Sunday, November 30, 2014

Peak Oil: does the CIA know?

Years ago, at an international conference on peak oil, I met Michael Ruppert, who later became known for his investigations of the 9/11 attacks. He told me that in the audience, that day, there were a few CIA agents whom he personally knew.

I had no way to check Ruppert's statement, but, on the whole, it made sense to me. The CIA, after all, is an "intelligence" agency and their main purpose is to collect data. So, the fact that some CIA people were attending a meeting on peak oil didn't mean that they thought we were dangerous subversives. They were simply doing their job: collecting data about peak oil; a dangerous economic and political problem (or maybe both things..... Who knows?)

Over the years, I have occasionally wondered about what the Central Intelligence Agency may know about peak oil. They surely have lots of data on crude oil, including data that for us - common citizens - are not available. In principle, they could do a much better job than the ragtag group of geologists and physicists forming the Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO). The same is true for climate change; another dangerous worldwide problem. And they don't just have knowledge, they have power. So, could they be acting in some way on these problems?

Alas, every time I asked myself this question, I came to the conclusion that - no - there is no such a thing as a hidden force understanding and acting on the global problems of oil depletion and climate change. No matter what mysterious powers we attribute to the CIA - or to any other of the many shady government agencies charged with "intelligence" collection - my impression is that we deal with an oxymoron. There is no trace of intelligence in their actions - at least in the sense of tackling global serious and long term problems.

My impression is that the problem is that we simply don't know how to manage very large organizations, and that all large organizations tend to flounder in a mess of bureaucracy, individual interests, compartimentalization, power games, infighting and more. In the case of the CIA, these problems are compounded by the fact that everything is shrouded in secrecy. Recently, I stumbled on an article which describes the CIA mode of operation; seemingly from first hand experience. I have no way to check whether the person who uses the nickname of "Shellback" is reliable. However, on the whole, his interpretation fits well with my recent experience with the European Parliament, another huge, bureaucratic, and fragmented organization which seems to be unable to process information in any rational way. And that spells big trouble when we deal with global problems such as peak oil and climate change.

Below, you can find Shellback's article from "The Russian Insider" - Let me repeat that I have no way to tell how reliable Shellback's statements are and the fact that I am reproducing this article doesn't mean that I agree with what Shellback says. I am just passing it to readers as as something that may be interesting to understand how large organizations function. 


From "The Russian Insider"

The Severe, and Maybe Fatal, Handicaps of US Intelligence

Obsession with personalities
Over-impressed by collection techniques
Often re-written to conform to expectations

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

A Corollary to Godwin's law: the law of reductio ad exterminium

In March of this year, Lawrence Torcello published a post where he argued that the spreading of false information about climate change by people who have a financial or political interest in inaction is a crime that should be punished. As you may imagine, the result was that Torcello was accused of all sorts of evil intents, including that of exterminating part or all of humankind.

So rabid was the reaction to Torcello's post, that it prompted me to propose a corollary to Godwin's law; the one which poses that in any political Internet discussion, Hitler will always be mentioned, sooner or later. In my post, I proposed that in any discussion on ecological matters: at some moment the accusation of genocidal intentions will appear. Torcello's post was a classic example of this law.

Last week, Torcello published another post on this matter, reviewing the case of a group of Italian scientists who were sentenced to six years in prison with the accusation of spreading "inexact, incomplete and contradictory information” regarding the chance of an earthquake in the region. Now, the group has been acquitted, but the problem remains. I think it is a good moment to repropose here my post on this matter.

This post was published on "The Frog that Jumped Out" on March 26 2014

A corollary to Godwin's law: the "law of genocidal intentions"

(image from Corellianrun)

You surely know about Godwin's law (also known as "reductio ad Hitlerium"); the one which says that, given enough time, any Internet discussion will eventually result in somebody being compared to Hitler. This law seems to be almost as strong as the principles of thermodynamics and, recently, we saw it applied to Russia's president - Vladimir Putin - compared to Hitler in a press release by the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton.

But Godwin's law seems to have many variants; e.g the "racist variant". Here, I would like to propose another variant or corollary; one which doesn't necessarily mention the name of Hitler or the term "fascism". It is the "law of genocidal intentions", which can also be termed as "reductio ad exterminium"(*).

In every discussion about environmental policy, sooner or later someone will accuse someone else of genocidal intentions, that is of planning to exterminate most of humankind

This seems to apply especially when the environmental policy being discussed has to do with population. In this form, one of the first examples goes back to the publication of "The Limits to Growth" in 1972. The sponsors of the study, the Club of Rome were later accused of being an evil organization dedicated to the extermination of most of the world's population. They were even accused to have created the AIDS virus specifically for this purpose. Needless to say, "The Limits to Growth" or the members of the Club of Rome never ever recommended - or even remotely conceived - anything like that. But the legend remains widespread as you can see by googling, e.g. "Club of Rome" together with "extermination" or "depopulation." See also a post of mine titled "How the Limits to Growth was demonized"

The law of reductio ad exterminium doesn't apply just to discussions about population. It pops out more or less in any discussion involving environmental policies, in particular those related to climate change. In this case, any action designed to reduce the damage involved with global warming may be defined as aiming, in reality, to the extermination of most of humankind. A recent example involves a paper by Lawrence Torcello, where the author expressed the opinion that:

We have good reason to consider the funding of climate denial to be criminally and morally negligent

Note that Torcello said that what should be criminalized is only the funding of climate denial by those who have "a financial or political interest in inaction." He never said that about people expressing their opinion on this matter. But the "law of genocidal intentions" immediately kicked in. For a report on the hate campaign unleashed against Lawrence Torcello, see this article by Graham Redfearn. Here are a couple of examples taken from the Web:

So, what happens when we discover there is not enough prison space anywhere to house the 2/3 of America guilty of Climatic Blasphemy? I guess executions will be necessary, which suits the whole Agenda 21, environmentalism-as-religion philosophy just fine, since such people believe at least 80% of the planet's population needs to be eliminated for things to be sustainable. (link)


What is the logical extension of jail time? Taken to its end, Torcello’s philosophy leads to execution. You may think that’s crazy, but you’d be wrong. This is how fascism begins. Liberal philosophy evolved always leads to fascism. As they say, the path to hell is paved with good intentions (link)

These laws, Godwin's law or the reductio ad exterminium, look almost funny, but what we are seeing is the complete degeneration of the debate: a true "reductio ad vituperium."(*) Will we ever be able to set up a rational discussion on any important subject? Probably not, and that's a real tragedy in a moment in which we desperately need to find a consensus on what to do to avoid various impending disasters; including climate change.


(*) Note: "exterminium" is a late Latin term which is the origin of the English term "extermination" (see here). Literally, it means "outside the borders" and figuratively can be taken as meaning "destroy" or "kill". "Vituperium", instead, can be simply translated as "insult" and it has been coopted in various ways in the modern English language. 

Friday, November 21, 2014

Renewable energy: does it need critically rare materials?

Renewable energy, by definition, is inexhaustible or, at least, it can tap the sun's energy for times that can be considered infinite from our viewpoint. However, renewable energy doesn't live of sun alone. It needs metals, semiconductors, ceramics and more. A criticism often leveled against renewable energy is that it is not really "renewable" because it uses elements which exist in limited amounts and cannot be recycled.

The question is complex and it depends on the kind of energy we are considering. For instance, in the case of solar cells, some use exotic and rare materials such as gallium or tellurium. However, the standard version on the market uses almost exclusively silicon and aluminum for the cell. The only rare element in it is silver for the back contact, but it can be eliminated with minimal or no loss. In several other cases of renewable technologies, rare metals are not used or can be efficiently recycled.

A recent (2014) study on this subject has been performed by the Wuppertal Institute. The conclusion is that the problem of mineral availability for renewable energy technologies is not critical if we choose the right technologies and we are careful to recycle the materials used as much as possible.

Here is the summary of the study, in English

KRESSE – Critical Resources and Material Flows during the Transformation of the German Energy Supply System


The Federal Government’s energy concept ascribes renewable energies the role of an “important pillar of future energy supply”. According to targets set by the Federal Government, renewable energies are to account for 18 per cent of gross final energy consumption by 2020, rising to 60 per cent by 2050. If only electricity generation is considered, the proportion of gross electricity consumption contributed by electricity from renewable energy sources is to increase to 80 per cent by 2050. However, it is not only energy supply or climate protection criteria that play a crucial role in realizing the energy turnaround and, in particular, the development of renewable energy sources – a comprehensive sustainability assessment of the individual technologies must be made taking into account a variety of criteria. Such criteria include short- and long-term cost considerations, energy security, the impact on land use and the countryside, social acceptability, environmental impacts and resource requirements.

When it comes to resource assessments, it is recognized that the overall resource utilization of an energy system is generally considerably lower if it is based on renewable energies (albeit not primarily on biomass) rather than on fossil fuels. The main reason for this is that the primary fossil energy sources deployed for the provision of final energy (electricity, heat and fuels) should be considered as resource utilization. However, this does not necessarily mean that renewable energies must always be considered as being unproblematic with regard to the use of resources. In particular, limited research has been undertaken on the consumption and long-term availability of minerals, usually required in the manufacture of energy converters and infrastructure. In this connection, the availability of rare earth elements, such as indium, gallium, lanthanum and neodymium, and other raw materials that play a significant role, such as nickel and vanadium, is of particular interest.

Objective of the study and the approach taken

The present study attempts to close the previous assessment gap, contributing to the holistic sustainability analysis of renewable energies. Since Germany’s energy turnaround means the country assumes a pioneering role on the international arena, the aim of the study was to provide an indication as to whether and how the transformation of the energy supply system can be shaped more resource-efficiently with a high degree of expansion of renewable energies.

To achieve this, the study involved investigating which “critical” minerals are relevant in Germany for the production of technologies that generate electricity, heat and fuels from renewable energies in a time perspective up to 2050. In this connection, the assessment of being “critical” comprises the long-term availability of the raw materials identified, the supply situation, recyclability and the environmental conditions governing their extraction. In the first instance, all technologies referred to in existing energy scenarios in Germany that may be used in the decades ahead were included in the analysis, supplemented by infrastructure such as energy storage systems and electricity grids. Secondary applications such as batteries in electric vehicles that do not make direct use of renewable energies were not taken into consideration.

The analysis was undertaken with reference to different long-term energy scenarios created in recent years for the energy supply system in Germany. These scenarios describe different trajectories for the development of renewable energies up to 2050, right up to the extreme case of the full coverage of electricity and heat requirements from renewable energies. The long-term need for new capacities was identified from these scenarios for relevant technologies.

Based on these findings, roadmaps were developed in which the future market shares and the possible technological development of different types of plant were estimated. Linking the need for new capacities to specific material consumptions over time enabled cumulated quantities of minerals required to produce the necessary capacities by 2050 to be determined and assessed.

Overall assessment

The study shows that the geological availability of minerals does not generally represent a limiting factor in the planned expansion of renewable energies in Germany. It may not be possible, however, for each technology variant to be used to an unlimited extent.

Assessment as being non-critical

Of the technologies investigated, the following have proven to be most probably non-critical with regard to the supply of minerals:

• Use in the electricity sector: solar thermal energy, hydropower, wind turbines without rare earth magnets, silicon-based crystalline photovoltaics
• Use in the heating sector: geothermal energy, solar thermal energy
• Infrastructure: electricity grids, specific types of electricity storage devices, alkaline electrolysis and solid oxide fuel cells

The supply of minerals in the use of biomass and biofuels in the electricity, heat and transport sectors cannot be classified as being critical either. However, the availability of biomass itself and the associated problems, especially land use and competitive usage, depending on the type of biomass, would have to be taken into account. These are not within the scope of this study though.

Assessment as being critical

Specific elements or sub-technologies of wind energy, photovoltaics and battery storage were identified as being critical with regard to the supply of minerals. However, there are noncritical alternatives to these technologies that could increasingly be used in future or that already dominate the market.

a) Wind energy

The use of wind energy (both onshore and offshore) was investigated with regard to the consumption of neodymium (Nd) and dysprosium (Dy), which are increasingly being employed in high field strength permanent magnets in generators. If only geological availability is taken into consideration, all of the scenarios and trajectories considered here for wind energy utilisation in Germany can be implemented, even if a similar expansion of wind energy is also assumed for all other countries. In spite of a high degree of availability, however, an adequate supply of the required quantities cannot necessarily be guaranteed for Germany. On the one hand, recovery from mines is poor, in some cases only 10 per cent. Hence the minerals, available in sufficient quantities in principle, remain partially or predominantly unused. In addition, the very different environmental performance involved in their extraction must be borne in mind. Depending on the minerals extracted, processing technologies and additions of other materials to the minerals  extracted, the mining of neodymium and dysprosium has a considerable environmental impact.

On the other hand, there is excessive dependence on a few supplier states with a concomitant effect on security of supply. China is the only relevant dysprosium-producing country at present, for example. However, dysprosium is necessary in rare earth magnets in order to increase the otherwise very low Curie temperature of neodymium iron boron magnets to an acceptable level. It is currently unclear whether other supplier countries will be able to become established in the long run and under which conditions the mineral would be extracted (production costs, quality of storage sites, environmental legislation, and so on).

In spite of the advantages of rare earth magnets (enabling more powerful, lighter facilities), established or novel technologies that do not involve the use of rare earths should therefore also be further developed, due to the risk associated with such a dependence.

• The use of neodymium and dysprosium is non-essential for onshore facilities, since problems such as very heavy nacelles and expensive maintenance work for turbines mainly affect offshore facilities. At the very least, the recent rapidly growing trend of also using onshore facilities with rare earth magnets cannot be justified by the same requirements as for offshore facilities. Non-critical, electrically excited generators could still be used onshore, particularly in the 1 to 3 MW class.

• In the case of offshore facilities, electrically excited synchronous generators could perhaps be used in the long run; here ceramic high temperature superconductors (HTS) partially take the place of copper in the rotor coils, exhibiting much lower generator weights and volumes than the current direct-drive synchronous generators. In addition, synchronous reluctance generators could also play a role in the long term. These types of generator do not require any rare earths, and achieve better efficiency and less heat loss than asynchronous generators.

As long as facilities with rare earth magnets are used offshore, they should ideally be designed to be recyclable. Looking forward, the development of a recycling system ought to be tested so that at least recycled neodymium and dysprosium can be resorted to in 20 to 30 years’ time for replacement purposes. In this connection, it is essential to overcome procedural hurdles to facilitate top-quality recycling.

b) Photovoltaics

The use of photovoltaics was explored with regard to the consumption of indium (In), gallium (Ga), selenium (Se), silver (Ag), cadmium (Cd) and tellurium (Te). In the assessment, a differentiation was made between crystalline photovoltaics and thin-film photovoltaics.

• Crystalline photovoltaics (silicon-based)

The expansion of the silicon-based crystalline technology, which accounted for 97 per cent of new systems purchased in Germany in 2012, is non-critical in principle.

• Thin-film photovoltaics – CdTe cells

It was assumed for various reasons that the technology would be phased out in Germany by 2020. The quantities of cadmium and tellurium required up to 2020 are regarded as unproblematic.

• Thin-film photovoltaics – CI(G)S (copper indium gallium diselenide) cells

The demand for indium does not appear to be secured in the long term. In particular, there is a major competitive usage due to increasing demand in LCD production, and simultaneously a high dependence on one supplier country (China). It would even be difficult to maintain the current market share (3 per cent in 2012) – apart from in a low trajectory of up to 0.66 GW installed capacity in 2050. It appears uncertain whether the need for selenium can be met from conventional sources, particularly because selenium is only obtained as a by-product. Hence a major expansion of this thin-film technology (up to 37 GW installed capacity in 2050) at least must be considered as being critical.

• Thin-film photovoltaics – a-Si cells

In view of the prospects for the availability of indium as presented above, the efforts of the industry to replace the indium-based ITO TCO substrate of a-Si cells with other conductive substrates ought to be supported. If thin-film technology is viewed as being relevant to the market in the future, further research should therefore be conducted on thin-film cells with no or little indium or selenium.

At the same time, the industry should be encouraged to design recyclable photovoltaic solar systems and to apply the requirements set out in the WEEE Directive (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment), which has also applied to photovoltaic solar systems in the EU since 2014. In order to further reduce the material consumption of photovoltaic systems in general, they should increasingly be integrated in other applications (for example, fa├žades, roofs, semi-transparent coverings, glazing or shading devices).

c) Electricity storage

Electricity storage was investigated with regard to the consumption of lithium (Li), vanadium (V), nickel (Ni), potassium (Ka), lanthanum (La) and yttrium (Y) using the example of a system with a “very high” level of expansion of wind energy and photovoltaics. In this connection, consideration was given to battery storage for short-term, large-scale storage (redox flow batteries and lithium-ion batteries) and to alkaline electrolysis and hydrogen storage with reconversion in solid oxide fuel cells for medium- and long-term storage.

• Battery storage (large-scale)

Raw material supply for commonly available vanadium-based redox flow batteries must be considered as being critical. In particular, there is a major competitive usage because vanadium is an important alloying element, e.g. for tool steels. This is compounded by the fact that there are only three relevant producer countries, namely China, South Africa and Russia. It is recommended to use lithium-ion batteries, which are considered to be less critical from the perspective of resource availability, or physical storage facilities (pumped storage plants, compressed air reservoirs) for short-term storage, as long as no redox flow batteries with vanadium-free or -reduced electrolytes are available for the same purpose. Relevant alternatives are at the development stage; it is not yet possible to gauge whether these will succeed on the market, and if so, when. Research focuses primarily on scalability to high performance and storage capacity.

• Alkaline electrolysis and hydrogen storage with reconversion in solid oxide fuel cells In terms of long-term storage, the analyzed hydrogen trajectory is expected to be considered as being non-critical.

Assessment not yet possible

With regard to geothermal electricity generation, a relevant demand for various critical alloying elements cannot at least be ruled out in the case of a major expansion. There are several arguments in favor of assessing geothermal electricity generation as “relevant” with regard to its future demand for steel alloys (also compared to wind power): such arguments include the high demand for specific steel in deep geothermal energy plants and the poor substitutability of alloys, due in part to the high technical demands placed on the materials used. However, the data base is as yet inadequate for forecasting this demand reliably, meaning that no conclusions can be drawn at present for geothermal energy.


Whilst the heating and transport sectors are most probably not considered as being critical in the event of the direct use of renewable energies, attention needs to be paid to the electricity sector with reference to the research question raised. Even if the availability of minerals for the relevant technologies is not a problem, potential supply risks owing to dependencies on a few supplier countries and competitive usages should be borne in mind. Although there is no urgent need for action in this case at present, the recommendations for action derived from the study should be implemented swiftly due to the long lead time inherent in research and development, enabling “critical” situations in the electricity sector to be avoided from the outset.

One central aspect of the policy recommendations derived from the study is the proposal to focus in the medium term on efficiency and recycling strategies in the bid to secure Germany’s raw material supply. For example, increasing resource efficiency and recyclability should be key elements of technology development, and existing potential for recycling should also be exploited. However, every recycling process entails a considerable loss of material in some cases as well as a high energy input. In many cases (for example, where rare earth magnets are concerned) top-quality recycling is altogether difficult. For this reason, strategies for prolonging the useful life and life cycle of systems should be pursued alongside recycling strategies. In this case, close cooperation with industry is required.

Researchers are particularly recommended to extend the analysis presented here to additional sectors and products for which minerals are required, to combine long-term energy scenarios with resource analyses, and to develop schemes for generally minimising the use of resources in the transformation of the energy system.

Finally, it should be noted that all of the findings shown here are subject to the provision that the assumptions and data concerning the resource situation are highly uncertain, and that any projection over such a long period should therefore be treated with caution. In addition, it goes without saying that the presented scenarios and roadmaps concerning technology and market development do not constitute “forecasts” in the narrow sense, but shall be viewed as possible trajectories that are contingent upon many assumptions.

Monday, November 17, 2014

The peak oil theater

In classical antiquity, theatrical performances such as the "Atellana" farce were based on standardized plots and stock characters, identified by the masks they wore on stage. It was not so different than our present TV soaps and a good example of our tendency to interpret the world in narrative terms.

I am a little late for the talk at the peak oil conference. Fortunately, it seems that I didn't lose much: the speaker must have started just a few minutes before I arrived and I only missed the introduction by the chairman. So, I relax in my seat as the speaker goes on with his presentation.(*)

The first thing I note is the way he is dressed; not the standard one at this conference. Most speakers, so far, have been physicists and they have a typical dress code: they look like physicists even when they wear a tie; and they usually don't. This speaker, instead, not only wears a tie, but even wears a double breasted suit (or so it seems to me - even if it is not a double-breasted suit, he wears it as if it were one). And it is not just the way he dresses, it is his whole posture and style. Everyone else at this peak oil conference has been speaking while standing up; showing slides, speaking without notes. Instead, he sits, shows no slides, and reads from a notebook he has placed on the table. If he is unlike the others in the way he appears, his talk is also totally unlike the others in this conference. Physicists tend to show data and numbers; graphs and tables; to the point of being boring. He doesn't. He is not showing data, or graphs, or tables. He is not even mentioning data. He is telling a story.

He takes us to a sort of tour of oil producers. Each country is described as if it were a character on the stage of the world's theater: the Americans, a little tough, but doing things right and successful in reaching energy independence by means of their advanced technologies; the Saudis, somewhat devious, but powerful with their large resources; the Russians, aggressive in their attempt of rebuilding their old empire. And the Europeans, well intentioned but hopelessly naive with their insistence on renewable energy. The story goes on as each character on stage interacts with the others. Will the Europeans succeed in getting rid of their dependence on Russian gas? Will the Americans be able to overtake the Saudis as the world leaders in oil production? What will the Saudis do to maintain their leadership?

Occasionally, data manage to appear in the narration; but when they do, the data are wrong. For instance, the speaker tells us that extracting one barrel of oil in Saudi Arabia costs as little as 2-3 dollars per barrel (yes, maybe thirty years ago). And he tells us that the Saudis just have to open the spigots of their wells to increase their production by 2, 3, or even 5 million barrels per day (yeah, sure.....). And some key concepts are never mentioned. No trace of peak oil, no hint of a depletion problem, and climate change seems to pertain to another conference, to be held on a different planet.

The talk winds up with the audience clearly perplexed. There starts the session of questions and answers and someone asks to the speaker what he thinks of peak oil. He answers first that he is not a geologist, but an economist; in this way confirming once more (if that ever was needed) that a man will never understand a concept if his salary depends on not understanding it. Then he adds that "they have been claiming for thirty years that peak oil was coming," and, if that wasn't banal enough, he mentions also the old quip by Zaki Yamani, "the stone age didn't end with the end of the stones." This is sufficient for stopping further significant questions. It is soon over and he rises up and leaves the hall while the conference continues with another speaker.

There is no experience so bad that you can't at least learn something from it. So, what can we learn from this one? For one thing, the speaker in the double breasted suit had an experience symmetric and opposite to experiences I had myself. Sometimes, when I tried to present the concept of peak oil to an audience of people wearing double-breasted suits, I had the distinct sensation that they were looking at me as if I were an alien from Betelgeuse-III, just landed in the parking lot with my flying saucer. When you say "clash of absolutes" you may well refer to this kind of experiences. But there is something badly wrong, here: we all read the newspapers, we all have access to the same data on the Internet. So, how can it be that people can come to such different interpretations and conclusions?

I have been mulling these considerations in my head and eventually it flashed on me: it is not a question of the data; it is a question of how people process them! And most people wearing double breasted suits think just the way most people think: they think in narrative terms, not in quantitative terms.

Think of our remote origins: prehistorical hunters and gatherers. What kind of skills did our ancestors need to survive? Well, one was the ability of making tools; from stone axes to fishing hooks. But, much more important than this was the stock of social skills needed to climb the ladder of the tribe's hierarchy; to become chiefs and shamans. That hasn't changed very much with the arrival of the social structure we call "civilization".  In the annals of the Sumerian civilization, we have records of the names of kings that go back to thousands of years ago, but no mention of the name of the person who invented the wheel during that period.  Even today, engineers are ruled by politicians, not the reverse.

So, the common way to interpret the world is in narrative terms, assigning roles to people as if they were actors playing their on-stage role. It is the theater of life, not unlike theater of the on-stage kind, not unlike the various forms of narrative that surround us: novels, movies, TV soaps and the like. It is typical of most people and it is especially strong in politics, where the various actors are classed in terms of a narrative vision of their role. For instance, Saddam Hussein was one of the characters supposed to play the role of the bad guy. Once he was cast in that role, there was no need of proof that he was accumulating weapons of mass destruction in order to start a war. He was evil, and that was enough. And there was no outrage when it was discovered that the weapons of mass destruction didn't exist. That didn't change Saddam Hussein's role as the evil guy of the narration.

Scientists, however, tend to think in a different way; especially those who study the fields known as "hard sciences." However, their way of reasoning is difficult to understand for most people. Just think of the common statement used to deny the human role in climate change, "scientists were worried about global cooling in the 1970". Independently of whether it is true or not (it is only marginally true), it illustrates the abyss of difference between the common way of interpreting reality and the scientific one. Scientists believe they should change their mind if new data contradict old interpretations. But that's not what heroes do in novels and films where, typically, a character starts with a given idea, fights for it throughout the story against all contrary evidence, and ultimately triumphs.

So, nobody would even remotely pay attention to what scientists say, were it not for the fact that they can occasionally come up with toys that people seem to like so much; from smart phones to nuclear warheads. But when they move out of their role as toy makers, their opinion loses importance in the debate. Even when you try to argue that a large majority of scientists (maybe 97%) agree that human generated climate change is a reality, you obtain nothing. Even a large majority among scientists is such an exceedingly tiny minority of the general population that it is not worth paying attention for most people (including politicians and decision makers).

In the end, telling stories is usually more successful than arguing using data and models. Indeed, after the conference, I was told that the economist in the double breasted suit is a very influential person and that people high up in the government often ask him for advice in energy matters. Evidently, he can tell a good story.

Not all good stories have a good ending, but good stories can always teach us something. So, what can we learn from this one?  One is that we have been doing everything wrong with the idea of using data in order to convince people of the reality of such things as peak oil and human caused climate change. Yes, it is possible to gently nudge people's beliefs in the right direction if we find ways to expose them for some time to the data and to their interpretation. But the kind of commitment we can obtain in this way is weak and ineffective. It is easily destroyed by even the most brutal and primitive propaganda methods: casting scientists as the bad guys of the story works wonders: as spin doctors themselves confess, "playing ugly pays". And once a narrative has made inroads in the mind of people, it is extremely difficult - in practice impossible - to dislodge it from there. Have you noticed how, in most narrative plots, bad guys remain bad guys throughout? It is as if they were the characters of an ancient Atellana farce, wearing the appropriate mask for the bad guy (or scientists wearing their nicknames of geeks or eggheads)

Another thing that we can learn from this story is that we are all humans and none of us think like machines or like robots. Scientists may be trained to reason in terms of data, but even for them it is difficult to do it all the time. Reasoning in narrative terms has accompanied our ancestors for hundreds of thousands of years. If it is still with us, it is because it has done us a good service over this long span of time. What counts is not that the world can be seen as an unfolding story, but what kind of story is unfolding. And there exists a different story of the world to be told, a story infinitely superior to the current brutal plot that tells us that all the problems we have are related to the bad guys of the day and that when we'll have bombed them to shreds everything will be fine again. This is the plot of second rate novels: it has little to do with real literature, the kind of literature that changes people for good, that changes the world for good. A better story of the world says that the world is not our enemy. The world is, rather, our partner (**): it can provide us with bountiful goods, but, as for a human partner, and as it is the stuff of so many stories, what we do to our partner comes back to us. If we hurt our partner, we will be hurt back and this is true in fiction as in real life. If we hurt the world surrounding us (or "Nature" or "the ecosystem", or whatever term you prefer) we will be hurt back, and this is already happening. This is the story we are living: we may be the good guys or the bad guys; it depends on us.

(*) This post is a factual report from a recent peak oil conference. I didn't name names or places, but the people who heard the talk I am describing will recognize it and the speaker.

(**) The concept of Nature as a partner to humankind can be found, for instance, in Charles Eisenstein's book "Sacred Economics"

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Olduvai cliff: are the lights going out already?

Image from Li and Li, "international journal of remote sensing." h/t Colonel Cassad". The image shows the nighttime light pattern in Syria three years ago (a) and today (b).

Those among us who are diehard catastrophists surely remember the "Olduvai Scenario" proposed by Richard Duncan in 1989. The theory is a version of the peak oil idea, but focused on electricity production. It says that the gradual depletion of fossil fuels and mineral resources will gradually lead us back to the stone age ("Olduvai" from the area inhabited by our australopithecine ancestors). According to Duncan's update of his theory, the start of the precipitous decline ("Seneca style") might have started around 2012.

Clearly, we are not there, yet, and the new stone age still seems to be far away. But, there are some ominous symptoms that something bad this way comes. I stumbled into pictures of Syria now and three years ago, and they are impressive. The lights are going out there, already. And note that it was obvious from the beginning that the decline was to be accompanied by wars and internecine strife; just as what's happening in Syria. Surely, two pictures don't mean that the catastrophists are right; but surely they provide food for thought.


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)