Sunday, February 28, 2016

The "Limits to Growth" was right: Italy's population starts declining.

The "base case" scenario described in the 2004 edition of "The Limits to Growth", an update of the original study sponsored by the Club of Rome and published in 1972. Note how the world's population is supposed to start declining some years after the peaking of the world's economy. We are not yet seeing this decline at the global level, but we may be seeing it in some specific regions of the world; in particular in Italy.

More and more data are accumulating to disprove the legend of the "mistakes" that has been accompanying the study titled "The Limits to Growth" (LTG). For instance, Graham Turner has shown how the historical data for the world's economy have been following rather closely the curves of the "base case" scenario presented in 1972. But the fact that this scenario has been working well up to the beginning of the 21st century doesn't mean it will keep working in the same way in the future. The base case scenario describes a worldwide economic collapse that should start at some moment during the first two-three decades of the century. Clearly, the world's economy has not collapsed, so far, even though it may be argued that it is giving out ominous signs that it is starting to do just that. But, we can't yet prove that the base case scenario was right.

Yet, the LTG collapse scenario is an average over the whole world and we may imagine that some sections of the world's economy should collapse earlier, and some later. And, indeed, it appears that some local economies are collapsing right now. It may be that a country like Italy is already well advanced in this process, so that we shouldn't be not just seeing the decline of its GdP, but also the start of an irreversible population decline. And some recent data indicate that this is exactly the case: the LTG base case scenario is playing out in Italy, and probably not just in Italy.

So, let's try to make a qualitative comparison of the LTG scenario and the actual data for Italy. First of all, the scenario shows how the consumption of natural resources is supposed to reach a maximum and then decline, followed by a similar trajectory for the economic output. We are already well past this point in Italy. As you can see in the figure below, from a previous post on Cassandra's legacy, Italy's consumption of hydrocarbon fuels (by far its main source of energy) peaked in 2005, followed by the peak in the GdP in 2008. Considering that the GdP is a measure of the overall economic output of a country, we can take it as proportional to the parameters that were indicated as the industrial and agricultural production in the LTG study (the data for 2015  indicate a small GdP increase for Italy, but that changes little to the overall trend).

So, we may say that the base case LTG scenario has been playing out in Italy in terms of the behavior of the economy of the country. But, if this is the case, at some point we should expect another curve of the scenario to peak and start declining: the population curve. And, indeed, we seem to be seeing exactly that. Here are the most recent data from the Italian statistical agency, ISTAT

You can see the remarkable jumping up in the mortality rate for 2015: it corresponds to 165,00 more deaths than births. Despite the influx of immigrants, Italy has lost 139,000 residents in 2015; not a large loss (0.23%) but it is significant. And it had never happened during the past few decades. Also, Italy sees for the first time in decades a reduction in the life expectancy at birth (from 80.3 years to 80.1 years for males and from 85 years to 84.7 years for females).

What have been the causes of this population decline? There are several, and the torrid summer of 2015 has surely played a role in killing more old people than usual, as you can see in the figure below (again from ISTAT)

Then, other causes have been proposed; the general aging of the population, the economic crisis, the worsening diet, pollution, the higher costs of medical care, and more. But the point, here, is not to discuss these various causes, most of which probably had a role in the decline. The model doesn't describe the details of the process, nor it is detailed to the point of considering different age cohorts. It is a quantitative description of a relatively simple phenomenon: a population under stress because of reduced resource availability and pollution will react by an increasing number of deaths in its weakest age groups: the elderly ones. And this is exactly what we are seeing in Italy: a decline in population following the decline in GdP.

Of course, we only have data for one year and we cannot say if what we are seeing is a long-term trend or just a statistical fluctuation. Yet, it is hard not to think that the degrading economic, social conditions in Italy, as well as the degradation of the ecosystem, are not taking their toll on the population. And that we are indeed seeing the LTG scenarios playing out.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

MEDEAS begins

The European project "MEDEAS" is starting. The acronym has little to do with the mythological figure of Medea but stands for "Modeling the Energy Development under Environmental And Socioeconomic constraints" and it is an ambitious attempt at creating a new model that will define the future of the energy system in Europe, taking into account the physical constraints involved.  This is not a new idea, it goes back to 1972, at the time of the "Limits to Growth" study. What is new is that the concepts developed at that time are re-emerging after a period of neglect and are now sponsored and financed by the European Union. A remarkable vindication of the ideas of the group of pioneers who carried out the early 1972 study and that turned out to be prophetic, beyond perhaps the expectation of even those who had developed the model. 

As one of the partners of the MEDEAS project, I'll see to cover the development of the project in the "Cassandra's Legacy" blog. As a start, let me propose to you a post by Antonio Turiel, also involved in the project, from his blog "The Oil Crash"

The MEDEAS project begins

by Antonio Turiel

Dear readers,

Today and tomorrow (Feb 18 and 19 2016) the institute of sciences of the Seas of the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas - CSIC hosted the kick-off meeting of the MEDEAS project.

MEDEAS (acronym of Modeling the Energy Development under Environmental And Socioeconomic constraints" is a European project financed in the framework of the "Horizon 2020" program to finance European research. This project is coordinated by my institution, and in practice by my colleague, Jordi Solé.

From the institute of Marine Sciences, we have in this project Antonio García-Olivares, Joaquim Ballabrera, Emilio García and yours truly.

Two more Spanish institutes also participate in this project: CIRCE (with Alicia Valero among others) and the University of Valladolid (with Luis Javier Miguel as head, but there are also well known people, such as Margarita Mediavilla and Carlos de Castro).

The other partners ar the Consorzio Interuniversitario Italiano di Scienza e Tecnología dei Materiali, INSTM (Ugo Bardi), The Centre for Renewable Energy Sources and Saving, The University of Masaryk, The Anglia Ruskin university, the Sdruzhenie Chernomorski Izsledovatelski Energien Tsentar, the International Institute for Applied system analysis (IIASA), the Friends of the Earth (Czech Republic), the Austrian Energy Agency and Blue4You

The objective of MEDEAS, as shown by its acronym, is to create the tools necessary to support the planning of policies that would favor the transition of the European Energy system toward a new system, based on renewable energy. On this task, the principal objective of MEDEAS is to produce a socio-economc model, the "MEDEAS model", that will be flexible enough to be modifiable in such a way to be able to study different scenarios and pathways toward the transition. The MEDEAS model will be programmed in a free code, (Python) so that it will be easy to use by different social and economic users. It will be based on the WoLiM model, developed by the System Dynamics Group at the University of Valladolid. The MEDEAS model will be a system dynamics model which will introduce new variables, additional to the ones habitually considered, so that it will be possible to adapt the model to create a more detailed analysis model for what is needed to implement a pathway or another, mostly as a function of specific socio-economic aspects, such as the evolution of the unemployment or of income inequality; parameters not always taken into account by the models.

MEDEAS implies a remarkable effort of coordination between the compilation of the necessary data that will be used to define and verify the sensitivity of the model, and the creation of the model itself (to be also compared with some already existing models) and the verification of the different scenarios. MEDEAS is an ambitious attempt to create a new model that might go much beyond the presently available models, in particular being sufficiently flexible to accept very different scenarios, and that will be able to carry out a detailed analysis both at the European scale, as well as that of single countries

Given my role in the project, and its interest for the questions discussed here, during the coming 4 years, I will be informing the readers about the development of the actions of MEDEAS. MEDEAS needs time in order to propose answers in a world where the questions about the future are multiplying. Stay tuned: we hope in good news from MEDEAS.


Antonio Turiel

Monday, February 22, 2016

Coal, wars, and beautiful women: why in Italy we speak Italian and not French

Virginia Oldoini, Countess of Castiglione, 1837-1899. Portrait by Michele Gordigiani. The following text is part of the talk that I gave in Paris on Feb 12, at the Momentum Institute (h/t Yves Cochet, Agnes Sinaï, and Mathilde Szuba)

In the study of history, it is fashionable to use quantitative data as much as possible. We speak of financial and economic factors, of the competition for natural resources, of population unbalances, of the effects of climate, and more. And, yet, sometimes history goes on according to the whim of one or another ruler making colossal mistakes; from Napoleon to Saddam Hussein. In that case, human factors become predominant and only in some cases we can have a glimpse of what may have passed in the mind of the people at the top. One such case may have been that of countess Virginia Oldoini, femme fatale of the 19th century, mistress of the French Emperor Napoleon III, and, perhaps, the origin of the Italian unification of 1860. Beautiful woman, indeed, and hard to describe using system dynamics models!

Let's go back to the early 19th century. At that time, the industrial revolution was in full swing; fueled by the coal mines of Northern Europe, mainly in England, France, and Germany. This revolution had created an economic unbalance, making the Northern countries much richer and more powerful than the Southern ones. It was not just a question of having or not having coal. It was a question of transporting it. Coal is heavy and bulky and, at that time, the only practical way to carry it over long distances was by the sea. Sailing ships could take coal everywhere in the world but, when it was a question of taking it inland, waterways were needed. No waterways, no coal. No coal, no industrial revolution. That was the reason of the unbalance: the Southern European countries, just as the North-African ones, could have no waterways because of the lack of water. Hence, they could not industrialize and they remained economically and militarily weak.

Here is the situation as it was in 1848.

At this date, the only Mediterranean regions that had waterways and could industrialize were France and Northern Italy, and Piedmont in particular. Of the two, France was by far the most powerful and, already in 1848, you can see how France had occupied Algeria, snatching it away from the weak Ottoman Empire. The rest of the North-African region was ripe for the taking and even the Kingdom of Naples, in Southern Italy, was militarily and industrially weak; an easy prey for any industrialized country. So, what could have stopped the French from turning the whole Mediterranean sea into a French lake? That had been, apparently, Napoleon's idea when he had invaded Egypt, in 1798. It had not worked out at that time, but it had been a good strategic intuition that later French governments could have carried out.

Now, put yourself in the shoes of the British. In the great strategic game of the 19th century, they had sighted Egypt, that they would occupy in 1882, but there was little or nothing that they could do to stop France from occupying the whole Northern African shore, all the way to Egypt and perhaps farther than that. Nothing direct, that is, but what if they could create a strategic counterweight to balance the French power? And what could that counterweight be? Italy, of course, if it could be unified and transformed into a single country, out of the plethora of statelets it was at that time.

So, in mid 19th century, the strategic pieces of the Mediterranean game were all in their places, as if on a giant chessboard. The British objective was shared by Piedmont: unify Italy as soon as possible and stop France from further expansion. On the other side of the chessboard; France's objective was also clear: avoid at all costs the unification of Italy and take as much as possible of North Africa, as soon as possible.

Clear; perfectly clear. And easy for France. They had almost nothing to do; just keep Piedmont in check; which they could do easily. It is true that Piedmont was a small industrial powerhouse for its times, but it was no match for the much larger and much more powerful neighboring France. But the French president and emperor of that time, Louis Napoleon, or "Napoleon III" did exactly the opposite, even engaging the French army in support of the expansion of Piedmont in Northern Italy in a series of bloody battles against the Austrians, in 1859. Not that France helped Piedmont for nothing, of course. In exchange, the French obtained a slice of land on the Western side of the Alps, formerly part of Piedmont. It was a territorial gain but, in strategical terms, it was nothing in comparison to what France was losing.

One year later, Piedmont, with the support of the British, sent an army led by Giuseppe Garibaldi to invade the Southern Kingdom of Naples. The Neapolitans put up a spirited resistance, but, alone, they couldn't cope and Napoleon III did nothing to help them. With the collapse of the Southern Kingdom, the complete unification of Italy became unavoidable, despite a last-ditch attempt by Napoleon III in 1867, when he sent troops to Italy to stop Garibaldi from taking Rome.

So, Italy was. And it still is. The curious thing is that it had not to be. Had Napoleon III stopped Garibaldi in 1860 in the same way as he did in 1867, probably we would still have a kingdom of Naples and the country that today we call "Italy", would be mainly a French protectorate. And, most likely, French would be the dominant language in most of the country.

Instead, France had lost a historical occasion to become the dominant Mediterranean power. Later on, the Franch still managed to carve out some more pieces of North Africa, occupying Tunisia in 1881 and Morocco in 1904, but all further advances in the Mediterranean region were stopped when, in 1911, Italy claimed what Italians saw as their rightful slice of the declining Ottoman Empire: the region that we call Libya today.

So, how was it that Napoleon III made such a colossal strategic mistake? In a way, we can say that it is rather normal: Rulers of states are often awfully incompetent at their job (just think of our George W. Bush). But, for Napoleon III, there may have been a reason that goes beyond simple incompetence.

The French have invented the phrase "Cherchez la femme" ("look for the woman") as an explanation for many otherwise inexplicable events. And, in the story of the unification of Italy, there is a woman involved: Virginia Oldoini, Countess of Castiglione. She was the cousin of Count Cavour, prime minister of Piedmont at that time, and she was sent to Paris by him, it seems, with the specific idea of influencing Napoleon III. She was a faithful Italian patriot and she understood very well what was to be her role as mistress of the French president and emperor. She was to convince him to do something that the French should never have allowed: help Piedmont to invade and conquer the rest of the Italian peninsula. According to what we can often read in history books, she fulfilled her role and, from the portraits and the photographs we have of her, maybe we can also understand how.

Of course, we can legitimately think that this story is just a legend. But could it be that Virginia Oldoini really convinced Luis Napoleon to do what he did? In this case, the Countess should be considered as one of the most influential women in modern history. But we will never be able to know: by now, she is on the other side of the mirror, perhaps watching us from there and laughing at us.

For a fictional tale of what could have happened had Napoleon III been smarter (or Virginia Oldoini less beautiful) see "The Tipping points of History" on the "Chimeras" blog.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

The collapse of the Western Roman Empire: was it caused by climate change?

Image from the recent paper by Buentgen et al., published on "Nature Geoscience" on February 8, 2016. The red curves are temperature changes reconstructed from tree rings in the Russian Altai (upper curve) and the European Alps (lower curve). Note the remarkable dip in temperatures that took place starting with the 6th century AD. But, by then, the Western Roman Empire was past and gone. Its collapse was NOT caused by climate change. 

The relationship of climate and civilization collapse is a much debated subject. From the recent collapse of the Syrian state to the much older one of the Bronze Age civilization, climate changes have been seen as the culprit of various disasters befalling on human societies. However, an alternative view of societal collapse sees it as the natural ("systemic") result of the declining returns that a society obtains from the resources it exploits. It is the concept termed "diminishing returns of complexity" by Joseph A. Tainter.

On this point, there may well exist several causes for societal collapse. Either climate change or resource depletion may sufficiently weaken the control structures of any civilization to cause it to fold over and disappear. In the case of the Western Roman Empire, however, the data published by Buentgen et al. completely vindicate Tainter's interpretation of the collapse of the Roman Empire: it was a systemic collapse, it was NOT caused by climate change. 

From the data, we can see that there was a cooling episode that probably affected the whole of Eurasia and that started with the beginning of the 6th century AD.  This period is called LALIA (Late Antiquity Little Ice Age) and it seems to have been stronger than the better known LIA (Little Ice Age) that took place during the 18th and 19th centuries. Apparently, the LALIA was mainly caused by a series of volcanic eruptions that injected large amounts of particulate in the atmosphere; cooling it by reflecting sunlight. Overall, temperatures went down by a couple of degrees in comparison to the time that we call the "Roman Warm Period."

A brutal cooling, yes, and it surely had effects on human life, as discussed at length in the paper by Buentgen et al. But it had nothing to do with the fall of the Western Roman Empire whose decline had started at least two centuries before. The Empire started its final disintegration phase with the beginning of the 5th century; when it ceased to be able to garrison the fortifications at the borders. Then, Rome was sacked one first time in 410 AD; and finally destroyed by the Vandals in 455 AD. That was the true end of the Western Empire, even though, for some decades, there were still individuals who claimed the title of Emperors. But all that took place in a period of relatively stable climate, at least from what we can say about the available data. So, the collapse was systemic, related to factors other than climate and, in my opinion, mainly related to the collapse of the Roman financial system, in turn caused by mineral depletion.

But could it be that, after all, there is a correlation between the Roman collapse and climate change? Just it would be the reverse of what it had been sometimes proposed: could the Roman collapse have caused the LALIA cooling (or, at least, contributed to it)? The idea is not farfetched: the population collapse that took place with the fall of the Empire could have led to a considerable level of reforestation of Western Europe, and that would have absorbed CO2 from the atmosphere. That would have been an added factor to volcanic cooling. It is an idea already expressed some time ago by William Ruddiman. It seems to be out of fashion, nowadays, but I think that it should be explored more.

In the end, this story can teach us a lot: first of all, how fragile climate is. In the interpretation by Buentgen et al., just three volcanic eruptions - relatively large ones, but not truly gigantic - were sufficient to cause a two-degree cooling extending all over Eurasia. Think of what could be the effect if something similar were to happen in our times! Then, it shows also how the situation, today, has completely changed. Temperatures have taken a completely different trend with the start of large scale emissions of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Incidentally, these data also confirm the "Hockey Stick" data by Michael Mann and others. Global warming is real, the earth's climate is fragile, and we are in big troubles.

Additional note: The data published in "Nature" generated a truly awful article in the "Daily Express" titled "Mini-ice age 1,500 years ago contributed to fall of Roman Empire". There, they put together an incredible mix of unrelated things, showing for instance gladiator games that had ceased to exist at least one century before the LALIA. Then, they say that the 6th century cooling "contributed to the collapse of the Eastern Roman Empire." Which is an interesting extrapolation, since the Eastern Empire didn't collapse until about a thousand years after the LALIA!!  At least, they should go back to junior high school but, on the other hand, think of how they report about climate change: what would you expect from them when they discuss about the Roman Empire?

(h/t Graham Readfearn)

Monday, February 8, 2016

The Empire of Lies

The Trajan Column was built in order to celebrate the victories of the Roman Armies in the conquest of Dacia, during the 2nd century AD. It shows that the Romans knew and used propaganda, although in forms that for us look primitive. In those times, just as in ours, a dying empire could be kept together for a while by lies, but not forever.  

At the beginning of the 5th century AD, Augustine, bishop of Hippo, wrote his "De Mendacio" ("On Lying"). Reading it today, we may be surprised at how rigid and strict Augustine was in his conclusions. A Christian, according to him, could not lie in any circumstances whatsoever; not even to save lives or to avoid suffering for someone. The suffering of the material body, said Augustine, is nothing; what's important is one's immortal soul. Later theologians substantially softened these requirements, but there was a logic in Augustine's stance if we consider his times: the last century of the Western Roman Empire.

By the time of Augustine, the Roman Empire had become an Empire of lies. It still pretended to uphold the rule of law, to protect the people from the Barbarian invaders, to maintain the social order. But all that had become a bad joke for the citizens of an empire by then reduced to nothing more than a giant military machine dedicated to oppressing the poor in order to maintain the privileges of the rich. The Empire itself had become a lie: that it existed because of the favor of the Gods who rewarded the Romans because of their moral virtues. Nobody could believe in that anymore: it was the breakdown of the very fabric of society; the loss of what the ancient called the auctoritas, the trust that citizens had toward their leaders and the institutions of their state.

Augustine was reacting to all this. He was trying to rebuild the "auctoritas", not in the form of mere authoritarianism of an oppressive government, but in the form of trust. So, he was appealing to the highest authority of all, God himself. He was also building his argument on the prestige that the Christians had gained at a very high price with their martyrs. And not just that. In his texts, and in particular in his "Confessions" Augustine was opening himself completely to his readers; telling them all of his thoughts and his sins in minute details. It was, again, a way to rebuild trust by showing that one had no hidden motives. And he had to be strict in his conclusions. He couldn't leave any openings that would permit the Empire of Lies to return.

Augustine and other early Christian fathers were engaged, first of all, in an epistemological revolution. Paulus of Tarsus had already understood this point when he had written: "now we see as in a mirror, darkly, then we'll see face to face." It was the problem of truth; how to see it? How to determine it? In the traditional view, truth was reported by a witness who could be trusted. The Christian epistemology started from that, to build up the concept of truth as the result divine revelation. The Christians were calling God himself as witness. It was a spiritual and philosophical vision, but also a very down-to-earth one. Today, we would say that the Christians of late Roman times were engaged in "relocalization", abandoning the expensive and undefendable structures of the old Empire to rebuild a society based on local resources and local governance. The age that followed, the Middle Ages, can be seen as a time of decline but it was, rather, a necessary adaptation to the changed economic conditions. Eventually, all societies must come to terms with Truth. The Western Roman Empire could not do that, It had to disappear, it was unavoidable.

Now, let's move forward to our times and we have reached our empire of lies. On the current situation, I don't have to tell you anything that you don't already know. During the past few decades, the mountain of lies tossed at us by governments has been perfectly matched by the disastrous loss of trust in our leaders on the part of the citizens. When the Soviets launched their first orbiting satellite, the Sputnik, in 1957, nobody doubted that it was for real and the reaction of the US government was to launch their own satellites. Today, plenty of people even deny that the US sent men to the moon in the 1960s. They may be ridiculed, they may be branded as conspiracy theorists, sure, but they are there. Perhaps the watershed of this collapse of trust was with the story of the "Weapons of Mass Destruction" that we were told were hidden in Iraq. It was not their first, nor it will be their last, lie. But how can you ever trust an institution that lied to you so brazenly? (and that continue to do so?)

Today, every statement from a government, or from an even remotely "official" source, seems to generate a parallel and opposite statement of denial. Unfortunately, the opposite of a lie is not necessarily the truth, and that has originated baroque castles of lies, counter-lies, and counter-counter lies. Think of the story of the 9/11 attacks in New York. Somewhere, hidden below the mass of legends and myths that have piled up on this story, there has to be the truth; some kind of truth. But how to find it when you can't trust anything you read on the Web? Or think of peak oil. At the simplest level of conspiratorial interpretation, peak oil can be seen as a reaction to the lies of oil companies that hide the depletion of their resources. But you may also see peak oil as a scam created by oil companies that try to hide the fact that their resources are actually abundant - even infinite in the diffuse legend of "abiotic oil". But, for others, the idea that peak oil is a scam created in order to hide abundance may be a higher order scam created in order to hide scarcity. Eve higher order conspiracy theories are possible. It is a fractal universe of lies, where you have no reference point to tell you where you are.

Eventually, it is a problem of epistemology. The same that goes back to Pontius Pilate's statement "what is truth?" Where are we supposed to find truth in our world? Perhaps in science? But science is rapidly becoming a marginal sect of people who mumble of catastrophes to come. People whom nobody believes any longer after they failed to deliver their promises of energy too cheap to meter, space travel, and flying cars. Then, we tend to seek it in such things as "democracy" and to believe that a voting majority somehow defines "truth". But democracy has become a ghost of itself: how can citizens make an informed choice after that we discovered the concept that we call "perception management" (earlier on called "propaganda")?

Going along a trajectory parallel to that of the ancient Romans, we haven't yet arrived at having a semi-divine emperor residing in Washington D.C., considered by law to be the repository of divine truth. And we aren't seeing yet a new religion taking over and expelling the old ones. At present, the reaction against the official lies takes mostly the form of what we call "conspiratorial attitude." Although widely despised, conspirationism is not necessarily wrong; conspiracies do exist and much of the misinformation that spreads over the web must be created by someone who is conspiring against us. The problem is that conspirationism is not a form of epistemology. Once you have decided that everything you read is part of the great conspiracy, then you have locked yourself in an epistemological box and thrown away the key. And, like Pilate, you can only ask "what is truth?", but you will never find it.

Is it possible to think of an "epistemology 2.0" that would allow us to regain trust on the institutions and on our fellow human beings? Possibly, yes but, right now, we are seeing as in a mirror, darkly. Something is surely stirring, out there; but it has not yet taken a recognizable shape. Maybe it will be a new ideal, maybe a revisitation of an old religion, maybe a new religion, maybe a new way of seeing the world. We cannot say which form the new truth will take, but we can say that nothing new can be born without the death of something. And that all births are painful but necessary.


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)