffective. 


If you can read Spanish, the post "Running away from reality by Antonio Turiel is well worth reading. Here, I am translating a section of it, the one where he examines the narrative behind conspiracy theories and compares it with the one behind the peak oil concept. 




Running away from Reality 
by Antonio Turiel. Nov 5, 2011





-excerpt- 

.... In the end, the proposer of the chemtrails idea sees a heroic narrative, a bold struggle against a demonic power, all-knowing and almost all powerful, which, once defeated, will originate a new order. Nothing new, then, with respect to the ancient story of Hermes who, sword in hand, cut off the head of the hundred eyed monster. From what we can see, we didn't progress so much from Hellenic times.

This narrative is completely equivalent to the one of the defenders of "free energies" (in fact, they are often the same people). We commented here the absurdity and the lack of basis of free energies (surely in English "Free Energy" is an ambiguous term which means both "free" as well as "at no cost", which in the end is the way we pretend to live; at full speed we did as up to now). What is interesting now is to see how the psychological mechanisms are the same of the case of chemtrails and this explains the fact that the believers in these two theories are the same. These two groups also coincide with the defenders of the great world conspiracy of the Illuminati and the New International Order.

I am not sure of all the details of these conspiracy theories but, essentially, the idea is that there exists an occult group of rich and powerful people who form a council that takes decision to determine the destiny of the world and who have a demonic plan to submit us to endless slavery. Actually, this idea is sufficiently absurd: it is obvious that the rich and the powerful conspire to maintain their situation of privilege and influence in an illegitimate way our representatives, subverting the meaning of democracy. But they do it in full view of everyone, without hiding and, in the end, without feeling shame because in any case they arrive to believe that it is the best, or the correct thing to do. To do it, they don't need an oak table in a dark cavern with a goat head hanging from the wall.

On the other hand, although some of these powerful entities or people may have plans for anticipating the coming chaos, I doubt that all of them have developed the same diagnosis of the problems and of the relative solutions. And, in the end, it is not obvious that they can implement their chosen plans, since there are always uncertainties in the human factor. Would their militias be always faithful? Will the political leaders keep to their assigned directives? Will the people remain submissive? History demonstrates that it is impossible to keep people submissive all the time, all of them. But, again, the heroic narrative of the fight against these great villains who stole our well deserved past prosperity, which we will recover if we defeat them, is much more attractive than the vulgar and mediocre reality.

Economists and politicians, on their part, fall in the same practice of self-deception, looking for a kind of reasoning that is more attractive than realistic. For instance, they speak of restarting growth, despite the fact that this economic crisis will never end; of accepting sacrifices now in order to obtain a future prosperity when, in reality, each adjustment is leading us to the catabolic collapse; of plans of rescue necessary to restart the economy, when in reality these are only useful to plug the holes of big banks; or of policies favoring employment which in reality are the degradation of the conditions of workers, etc. And the fact is that, again, our leaders look for a heroic narrative in which, thanks to their determination and their statesmanship, they will be able to return to the earlier situation, that is to a state of endless growth.

In contrast with this kind of description, the narrative of the Oil Crash is much more gray. It is not black as it is sometimes said. The Oil Crash is not the end of humankind; not, at least, if we don't want it to be such. The oil crash is not the narrative of an apocalypse; but it really is a narrative of humiliation. Because it consists in accepting that human beings have limits, that for once it is impossible to win. And this, for the Homo Invictus who surged from the industrial revolution, who always prospered during the past two centuries, is difficult to accept. This is the real problem with the Oil Crash: the arrogance of modern man. It is better for our ego to believe that there is a villain controlling everything than to accept that the situation is out of the control of any human being, no matter how evil.  The problem with the heroic narrative is not just that it is wrong; it is that it is leading us to disaster.

Read the whole post (in Spanish)

Monday, November 7, 2011

ASPO-Italy 5: beyond peak oil



Toufic El Asmar, researcher at FAO and vice-president of ASPO-Italia, speaks at the 5th meeting of the association in Florence. Climate change and agriculture featured prominently in the discussion. 


Peak oil is behind us. That much seems to be clear from what was said at the 5th meeting of the Italian section of the Association for the study of peak oil (ASPO) held on Oct 28 in Florence, Italy. Already in the first talk of the meeting; the one given by Ian Johnson, secretary general of the Club of Rome, the emphasis was not on oil, but on the financial problems that the world is facing. This point was also made by Nicole Foss of the blog "theautomaticearth" who spoke of the impending total collapse of the world's financial system.

Another point that was extensively debated at the meeting is how the peak is driving the oil industry to extract and process polluting and inefficient resources, and how this is causing a worsening of the climate change problem. That was the reason that had led ASPO-Italy to organize this meeting jointly with "Climalteranti," a group of Italian climate scientists. At least half of the talks at the meeting were specifically dedicated to climate change and the climate question was present in practically all discussions. Recent data indicate a big jump in the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, confirming that this trend is ongoing.

Peak oil is also affecting agriculture, as reported by the vice-president of the association, Dr. Toufic El Asmar, who is also a researcher at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome. The problem is not yet on the radar of most people who deal with sustainability, but it is clear that it is enormous. Agriculture, as it is structured today, cannot survive without fossil fuels and the damage caused by climate change might be devastating,

Another point that was much discussed at ASPO-Italy 5 was the problem of communication. How to transform our models into policies? That turns out to be an extremely difficult problem. Not that we didn't work on it. Pietro Cambi, member of ASPO-Italy, estimated in his talk that about one person in three in Italy has been exposed at least once to the peak oil message during the past five years as a result of the work of ASPO and of related associations and people. It is a remarkable result considering that ASPO-Italy is an association of volunteers that operates on minuscule financial resources. Yet, the impact of our message is not appearing; not yet, at least.

For instance, the politicians of the Regional Tuscan Government did their best to steer clear of the ASPO-Italy meeting, despite the fact that it was held near the central building of the Tuscan Government and that it was a high level international meeting that saw the presence of several high level scientists. The only exception was Mr. Mauro Romanelli, Regional Councilor for the Green Party; evidently more enlightened than most. In Italy, as everywhere else, it seems that the magic word that solves all the problems remains "growth." Being seen in the company of Cassandras and catastrophists must be still considered as a good way to ruin one's political career.


In the end, it seems that peak oil has generated a strong reaction of the industrial, financial and political system. It has caused a movement to counter depletion by investing more resources in extraction, despite the increasing costs and the resulting environmental damage. Ian Johnson made this point clear in his talk. Years ago, when he was vice-president of the World Bank, they had estimated what the price of oil should be to make renewable energy competitive in the market. But, when that price level was reached, what happened was that oil companies abandoned all their programs in renewable energy to concentrate on new oil sources. No matter how dirty and expensive these resources may be, it is still possible to make a profit, provided that the industry doesn't have to pay for the costs of pollution. Which is, unfortunately, the case.

What we are seeing is a tremendous effort to maintain extraction levels at least constant, even at the cost of wrecking the world's economy and the planetary ecosystem as well. It seems to be a classic example of what I called the "Seneca Effect", that is the trading of some more years of near stability in exchange for a faster decline, later on. So, we are reacted to peak oil in the worst possible way.


The meeting was organized mainly by Luca Pardi, who is also the new president of ASPO-Italy. He replaces Ugo Bardi who has served as president for eight years. The meeting was co-organized with the Climalteranti group and sponsored by Mr. Mauro Romanelli, Tuscan Regional Councilor for the Green Party, who provided the prestigious "Sala delle feste" of "Palazzo Bastogi" in Florence, where the meeting took place. 

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Peak oil people



Some time ago, Colin Campbell had the idea of collecting the biographies of people who had worked on Peak Oil with ASPO. The result is this book which was recently published in Ireland. It contains also the biography of yours truly; Ugo Bardi. I don't know how interesting you could find it, anyway it is there. Here is the link

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Burning the skeptics: a false flag campaign against the concept of man made global warming




You may have seen the disgusting "no-pressure" video of last year, where global warming skeptics were made to explode in a burst of blood. Now, there comes a new one, similar. It is "Combustible," where we see a climate skeptic catching fire, turning into ashes, and leaving only his eyeballs on the sidewalk. "Combustible" is just slightly less disgusting than "No Pressure" was and perhaps a bit more subtle. Here, the hapless skeptic burns by itself, whereas in the earlier movie we actually see environmentalists pushing the kill button. But the message of both movies is exactly the same: environmentalists are murderers who enjoy seeing people suffering. Indeed, "Combustible" was understood in this way in the comments to it at the WUWT site

Who made this crap? Apparently, it was created by a professional advertising agency, "Realm." But there is a problem here: even if it does it "pro bono", an advertising agency acts on the basis of a request from a customer. An agency, in itself, doesn't have the competency to devise a campaign from scratch. Indeed, when Realm created an environmental ad in 2009 it was for a real and traceable environmental association, Earthshare of Georgia. But for the "Combustible" video there is no such traceable sponsor. At the end of the movie, you can read "climatechangeinitiative.com." But, at present, there doesn't exist a site with that name and the link only leads you to Bill Clinton's climate initiative, where (obviously) you find no trace of this video. WUWT suggests that the video originates from WWF, but, again, the the link provided only leads to an announcement of an open position and there no trace of this video in the whole WWF site. Another link  supposed to identify the sponsors leads only to a speech  of President Obama on climate change. It is a game of mirrors: there is no way to know who is behind this video.

So, how come that this video is "orphan" in the sense that it cannot be linked to any known (or even newly born) environmental organization? I think the most obvious explanation is that "Combustible" is a fake environmental movie. It is, actually, a false flag video designed to smear the environmental movement, depicting its members as murderers. Of course, if we reason in scientific terms, there is no way to prove this statement. In scientific terms, whatever cannot be proven must be considered dubious. However, there is a old rule which may not be scientific but which I think applies to the present case (and to "No Preessure" as well). It says that when you start feeling that you are being cheated, most likely you are.

In a previous post of mine, I was noting how the skeptic position on climate change is based mainly on narrative: fancy stories designed to distract people from the reality of the scientific results. I argued that the main narrative behind skepticism is that global warming does not exist; it is only a hoax created by a group of evil scientists who manipulated the data in order to keep money flowing into their fat research grants, as demonstrated by the Climategate mails. But that is not the only story told by skeptics (charitably defined in this way). Videos such as "Combustible" and "No pressure" are part of another narrative created with the purpose of painting environmentalists as a group of monsters who want to destroy most of humankind in order to create their green utopia. It is nothing new; the same lie was used against the 1972 study "The Limits to Growth" whose authors and sponsors were presented as planning to exterminate most of humankind. It is pure fiction, of course, but it is an effective weapon to undermine the credibility of the environmental movement and of climate science.

The people who conceived these videos, whoever they are, are clearly willing to use any means available for their purpose. They are obviously adept at the task and well financed, too. Against this kind of attacks, we are facing a difficult battle: it is hard to fight comfortable narratives with inconvenient truths. But it is also true that these spin campaigns can backfire. The minimum we can do is to expose these tricks when we see them appearing. Eventually, truth will win.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Narrative and science in the debate on climate change


The remarkable success of the anti-science position on climate change is due in large part to the development of a successful narrative plot that casts scientists as evil schemers against the public. The attempts made by scientists to respond with scientific evidence to the attacks have not been a success. Recently, the work of the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) group has provided some further insight on the mechanisms of this conflict.


In the "Aeneid", the Latin poet Virgil tells us all the details of Cassandra's unsuccessful attempt to fool Ulysses's plot of introducing a wooden horse full of Greek warriors inside Troy's walls. The Trojans were not stupid; they were fooled by a trick. On the beach in front of their town, they didn't find just a wooden horse but a distressed Greek soldier, naked and bound. The Trojans believe him when he tells them that he is a victim of Ulysses and that he was left there as a sacrifice for the Gods. He tells them that the Greeks had admitted their defeat, leaving the wooden horse on the beach as an offering for the Gods before sailing toward home. The Trojans take the wooden horse inside the city and that will be their end.

This story is, of course, a piece of fiction, but not just a fairy tale. Virgil was a genius of literature and the Aeneid is a masterpiece of all times. The story of the wooden horse shows us all the elements of the human way of preferring fiction to facts. The Greek traitor triumphs because he tells the Trojans a good story that contains what they want to be told: that they have defeated the Greeks and that the Greeks are evil. Virgilio even goes on to show us how the scientific method is not enough against a good story. He tells us of how a Trojan, Lacoon, hurls a javelin against the horse demonstrating that it is hollow from the noise that is heard. But that's useless. Stories are just too powerful to be overcome by just facts. 

That we are deeply dependent on fictional elements in our perception of reality is nothing new. We see it again and again in the political debate; all based on fiction. The successful politician is the one who is able to cast reality in the form of a good story; identifying the bad guys and proposing their punishment (at present, the bad guys seem to be the scientists). It is the plot of basically all fiction: bad guys fight good guys and the good guys win; it is so simple as that. Fiction appears to be actually becoming reality in the sense that it is acted upon as if it were reality (read this if you are not convinced).

The case of the "BEST" (Berkeley earth surface temperatures) study tells us something of how the debate on global warming is cast in fictional, rather than scientific, terms.  The BEST study had a considerable media resonance, especially because of previous declarations of skepticism of the lead scientist of the team, Richard Muller. The study was also sponsored by institutions that had previously supported the denial of the standard interpretation of the climate data. But when the BEST results came out, they confirmed the previous result. That is, that the Earth is warming.

Gobal warming skeptics were clearly taken by surprise by the BEST results and their reaction tells us a lot on their way to approach the question. I had expected that they would fall in good order to their second line of defense; that is to saying that, "yes, global warming exists, but it is not caused by human activity". Instead, they reacted with a vicious counterattack against the BEST study and its authors, with Richard Muller turning almost overnight from hero to traitor and being vilified in all possible ways (see, e.g., this image). Anthony Watts, of the blog "Watts up with that," had initially declared about BEST that "I’m prepared to accept whatever result they produce, even if it proves my premise wrong." But when the results came out he changed his position and his site is publishing almost daily attacks against Muller and the BEST study (see, e.g. this one).

It was already clear that the debate on global warming was not a scientific debate, but it is starting to be clear now how remote from science the position of the skeptics is. Their whole interpretation of climate science pivots around a single narration. It says that a group of evil scientists manipulated the temperature data in order to show a warming that doesn't exist. They were caught red-handed when their private emails were made public in what we call the "Climategate" scandal. 

You see how this story has all the elements needed to triumph over facts. It tells people what they want to hear: how the bad guys (the scientists) were defeated and that there is nothing to worry about global warming. No wonder that the denial side doesn't want to abandon this narrative. It would not be the same thing for them if they were forced to battle climate science on the question of whether warming is caused by human activity or not. That becomes a battle of facts vs. facts as there is no equivalent fancy story that tells us of how evil scientists are (actually, there is one: it tells how scientists ignored the data showing that the "medieval warm  period" was warmer than the present time. But this is a far less effective story than the Climategate one).

There are so many elements that show that the Earth is warming that it is almost unbelievable that skeptics can have so much success with their denial. It is not so much because they are especially smart; it is mainly because scientists are poor communicators and have neglected the importance of the emotional content of the message. So far, scientists have been assuming that all they had to worry about was facts and their scientific interpretation - this is the way the IPCC reports are made. Someone else, then, would build a narrative on the scientists' work. We are discovering that the world doesn't work that way; not any more, at least.

Narrative is a powerful way of conveying messages. It exploits channels already open inside the human mind. It is through narrative that you can call up the good that exists in human beings; their capability of working for a good cause, of acting together, of helping those in need. Just think of the Gettysburg address and you'll see how a real leader can use a powerful narrative approach for a good purpose. We have plenty of ways to develop a narrative that is not in contrast with science. And we have the most wonderful story of all to tell; it is the story of an entire planet that spans billions of years and which we are just beginning to understand.

Note: this post was published also on "planet3.0.org"

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The BEST study may also do something more for us: it may provide us with a specific counter-narrative to be used against the "Climategate" one. If you ever were engaged in a debate on global warming, you surely were confronted - at one moment or another - with someone saying "but I heard that climate scientists had confessed that they had manipulated the data." Up to now, all you could do to counter this statement was to use facts; you could only answer, "there is no evidence that scientists manipulated the data". But that is pitting facts against fiction and, as we saw, fiction wins. With the "BEST" results, now you can say something like, "you know, the same people who said that scientists had manipulated the data commissioned a study that was supposed to prove that. And, funny, the result if that study was that the data were good! The Earth is really warming". Isn't it a good story to tell? 


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)