Thursday, October 29, 2015

When conspiracy is not a theory: an example of a false flag operation in the Italian invasion of Greece in 1940

The Italian attack against Greece, that started in October of 1940, was one of the greatest military blunders of history and it may be argued that it cost the axis powers the whole war. Here, I discuss how this episode provides one of the few documented cases of a  strategic "false flag" operation designed in order to create a pretext for a military attack. (Image: Italian infantryman of the Italo-Greek war, from the front cover of "Storia della Guerra di Grecia" by Mario Cervi)

False flag attacks are a popular item, nowadays: secret operations carried out by governments to place the blame on their political or military enemies. However, if you try to examine the question in any depth, you immediately find yourself facing a wall of claims and counter-claims. On one side, there are those who simply laugh at the conspiracy theorists and at their funny antics, and, on the other, those who list case after case of presumed false flag attacks, including everything from the sinking of the Titanic to the blowing up of a tire of uncle Joe's truck. So, do strategic false flag attacks exist? And, if so, how common they are?

There are several cases of strategic false flag attacks that are almost certain or, at least, very probable. Perhaps the best example of a documented false flag attack is that of the "Gleiwitz incident" of Aug 31, 1939, when Nazi forces posing as Poles attacked a German radio station in order to justify the German attack on Poland. A more recent case is that of  "Operation Northwood" which, however, was only planned and never actually carried out. There are many more examples where false flag attacks are claimed, but cannot be proven. The best example, here, is the Reichstag fire, in Berlin, in 1933. It is likely that it was a false flag attack orchestrated by the Nazis in order to blame their political opponents, but many details of this episode are unclear.

Given the paucity of historical examples, I think it is worth adding here a case of a false flag attack that can be verified beyond reasonable doubt and that's not well known in English. It is the false flag operation that preceded the Italian attack against Greece, during the Second World War, carried out in 1940 under orders by the Mussolini government.

The story of the Italo-Greek war is described in detail by Mario Cervi in his 1969 book "Storia della Guerra di Grecia" (translated into English as "The Hollow Legions"). I won't go into the details in the story of how the Italian government decided to engage in this totally insensate campaign. Let me just say that  it is often reported that the Greek campaign cost to the Axis the war, forcing the Germans to intervene to rescue the Italians and postponing of some months the attack against Russia. This is certainly debatable, and it may well be that it is just an excuse that the Germans used to justify their failure with the Russian campaign. But it is true that with the Greek campaign the Italian government generated a true supermarket of examples of strategic stupidity. In addition, they disregarded the most elementary rules of the international law and even those of human decency. But, here, I'll focus on the "false flag" episode.

We have ample documentation about this war from the Italian side. The minutes of the reunions of the high command of the Italian government were approved by Mussolini himself and then filed. These documents have arrived to us, intact, and they tell us many details about the origins of the decision to start the campaign and about the false flag operation that preceded the attack.

The story starts with the occupation of Albania by Italy in 1939, which was a relatively easy military operation. From there, the Italian government started considering an attack to neighboring Greece as part of an effort to control the whole Balkan region. That involved a certain propaganda effort and, in 1940, the Italian press started reporting that the Albanian inhabitants of the region of Chamuria, part of the Greek territory, wanted secession from Greece in order to be reunited with Albania. But, of course, it was reported that they were facing a harsh repression carried out by the Greek government. The Italian viceroy of Albania, Francesco Jacomoni, provided reports - mostly purely invented - that fueled this propaganda operation.

Cervi reports how, on August 17, 1940, Jacomoni himself proposed to the Duce to create a pretext for attacking Greece by means of a false flag attack to be performed by "by personnel loyal to us against one of our border posts." The idea didn't have an immediate approval by Mussolini, but, in October, when the attack to Greece had been decided, Mussolini himself asked for "An incident at the border that could give to our action the aspect of provocation to justify our action." The answer was given on the spot by Galeazzo Ciano, foreign minister and son in law of the Duce, "the action will take place on Oct 24."

The "action" was delayed to Oct 26, but it took place as planned. The Italian press reported that "A Greek band had attacked with automatic weapons and hand grenades an Albanian border post near Corizia and that the attack had been repulsed; that six of the attacking Greeks had been captured, and that the Albanian troops had suffered two casualties and three wounded."

Cervi comments on this point that these Albanian victims had been "immolated, if they ever existed, on the altar of the ruthless needs of the state." Indeed, we cannot exclude that the attack was exaggerated, or even a pure invention, created out of thin air by the Viceroy of Albania and his staff. However, even though we can't be certain about the claimed victims, it is clear that some kind of attack took place. The Greek authorities set up an investigating committee and claimed that they were not responsible for it, but never claimed that there had not been an attack. Below, an example of how the incident was presented in the Italian press ("La Stampa") on Oct 28 1940. The title says "Murky Greek plan to provoke Albania."

Cervi also reports that Mussolini commented on the false flag attacks by saying that "No one will believe in this fatality, but for a reason of metaphysical character it will be possible to say that it was necessary to come to a conclusion," which, incidentally, shows how nearly 20 years of unopposed government had turned Mussolini from a sharp politician into a bumbling fool.

Whether it caused victims or not, the false flag attack served its purpose. In Albania, it was followed by manifestations against the "Greek aggression," and in Italy by a press campaign of insults and protests against Greece. There followed the Italian ultimatum against Greece and then the ill-fated attack.

From these documents, we can learn that "false flag" operations were an accepted and obvious component of strategic actions at that time. Note how nobody challenged Mussolini about the need of carrying out such an operation. It all seemed obvious to everyone involved and that tells us that in the period before and during the second world war, secret false flags were part of the strategic arsenal of at least some governments and were commonly used.

Note also how Mussolini doesn't think too much about signing and archiving documents that say that he had ordered and approved an action that can only be described as a war crime. Again, it seems that it was seen as wholly normal - not something that could have led anyone to be shot as a war criminal. Later on, that was exactly what happened to Mussolini, but to none of the other people who approved and carried out the false flag operation, including the Viceroy of Albania, Francesco Jacomoni.

Of course, this old false flag operation doesn't tell us anything specific about the many claimed false flags of modern times. It does, however, add another verified case to the number of known ones. Government conspiracies did exist in the past and it would surely be excessive optimism to think they don't exist any more. In the future, we may know more about the events that have shaped so much of the perception of the conflicts of our times.


As a final note, I think that this story may tell us also something about the dangers of the "story telling" approach to strategic decisions, as I already commented in a previous post. This is a kind of assessment based on assigning roles to the various actors involved, and then having them play out their part in a virtual world theater. In this case, Mussolini and his collaborators had decided that Italy's role was that of a "great power" and, as a consequence, Italy was in competition with the other great powers of the time. Seen in this light, it made sense for Italy to expand its power sphere to the Balkans in order to contrast the expanding action of Germany and of Great Britain. It even gave some sense to another monumental mistake of the Italian government of the time, that of declaring war to the United States in 1941. If Italy was a great power, indeed, the Mediterranean was to be seen as an Italian lake and the United States had no strategic interests there, no more than Italy had strategic interests in the Gulf of Mexico. The problem was that the definition of Italy as a "great power" was hopelessly wrong in quantitative terms; as the events that followed amply demonstrated. That is all past and gone, but unfortunately, story telling remains today the typical way to take  strategic decisions.   

Monday, October 26, 2015

Tertullian was a conspiracy theorist: propaganda and irrationalism in Roman times and in ours

The Romans knew well the dark art that we call "propaganda" today. As an example, this image, from the Trajan column in Rome, shows Dacian women torturing naked Roman prisoners; it was part of the demonization of the enemy during the Dacian campaign of the early 2nd century AD. However, with the gradual decline of the Empire, its propaganda was becoming more and more shrill and unrealistic. Christian thinkers such as Tertullian were reacting against the absurdity of the official propaganda by contrasting it with ideas that at the time were regarded as even more absurd. 

Quintus Septimius Tertullianus (anglicized as "Tertullian", ca. 150 - ca. 230) was one of the early fathers of Christianity. Of his numerous works, we often remember a sentence that reads "Credo quia absurdum." (I believe it, because it is absurd). This exact phrase doesn't exist in Tertullian's works, but it describes well the essence of his way of thinking. He and the other Christians of that time were proposing something truly absurd: that a virgin had given birth to the son of God, that God was at the same time one and three, and that the son of a Jewish carpenter who had been executed as a common criminal was, actually, one of the three! 

Almost two thousand years of diffusion of these concepts made them familiar to us and we don't see them as absurd any more. But think of how they would be perceived in Roman times: they were the very essence of absurdity, especially in a world steeped in the rigorous and rational way of thinking typical of the Greek schools of phylosophy. Nevertheless, there is a logic even in absurdity and, in upholding these concepts, Tertullian was reacting to an even greater absurdity: the very existence of the Roman Empire.

The official truth of the Roman propaganda was that the prosperity of the empire was the result of the favor of the Gods, who rewarded the Romans for their moral virtues, their courage, and the fact that they never failed to perform the proper rituals and to offer the required sacrifices. But all that was clearly becoming more and more in contrast with reality: at the time of Tertullian, the Roman Empire was not anymore the glorious war machine it had been in earlier times. Now, it was more like a zombie; a monstrous creature stumbling onward while desperately trying to hold itself in one piece against the attacks coming from the Barbarians outside and from rebellions inside. The official truth about the favor of the Gods had become a joke; a silly and cruel joke that nobody found funny any longer.

Tertullian died before the start of the third century crisis that saw the empire nearly disintegrating in a series of military defeats, civil wars, economic collapse, and currency devaluation. But, surely, the symptoms were all there much earlier and Tertullian could not miss that there was something rotten in the Roman Empire of his time. Indeed, he was possibly the first writer in history to identify what we call today "overpopulation," when he wrote in his "Apology" that 

...our numbers are burdensome to the world, which can hardly supply us from its natural elements; our wants grow more and more keen, and our complaints more bitter in all mouths, whilst Nature fails in affording us her usual sustenance. In very deed, pestilence, and famine, and wars, and earthquakes have to be regarded as a remedy for nations, as the means of pruning the luxuriance of the human race.

It was not just Tertullian perceiving the problem and, as a result, the Empire was being swept by a wave of new religious creeds, all of them reacting against the official Pagan beliefs. Christianity was seen as an especially virulent sect, and it was the object of a strong repression on the part of the authorities. If Tertullian had been living today, he would be called a terrorist. But he, like many others, was just reacting to the increasing shrill and absurd official propaganda of his times.

Now, let's fast forward to our times. What does our Imperial propaganda tell us about our prosperity? It is not any more attributed to the favor of the Pagan Gods, but to a deity we call "Science," often endowed with attributes termed "progress" and "innovation". Our Imperial armies don't give thanks any more to the Pagan Gods for their victories, but rather attribute them to semi-divine spirits that we call "smart weapons" and which are bestowed on us by the main deity, Science. And our prosperity is attributed to the ability of science to provide better and slicker tools allowing us to attain the eternal bliss of economic growth.

But all this is showing evident signs of fatigue, to say the least. The prosperity of the empire we call "Globalization" is rapidly disappearing and the dark menaces of climate change and resource depletion are upon us. Now, we are told that we did everything wrong and we are told that by those same people, the scientists, who have taken us to where we are.  We are told that our smart phones, our shiny cars, our wonder drones can't save us; that our economic growth can't last forever, that the years of prosperity are getting to an end. How can that be? What kind of cruel joke is being played on us?

The result is a rabid reaction that takes different forms, but that normally takes as its main target science, or what's sometimes called "official science". Science, some seem to conclude, must be betraying us and the scientists must be traitors. It can't be that crude oil is running out; it must really be abundant, being continuously recreated in the entrails of the earth by mysterious abiotic processes. And it can't be that we are destroying ourselves by burning fossil fuels; no, climate science can only be a hoax played on us by evil scientists seeking fat research grants for themselves. And how can it be that the same people who can make a smartphone can't make a fusion reactor work? No, that can't be: they are hiding from us the fact that nuclear fusion can easily be obtained inside a huffing and puffing desktop device that looks like (and actually is) a water boiler.

Many people seem to be starting to see science not just as a hoax, but as something truly evil, as when the ancient Christians had turned the Pagan Gods into devils and evil spirits. And so we see the spreading of conspiracy theories: from the idea that the water vapor emitted from airplane engines is in reality a deadly cocktail of poisons designed to kill us, to the attempt to demonstrate that no human astronaut ever walked on the Moon. It is the rise of the "New Irrationalism,"  a movement of thought still officially ignored, but growing.

Perhaps, had Tertullian lived in our times, he, too, would maintain that the lunar landing had been a hoax and that the planes we see flying over our heads are there to spread poisons in the air. Then, we would call him a conspiracy theorist. But his ideas gained ground within a dying empire and, about one one century afterward, Emperor Constantine ordered the Christian symbol, a cross, to be painted on the flags of his army. He was hoping that the new Christian God would play the role of the old Pagan Gods; a new daimon that would grant him victory. Constantine won his battle, but that changed little to the destiny of the Empire. When Rome fell to the Visigoths, in 410 A.D., it was left to another Christian thinker, Augustine of Hippo, to explain in his "De Civitate Dei" (The City of God) that the purpose of Christianity never was that of saving a rotten empire.

In the end, empires are just constructions of the human mind; structures that persist for times long enough that some people tend to endow them with the virtue of eternal life: Rome was said to be the "eternal city" and our empire seems to be based on the idea that economic growth can last forever. But empires come and go in cycles, they are as impermanent as the morning dew; they just last a little longer. So, we are going to follow the example of the Roman Empire in its descent toward disappearance. And it may well be that, up to the last moment, we'll hope that some scientific miracle will save us. Then, it will be the task of someone, in the future, to explain that the purpose of Science never was that of saving a rotten empire.

(see also an earlier post of mine in Italian) and also "The New Irrationalism" (in Spanish)

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Club of Rome, almost half a century later

The Club of Rome held its general assembly in Winterthur, Switzerland, on Oct 16-17 2015. In the image, you can see Ugo Bardi (center) together with the co-presidents of the Club, Anders Wijkman (right in the photo) and Ernst Von Weizsacker (left in the photo).

Almost half a century ago, in 1968, Aurelio Peccei convened for the first time the group that was later to be known as the "Club of Rome". The aim of the group was not what the Club was to become known for, "The Limits to Growth". At that time, the concept of limits was vague and scarcely understood and the interest of the members was, rather, in an equitable distribution of the resources of the Earth. What moved Aurelio Peccei was the attempt to fight hunger, poverty, and injustice.

That approach led the Club to commission a report on the world's resources and their limits to a group of researchers of the MIT. The result was the study for which the Club of Rome became known ever since: "The Limits to Growth," published in 1972.  From then on, the debate mostly moved on whether the scenarios of "The Limits to Growth" were correct and whether the study would really describe the possible trajectory of the world's economy and its collapse as the result of the combination of persistent pollution and resource depletion. It soon degenerated into insults directed against "Cassandras" and "catastrophists." Still today, it is widely believed that the study was "wrong", even though it was not.

But world models were not so much what Peccei and the other founders had in mind. Their aim had remained the initial one: justice, social equality, freedom from want. The discovery of the world's limits had made these objectives more difficult than they had seemed to be at the beginning, but not an impossible target. The "Limits" report, indeed, had sketched out how the world's economy could be steered in such a way to avoid collapse and to maintain for a long time a reasonable level of production of goods and services per person.

From what Peccei wrote, it is clear that he (and most members of the Club) thought that creating a better world was to be the result of a public debate and of democracy. In the debate, the world's leaders and the general public would have become convinced of the need to slow down economic growth, avoid overpopulation, conserve resources, and invest in actions against pollution. Then, the majority would democratically enforce these actions. Unfortunately, Peccei had badly estimated the power of propaganda to sway the discussion and to demonize all attempts to work for a better world. Peccei himself was the victim of propaganda, and, if you search the Web today, you still find plenty of pages describing him (and the Club of Rome) as working for the enslavement or the extermination of humankind or, sometimes, of the "darker races".

Almost half a century has passed from the first reunion of the Club of Rome, and its members are still struggling with the same question: how to create a more equitable, free, and prosperous world? Whereas understanding our future turned out to be feasible, acting on it turned out to be devilishly difficult. Today, we are still stuck at the most basic level of trying to have people understand the dangers ahead. Think of how easily the efforts to act against climate change are thwarted by the simplest propaganda tricks (do you remember "climategate"?).

So, the Club didn't stray away from Peccei's legacy and it has remained close to its initial approach and structure. It is a forum where people meet to discuss on how a better world could be created and show how we can work in that direction. That was clear at the general assembly of this year, in Winterthur (SW), where the discussion ranged from mineral limits to social structures; including politics and new business avenues. The members reported about long term modeling, but also on their practical, day to day results on how to improve the life of the poor and to reduce pollution at the local level. The magic bullet that will cure the world's ills may not exist, but we all can do something for a better world.

Thanks to Graeme Maxton, Alexander Stefes, and Thomas Schauer for having been the main organizers of this meeting in Winterthur!

Thursday, October 8, 2015

"Peak Oil will save us from Climate Change:" a meme that never went viral

Image from "Peaksurfer"

The idea that peak oil will save us from climate change has been occasionally popping up in the debate, but it never really gained traction for a number of good reasons. One is that, in many cases, the proponents were also climate science deniers and that made them scarcely credible. Indeed, if climate change does not exist (or if it is not caused by human activities), then how is it that you are telling us that peak oil will save us from it? Add to this that many hard line climate science deniers are also peak oil deniers (since, as well known, both concepts are part of the great conspiracy), then, it is no surprise that the meme of "peak oil will save us" never went viral.

That doesn't mean that we shouldn't ask the question of whether we have sufficient amounts of fossil fuel to generate a truly disastrous climate change. The debate on this point goes back to the early 2000s. At the beginning, the data were uncertain and it was correctly noted that some of the IPCC scenarios overestimated what we are likely to burn in the future. But, by now, I think the fog has cleared.  It is becoming increasingly clear that fossil fuel depletion is not enough, by far, to save us from climate change.

Nevertheless, some people still cling to the old "peak oil will save us" meme. In a recent post on "Energy Matters", Roger Andrews argues that:

All of the oil and gas reserves plus about 20% of the coal reserves could be consumed without exceeding the IPCC’s trillion-tonne carbon emissions limit.

Now, that sounds reassuring and surely many people would understand it in the sense that we shouldn't worry at all about burning oil and gas. Unfortunately, that's just not true and Andrews' statement is both overoptimistic and misleading. One problem is that the "2 degrees limit" is a last ditch attempt to limit the damage created by climate change, but there is no certainty that staying beyond it will be enough to prevent disaster. Then, there is a problem with Andrew's use of the term "reserves," to be understood as "proven reserves". Proven reserves include only those resources that are known to exist and to be extractable at present; and that's surely much less than all what could be extracted in the future. The parameter that takes into account also probably existing resources is called "Ultimate Recoverable Resources" or URRs

So, let's consider a world fossil URR estimate that many people would consider as "pessimistic," the one by Jean Laherrere that I already discussed in a previous post. It turns out that we have enough oil and gas that, together, they can produce enough CO2 to reach the 2 degrees limit; even though, maybe, not more. There follows that, if we really wanted to burn all the oil and gas known to be extractable, to stay withing the limit we would need to stop burning coal - zero burning, zilch -  starting from tomorrow! Not an easy thing to do, considering that coal produces more than 40% of the energy that powers the world's electrical grid and, in some countries, much more than that. It is true that coal is the dirtiest of the three fossil fuels and must be phased out faster than oil and gas, but the consumption of all three must go down together, otherwise it will be impossible to remain under the limit.

In the end, we have here one more of the many illusions that surround the climate issue; one that could be dangerous it were to spread. However, in addition to the other problems described here, Andrew's post falls into the same trap of many previous attempts: it uses the data produced by climate science to try to demonstrate its main thesis, but only after having defined climate science as "Vodoo Science." No way: this is not a meme that will go viral.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

A distant mirror: bimillenary of Germanicus' campaigns in Germania

(Image: a battle scene showing Roman troops fighting Barbarians. This relief is much later than the times discussed in this post, but it gives some idea of how these battles were seen in Roman times: "Grande Ludovisi Altemps Inv8574" by Unknown - Jastrow (2006). Licensed under Public Domain via Commons)

Julius Caesar Germanicus, grandson of Emperor Augustus, was called "Germanicus" not because he liked the Germanic peoples; rather, he was engaged in a ruthless, scorched earth campaign against them. Nevertheless, he managed to accomplish very little; mainly to show that the Roman Empire, despite all its might, could not possibly conquer Germania. 

Success, sometimes, shows one's limits more than defeat. That's a lesson that the Romans had to learn the hard way when they tried to subdue the Germanic tribes east of the Rhine, between the first century BC and the first century AD. The attempt involved a long series of campaigns and, perhaps, the climax came exactly two thousand years ago, from 14 to 16 AD, when the Romans invaded Germania with no less than eight legions under the command of Tiberius Claudius Nero, known as Germanicus (at right), grandson of Augustus and the adopted son of Emperor Tiberius. The total number of the troops employed could have been at least 80 thousand men, perhaps close to a hundred thousand; about a third of the whole Roman army. Using a modern term, we could say that the Romans were trying to steamroll their enemies.

In this case, the concept of "steamrolling" can perhaps be intended in an almost literal sense. Tacitus makes it clear for us in his "Annals" that the Romans were going into Germania with in mind something much different than "bringing civilization" to those primitive peoples. No, no such silly idea; the Romans were there to teach those Barbarians a lesson. For this, they were burning villages, slaughtering everyone, or taking as slaves, as Tacitus says, even "the helpless from age or sex." Germanicus' name, evidently, didn't imply that he loved Germanic people. Again, using a modern term, we could say that the Romans were practicing a scorched earth campaign, if not an outright war of extermination.

And yet, all these efforts achieved little. Over three years of campaigns, Germanicus' troops won all the battles they fought; but they couldn't break the Germanic tribes. And the cost of keeping so many men in the field was becoming unbearable even for the mighty Roman Empire. In 16 AD, Emperor Tiberius recalled Germanicus to Rome. He also ordered the legions to abandon the territories they had conquered and to retire behind the fortifications along the Rhine, from where they had started their campaigns. Germanicus was given a big triumph in Rome, but, a few years later, in 19 AD, he died, possibly poisoned by Tiberius himself who feared the competition of a popular general. So, Germanicus' campaigns had shown the might of the Empire, bit also its limits: there were some things that the legions just couldn't do. That was a lesson that Emperors understood well and, indeed, the Romans never tried again to attack the Germanic territory.

Two thousand years afterward, we see in these remote events a distant mirror of our age. The parallels with our current situation are many, and I am sure that the word "Iraq" is already coming to your mind. Yes, the Iraq campaign was a series of victories, just like Germanicus' campaigns. But, from a strategic viewpoint, modern Iraq, just like Germania two thousand years ago, turned out to be a conquest too expensive to keep.

But there is more to be seen in this distant mirror and so let's go a little more in depth into history. First of all, Germanicus' campaigns were the consequence of an earlier, failed campaign: the defeat of Teutoburg in 9 AD, when three Roman legions were annihilated by a coalition of Germanic tribes. Not even their commander, Consul Publius Quinctilius Varus, escaped alive. Teutoburg was not only a disaster, but a mystery as well. How could it be that the Roman legions, not exactly amateurs in practicing the art of war, blithely marched into a dense forest where a large number of Germanic warriors were waiting for them to hack them to pieces?

I wouldn't be too surprised if Varus himself were to appear to me one of these nights as a bluish ghost in my bedroom. Then, he could  tell me the story of why exactly he was sent to Germania as the governor of a province that existed only on paper and supplied with insufficient troops to control a region that had never been really pacified. Lacking this apparition, we can only speculate on this story, but it takes little imagination to conclude that someone, probably in Rome, wanted Varus' head to roll. Whoever they were, anyway, they probably couldn't imagine that so many more Roman heads would roll together with Varus' one. We will never know for sure, but we know that the man who led Varus into the trap in the forest, Arminius, was a Roman citizen, albeit born in Germania. Varus was betrayed.

I know what you are thinking at this point. And, yes, we can find some kind of a parallel with modern history in the 9/11 attack to the twin towers in New York. Let me state that I am not discussing conspiracy theories, here; what I want to highlight is the similarity of the reaction of the ancient and the modern empires to events that both perceived as an existential threat. Just as the US citizens were deeply scared by the 9/11 attacks, the Romans were deeply scared by the disaster of Teutoburg and that had political consequences.

The main consequence of the defeat of Teutoburg was that it strongly reinforced the position of the Emperor as the military leader of the whole Empire. Don't forget that, in the early 1st century AD, the idea that there was to be an emperor at the head of the Empire was still something new and plenty of people would probably have liked the Republic to be re-established. That was what what Brutus and Cassius had tried to do by killing Julius Caesar. But, after Teutoburg, reinstating the Republic became totally out of question. You probably have heard of Suetonius reporting that Emperor Augustus, on hearing of Varus' defeat, would walk aimlessly at night in his palace, murmuring, "Varus, Varus, give me back my legions!" That was a master propaganda stroke on the part of Augustus, a consummate politician. By showing himself so concerned, Augustus was positioning himself as the defender of the Empire against the barbarian menace.

Not only Teutoburg reinforced the role of Emperors; the campaigns by Germanicus reinforced the effect even more. If Teutoburg had shown that the Germanic tribes were an existential threat for the Empire, then, Germanicus' failure showed that they couldn't be destroyed. The result was that the Empire positioned itself for a long term war. That generated the equivalent of our present military-industrial complex: a standing army and a set of fortifications along the Imperial borders. That was good business for the military contractors of Roman times, but the long term consequence was that the Empire bled itself to death in order to maintain the colossal defense works it had built. Before Teutoburg, the Roman army had been producing wealth as the result of the conquest of foreign lands. After Teutoburg, the army became a destroyer of wealth, costing much more than it produced; as Germanicus' campaigns clearly demonstrated. As time went by, the Roman Empire became weaker and weaker, but it stubbornly refused to admit it and to accept the barbarians in roles that were not those of mercenaries or slaves.

Four centuries after the battle of Teutoburg and Germanicus' campaigns, an enlightened empress, Galla Placidia, broke the rules in a bold attempt to revitalize a dying empire. She married a Barbarian king and tried to start a new dynasty that would merge the Germanic and the Latin elements of the Empire. She didn't succeed; it was too late; it was too much for a single person. The Roman Empire had to go through its cycle, and the end of the cycle was its disappearance; a relic of history that had no reason to exist any longer.

This is the destiny of empires and civilizations that, as Toynbee says, die most often because they kill themselves. So it was for the Romans, our distant mirror. A dark mirror, but, most likely, our destiny will not be much different.


See also

Note also that I created a new blog "A Distant Mirror" to act as a repository of all the post published here that deal with Roman history. It is still being filled up.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Climate Change: a clash of epistemologies

Guest post by Elisa Vecchione.

Elisa is currently Research Fellow at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (UK) and Associate Fellow to the Groupe of Sociologie Pragmatique et Reflexive at EHESS (Paris). She is interested in any normative aspect of scientific uncertainty, especially in policymaking, dispute settlement, and also economic modelling of climate change. 

In a post published earlier this year, Ugo Bardi explains that the debate on climate change is going nowhere due to a fundamental incommunicability – or a ‘clash’ as he calls it – between different types of epistemologies over climate change. In his post he refers to some exchange between scientists and a newcomer – not any newcomer, actually the vice-president of the Italian Coal Industry Associations –which happened on the blog of the Italian Society of Chemistry (SCI). The newcomer used this section to attack climate science and climate scientists. The latter fully felt the attack and reacted as if their own persona had been aggressed. Apparently, the exchange degenerated in assorted insults and personal smears.

Quoting Ugo, “stiffen up and look offended when someone belittles climate science is not useful." Indeed, it is not. But as I dare reading through the lines of Ugo’s post, the reason why it is not has nothing to do with the consequences of such insulting exchange – certainly the newcomer has not changed his mind on climate change; it has to do with the reasons of such incommunicability between different categories of individuals, one which raises conflicts rather than mere disagreements. To understand such conflicts Ugo mobilises the idea that the two groups – the scientists and the newcomer – are endowed with opposite epistemologies, that is, opposite ways of knowing and believing the world. The discrepancy goes beyond differences in perceiving the world and understand it accordingly; the discrepancy concerns the way the world is analytically constructed and given a sense.

I am sure that Ugo would have appreciated the concept of ‘epistemological rationality’ used by Alban Bouvier, a French social epistemologist, with reference to discursive exchanges between reciprocally suspicious interlocutors, in which each party considers that the arguments of the other rely on false or unreliable knowledge. This seems indeed a good description of the situation described by Ugo. One could then ask how to make the two groups coming to terms with each other’s knowledge. However, I suggest not underestimating that a conflict is a conflict, involving issues of power, defence and control of territory. I am unsure whether these issues precisely correspond to a conflictual parent-child relationship in which scientists try to patronise climate change as their own field of epistemic authority, or to a war between royal families to be possibly settled through some marriage agreement. Probably, there are even more typologies of relationship accounting for that situation of conflict. I would suggest we investigate them indeed, starting by the position of scientists whose claims to knowledge are, by default, epistemologically more powerful. I have not known Ugo for long, but I am quite sure that at least he does not belong to the first category I mentioned. Other hard scientists like him, however, do belong to it and try to patronise the climate change debate. I am sure that Ugo, with his post, is trying to suggest the danger of such practice.

Ugo knows what he talks about. He points to the resentment that many scientists feel when they are challenged by any people claiming some legitimacy in debating climate change and along with it, some authority and power. This is equivalent to have scientists empowering someone else over climate change. That’s exactly where scientists may fail as either authoritative fathers or monarchs. Many scientists do not accept that the debate can be other than scientific and at the same time they are unconscious that their language talks social or political or cultural, even though it speaks science.

Like other colleagues, Ugo knows how facts stand over climate change. However, differently from other colleagues, he acknowledges some humility in his knowledge as he recognizes that ‘facts’ do not speak themselves. There is no supreme language to speak for everybody, not even that of science. The way he knows facts comes from an epistemological process of knowledge selection, construction and conclusions, a process that, simply said, builds some story. For instance, he knows facts of climate change through his own story about the depletion of natural resources in the past, in the present and the future. Certainly his story is a scientific story, following the scientific rules of writing: how to select and collect data, how to put them into some logical sequence, how to elaborate them through a language – supposedly that of modelling –, how to read them, and how to extract their sense. However, the last passage is the less scientific one. Ugo Bardi seems to know that the sense of scientific stories cannot be universal. I will suggest why. Scientific stories do not simply terminate but are brought to some conclusion by the scientist at work. Such conclusion binds together the whole sequence of the story by endowing it with a sense and a morality.

Now, as I have already said, I don’t know Ugo so well, hence I cannot tell the morality of his own story of climate change. However, I suggest he reflects on it like many other scientists committed to promote awareness and action on climate change. The conclusions brought to the sequence of facts of climate change contains the logic of the whole sequence – its epistemology - and also its ontology. It contains the reality which each scientist refers to while he is trying to cope with the unknown. Science does not exhaust the latter nor the reality we create of it; therefore, settling the conflict between different epistemologies would not solve the communication problem between the scientists and the rest of the world. However, investigating epistemologies could be the first step to access ontologies along with their ‘realities’, made of rules, norms, visions of the word and, especially, relation with any form of authority.

Should climate modelers be subjected to some psychoanalysis in order to realise what society they are talking about when they speak science? James Hillman, initiator of the movement ‘archetypal psychology’, suggested that the practice of story-telling could heal better than interpretation can do. If we are not ready to go that further, however, Hayden White, philosopher and theoriser of the idea of ‘meta-history’ as historical imagination, suggests that story-telling is a form of consciousness of the story-tellers connected to the urgency of the moment he or she lives in. We shall hope that scientists are conscious of their own power along with its modes of exercise and its limits, which epistemic preparation can only partially account for.


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)