Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Mining the asteroids: how desperate can we become?



A silly idea that seems to be coming straight from a science fiction story of the 1950s. Mining the asteroids wouldn't just be outrageously expensive; the problem is that there is nothing to mine there. Yet, some people seem to take the idea seriously



It seems that, when we are in trouble, we tend to revert to our childhood memories, seen as happy times that, somehow, could return. That may explain why President Trump is dreaming of an impossible return to coal. He may see the idea through his memories of childhood as a time of happy miners and prosperous families.

Some others, instead, may revert to memories influenced by the science fiction of the 1950s, when the idea of "mining the asteroids" was commonplace. Jerry Pournelle wrote a delightful essay on this genre in 1980 under the title "Those Pesky Belters and Their Torchships". You may also remember the 1981 movie "Outland" starring Sean Connery and taking place in a mine on the moon of Jupiter, Io.

Nice memories, yes, could we ever mine space bodies for real? Well, the science fiction of the 1950s described many innovations that never appeared in the real world and most likely never will. Some because they are too expensive (flying cars) and some because they are contrary to the laws of physics (anti-gravity). Mining the asteroids falls straight into the "impossible" category for two reasons: the first is that it is too expensive and the second that it goes against the laws of geology (if not of physics). It wouldn't be physically impossible to mine the asteroids but there is nothing to mine there.

Let me explain: we can extract minerals on Earth because of the "energy credit" that comes from geological or biological processes (and often both) which have concentrated specific elements in some special regions of the crust. We call these regions "deposits" and we use the term "ores" for those deposits which are concentrated and pure enough that they can generate an economic profit from mining. Only ores are a useful source of minerals. Mining from the undifferentiated crust is simply unthinkable because of the enormous energy it would require (see my book "Extracted").

And there lies the snag with asteroids. The physical processes that created ores on our planet can take place only on planets which are both geologically and biologically active. As far as we know, asteroids never were. So, there are no ores on asteroids; nor there are on the moon or other "dead" space bodies. It is not impossible that there could be ores on Mars, which may have been geo-biologically active in a remote past, or perhaps on the moons of Jupiter, maybe geologically active today. But, for what we know, the best place in the solar system where to find ores is our planet, the good, old Earth (and, incidentally, as science fiction goes, the 2011 movie "Cowboys and Aliens" got the geology of the story perfectly right: the aliens come to Earth for its mineral resources). 

So, no ores, no mining. And no ores on asteroids means no mining on asteroids (*). Of course, many asteroids are mainly iron, but it makes no sense to go there to mine iron if you consider that there is plenty of iron on Earth and you think of the costs involved with the idea of mining space bodies. It is an idea that just makes no sense.

Yet, we are seeing a spate of news that we could take as if someone really wanted to mine the asteroids. Possibly the most idiotic one appeared on "Futurism.com" with the title mentioning an asteroid "worth 10,000 trillion dollars". It seems that the author simply multiplied the mass of the asteroid, supposed to be all iron, by the current cost of iron per kg, arriving at such a meaningless number.

Other people seem to be peddling space mining and they may ask you money to finance their ideas on the basis of cute drawingswhich, indeed, remind the fictional spaceships of the 1950s. Others, including the Luxembourg government, seem to be willing to do exactly that: spend money on the idea of mining space, really!  (at least, despite their attempt of selecting the worst possible ideas they couldn't imagine, they don't seem to be planning to invade Iraq).

Some people who should know better seem to have lost track a little of what they are saying. So, the French astrophysicist Jean-Pierre Luminet is reported to have declared that "Asteroids are full of pure and precious metals, such as gold, platinum, cobalt, etc, in quantities ten to a hundred times larger than what we can find in terrestrial mines." (let's just say that we can't pretend that astrophysicists know something of geology).  The idea seems to be diffusing and I reported in a previous post how an acquaintance of mine reacted to my statements that we had resource problems with "but we shall colonize other planets!"

So, what to say? Just that when desperation sets in, idiocy often follows.




(*) commenter Ned noted that some meteorites have a platinum concentration higher than that of terrestrial ores. So, there may be an exception to the rule: it might be possible to mine asteroids for the special case of platinum and, perhaps, some platinum group metals. 


Monday, July 17, 2017

When governments operate in "cheating mode": Italy during WWII



Benito Mussolini: Italy's leader for more than 20 years, met an ignominious end in 1945. It is a story that can illustrate what I called the "The Camper's Dilemma", how deception may be an operational strategy for governments and for elites. 



How you react to a threat depends on how serious you consider it. Small or moderate threats don't deserve a strong reaction, while extreme, "existential" threats generate emergency measures. In between, there is an intermediate threat zone where you can think that it is a good idea to save yourself by cheating. It is what I called the "camper's dilemma." Imagine two campers in a forest inhabited by hungry bears. One possible survival strategy for each one of them is to cheat, convincing the other that there are no bears around and then quietly disappear, leaving him to be eaten.

When you have a model that looks good to you, the risk is to consider it as a hammer and see everything else as nails. But I think the "camper's dilemma" can tell us something about what's going on in the world. We all know that we are being cheated by our governments but, perhaps, the extent of the ongoing cheating still escapes most of us. So, as an example, let's revisit what happened in Italy during the second world war; when the military elites abandoned the army and the country in order to save themselves.

We all know how Mussolini's government made a number of truly gigantic strategic mistakes, engaging the country simultaneously against three of the greatest military powers of the time: Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union. How could anyone think that was a good idea is baffling for us, but, evidently, Mussolini underestimated the threat that the country faced. He seems to have been thinking that the superior fighting spirit of the Italian soldiers would take Italy to victory despite its inferiority in terms of resources.

Reality made short work of this illusion when the Red Army defeated and destroyed the Italian expeditionary corps in Russia, some 250,000 men, in a campaign that lasted a few months from late 1942 to early 1943. It was a terrible blow for Italy. It showed that, no matter what was the fighting spirit of Italian soldiers, the Italian army couldn't cope against the larger and better-equipped enemies it faced.

I already discussed the defeat of the Italian forces in Russia in a previous post, noting that Italians were told nothing by their government about the true extent of the disaster. But let's go a little deeper in the matter, here. First of all, the elites of the country had access to all the information they needed to understand that the war was being lost. But there was a not-so-subtle difference between what Mussolini and his followers were thinking and what other people at the top, including the King of Italy, were thinking. Mussolini still hoped for a miracle, maybe coming from the "revenge weapons" that the Germans were developing. The King and his generals, instead, were mainly trying to save themselves by finding an agreement with the allies before it was too late. Both factions, however, needed to keep the country at war, at least for a while.

So, the Italian press kept lying to Italians while secret negotiations were ongoing between the King and the allies. Things come to a head on Sep 8, 1943, when Mussolini was deposed and arrested while an armistice was signed that stipulated the surrender of Italy. Then, the king and his entourage fled from the capital to find protection with the Allies. The Italian army collapsed in a matter of days, left without orders and without support, to be "eaten by the bear", that is by the German troops in Italy. The last ditch defense that Mussolini tried, later on, had no hope to succeed.

These events perfectly illustrate how the elites can deceive the people in order to save their necks. And, in this case, they succeeded beautifully. Up to the last moment, the people of Italy were being told that the fighting spirit of the Italian troops was high, that the enemies were suffering heavy losses, that victory was unavoidable because the decadent Anglo-Saxon plutocracies couldn't keep fighting for long. Then, in a few days, there was no army anymore and Italy had surrendered. Cheating at its best. (*)

It seems to be a general observation that, when facing a serious threat, the elites of a country can reason that the best strategy for them is to cheat the people and save themselves. In the present situation, the threat of global warming seems to be driving some elites to do exactly that. They deny the threat while at the same time maneuvering to save themselves by moving to higher grounds and equipping their mansions with air conditioning. For all they care, the rest of the people can drown or roast.

But, as the threat of climate change becomes clearer, the elites may discover that nobody can survive in an uninhabitable planet. Then, they may finally decide to try to do something to save the ecosystem from which we all depend. Unfortunately, when that time arrives it may well be too late.





(*)There are other similar cases in history. During the war, in Germany there were attempts to kill Hitler, that failed. Even in the Soviet Union, in 1942 Stalin emanated "order 227" ("not one step back") in order to re-establish discipline in the Soviet Army. In older times, we may cite the case of the kingdom of Naples invaded by the Piedmontese in 1860, when several Neapolitan generals defected to the other side. There are many more cases that show that the strategy of deception doesn't always work, but it does exist.












Saturday, July 15, 2017

How about the "sixth extinction?" It is a Seneca Cliff in the making






Image above from the paper by Hull et al. "rarity in mass extinctions and the future of ecosystems" Nature 528, 345–351 (17 December 2015). Notice how the decline in the fossil abundance, takes the shape of a "Seneca Cliff". The article examines the current situation of the Earths's ecosystem and concludes that we are not yet falling down the cliff, but we might be in the future.





Sometimes, my colleagues make me think of the old joke, "I wouldn't want to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members." That happened to me once more when I read an interview to Smithsonian paleontologist Doug Erwin that was published with the title "We are NOT in the sixth mass extinction", ("The Atlantic," June 13, 2017). Here, Erwin states that the idea that we are in the sixth extinction is just "junk science".

If you wanted further proof that scientists are a bunch of unreliable nerds who live in a world of their own, you need to go no further. How can it be that the "sixth extinction" had become accepted science and then, suddenly, another one of those silly scientists comes up and says that it is not true? How can you believe a single word coming from them?

So. let's try to understand what this whole story is about. First, where does the idea of the sixth extinction come from? Perhaps it was popularized for the first time in a 2011 paper by Barnosky et al on Nature that dealt mainly with the megafauna extinction during the Holocene. Of course, the idea is older than that. If you look on "Google Scholar," the term "sixth extinction" produces more than 174,000 hits. If this is junk science, surely plenty of scientists seem to like this kind of junk. 

So, why does Dr. Erwin defines as junk science a subject of study that looks perfectly legitimate and widely explored? The article in "The Atlantic" is just baffling. It starts with an image of the asteroid that's supposed to have killed the dinosaurs; then the title says "we are NOT in a mass extinction," then there follows a long review of all the ongoing extinctions, and then we read that "Erwin says no." 

So, what are you supposed to understand from all this? Twice we are told that, yes, extinctions are ongoing, and twice that they are not. To add to the confusion, later in the article we are treated with paragraphs such as "“If we’re really in a mass extinction—if we’re in the [End- Permian mass extinction 252 million years ago]—go get a case of scotch,” he said." What in the world do you think could that mean?

Oh, boy, that life is complicated. Let's quit the silly article in "The Atlantic" and go see the original article in Nature where Erwin and his coauthors explain what they have in mind. And there, unlike in the Atlantic, we have an understandable text. Here are some excerpts from the article.

To date, the majority of extinction studies have been biased towards terrestrial species and charismatic megafauna and we know relatively little about changes in the abundance and ranges of the shelly marine invertebrates that would provide a direct link to mass extinctions in the fossil record.
From custodians of deep time, we need quantitative assessments of the fossil record of the present and future earth in order to accurately size up current biotic changes with the same filter through which we see the past.
 Although extinctions are rare, the ecological ghosts of oceans past already swim in emptied seas.

You see the point? So far, we have focussed on the extinction of "charismatic" species, from the past one of mammoths, giant sloths, and the like to the ongoing ones of Elephants, tigers, cheetahs, and others. However, a true mass extinction sees the disappearance, or at least the the near disappearance of common species such as marine invertebrates. But that doesn't appear to be happening, yet.

There follows that, if someone in a remote future were to examine the fossil record for our times, he/she/it wouldn't see, not yet at least, the same kind of disastrous "Seneca Collapse" of the most common species that we see for the "big five" mass extinctions. Once a true "End-Permian-like" extinction were to start, it would be so rapid and destructive that nobody would be alive, discussing it.

That's it, folks: the title "We are NOT in the sixth mass extinction" simply means "we are not YET in the sixth mass extinction", but there are plenty of ongoing extinctions that prefigurate a true mass extinction ("emptied seas") for a non-remote future. That's because we know that most of the past mass extinctions (and perhaps all of them) were caused by the same phenomenon that's ongoing nowadays: the release of large amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Said in other words, imagine you are falling from the 10th floor. You are not yet splattered on the sidewalk and, if you really want to be precise, you shouldn't say that you are in the same condition of other people who fell from the same window in the past. Who knows? You might fall on something soft, or maybe learn how to fly while en route. Precision is precision, right?

So, the position taken by Dr. Erwin is scientifically correct, although it doesn't change what we know about the ongoing extinctions (and, as a personal opinion, I normally avoid branding the work of my colleagues as "junk science," even though I may not agree with them). We didn't go through a mass extinction, yet, because it is just beginning. The problem is that the meaning of the article in The Atlantic, and in particular its title, will NOT be generally understood. On the contrary, it will give plenty of ammunition to the throngs of those who claim that "CO2 is plant food," "the Earth is getting greener," "global warming is good for people"; and the like. It is already happening. As usual, when scientists say something that some people judge unpalatable, they are cheaters and liars. When a scientist says the opposite, he is suddenly defined as reliable.

I don't think Erwin is to be faulted in particular for this disaster in scientific communication. It happens all the time and especially when you stumble on journalists who tend to sensationalize what you tell them. Unfortunately, as scientists, we haven't yet learned how to communicate science to the public.




Monday, July 10, 2017

The Three Phases of the Reaction to Existential Threats: Action, Deception, and Desperation




I have been always fascinated by how people's consciousness of collective threats blurs and disappears as the threat gets closer. Look, here, at the concept of "peak oil" as it appears on  "Google Trends." You see how it dwindled to almost zero interest after having been popular at the beginning of the 21st century.


We get similar results for Global Warming:



There are many more examples, a classic one is how the 1972 study "The Limits to Growth" was forgotten as the threat it described became closer in time. So, if you think about this, it is maddening: the earth is becoming more warm and people worry less about that?  The same about oil; the more we use, the less there is; how come that people worry less and less about the problem? Maddening, indeed.

After considerable head-scratching, I came up with a proposed explanation that I described in an earlier post as the "camper's dilemma." It is a simple model consisting in two campers trying to adopt the best strategy to avoid being eaten by bears. Here, let me repropose the camper's dilemma in a more general form that I call, here, "The Three Phases of the Reaction to Existential Threats" (actually four phases, but "phase 0" is not important)

Phase 0 - No perceived danger: no action. The problem is not recognized, so nothing is done about it.
Phase 1 - Low perceived danger: collective action. The threat is perceived to exist, but only minor adjustments are believed to be necessary to avoid damage. The emphasis is on everyone doing his/her part.
Phase 2 - High perceived danger: deception. The threat starts being perceived  (but not by everyone) as serious and involving considerable sacrifices. The objective for those who understand the situation, and for the elites in particular, is to make sure that the burden falls on someone else's shoulders. This may involve denial, obfuscation, and blame-shifting.
Phase 3 - Very high perceived danger. desperate emergency action. The threat becomes so evident that it is obvious to everyone that society is on the edge of the Seneca cliff and that not even the elites will survive the collapse. Deception is abandoned while desperate, last-ditch attempts to avoid the cliff are put in place.

Let's try to apply these considerations to the current threats, for instance global warming. It became a known threat in the 1970s and, at the time, it didn't seem to be the terrible problem it has become today. "Phase one" involved proposals such as double-paned glass windows, low consumption light bulbs, smaller cars, and the like. Much of the world's environmental movement still lives in phase one: they think that it will be sufficient to explain to people what the problem is and to convince everyone to make some small sacrifices. Then, the problem will be solved.

But "phase two" has been around for a long time and it has been gaining strength. The Trump administration is a clear example of the attempt to deceive the public about global warming by silencing the media and by a general effort of obfuscation and deception. The elites, at this stage, seem to believe that survival is possible for those who have air conditioning and own mansions on the hills. The others will roast or drown but, so the elites believe, that will reduce emissions and everything will be well for the survivors.

Some people have already moved to "phase three," with the concept of the climate "tipping point" that pushes the planet to a condition where it is not sure than anyone will be able to survive. This concept hasn't yet made inroads with the elites. But, once they discover that the threat is existential not just for the poor, but for everybody, then they may go kinetic and implement extreme, desperate attempt to fix the climate system. Expect geoengineering to become popular!

As an exercise, we may also apply the concept of the "three phases" to oil depletion. Here, we are more clearly in "phase two." The elites are engaged in gathering the remaining oil resources for themselves, while denying the problem and redirecting the anger of the public against specific ethnic, political, and religious groups. Phase three might take the shape of a desperate rush toward nuclear energy.


I know that all this is a little cynical (a lot), but it seems to me to make sense and to provide us with a working model for what's happening and why. Then, supposing it is a good model, what should we do to avoid the worse? That's something that we should discuss. Anyone has ideas?


Friday, July 7, 2017

What Can Governments Hide From Us? Lessons From WWII


In this post, I examine the historical case of the Russian campaign of the Italian army during WWII to discuss how effective can governments hide important facts from public knowledge. I think that these black-out campaigns can be very effective and it may well be possible that they are being enacted right now. 


Governments are not known to be benevolent organizations. On the contrary, when it is question of ensuring their own survival, they are ruthless. And they are well known to lie to people. The case of the "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq is well known but, at least, eventually it became clear that it was a lie: these weapons didn't exist. But it often easier to hide existing things than to create non-existing ones.

The internet is full of claims that governments or some of their institutions are engaged in this kind of lies. They are hiding from us the spreading of poisons in the sky in the form of chemtrails, the building of hidden concentration camps for political opponents, the fact that aliens landed and were captured, the fact that oil is really a renewable resource constantly recreated underground by abiotic processes, that climate scientists are engaged in a worldwide conspiracy to scare us first and then enslave us. The latest one is about "child slaves on Mars".

These claims are usually described in terms of "conspiracy theories" and most of them are so hopelessly naive and absurd that they raise the legitimate suspicion that they are part of some targeted disinformation campaign. But it seems to be easy to convince people to believe in the weirdest ideas, so maybe these legends are spontaneous evidence of this tendency. Still, it is also true that conspiracies do exist and that governments are often actively engaged in them (I can propose at least one well-documented case). So, we may ask ourselves a very general question: can governments hide important things from us? Let me examine a couple of historical examples.

Perhaps the mother of all government conspiracies was the extermination of the Jews and of other ethnic and social groups during WWII. Did the German know about what was going on, at the time? The question is controversial. On one side, it is argued that the Germans had been exposed to years of aggressive anti-Jews propaganda and that they couldn't miss the fact that the Jews were disappearing from their homes. Besides, so many people were involved with the extermination program that it wasn't just possible that even ordinary citizens wouldn't be able to understand that something monstrous was going on.

On the other side, it is noted that the Germans never could read anything about the extermination in the press, only that the Jews were being "relocated to the East," which would account for their disappearance from German cities. But the main point was that the Germans who understood what was going on couldn't say that publicly. The few who did were arrested and quickly executed. And the message was clear for all the others.

Personally, I can't say much about what the average German could or could not know during WWII. But I can offer an example of a situation that I know much better: that of Italy. The Italian government didn't engage in the mass extermination of the Jews during WWII, but we can find a significant example of "media fog" with the defeat of the Italian forces in Russia, between 1942 and 1943.

Italy engaged some 250,000 men on the Eastern Front, a major effort that ended in disaster when the Italian forces were decisively defeated by the Red Army in a series of campaigns that started in November 1942. By February 1943, the Italian forces on the Eastern Front had ceased to exist. The losses are variously reported, but probably amounted to about half of the expeditionary force. It was probably the greatest defeat suffered by Italy over its history. The disaster was so great that we could consider it as sufficient to charge the commander-in-chief with criminal incompetence and have him hanged upside down. That was, indeed, the destiny of the Italian leader, Benito Mussolini, but only two years later, in April 1945, and this specific criminal act didn't seem to have played a role in the event.

So, what did the Italians know about the Russian disaster while it was happening?  For one thing, the news of the defeat in Russa never appeared in the Italian press during the war. It is instructive to follow the news as they were reported in the Italian press. Up to December 1942, there are daily reports about the Italian expeditionary corps in Russia, the "ARMIR". Then, the reports fade out. The last one that I have been able to find on the Italian newspaper "La Stampa" dates Dec 22, 1942. Afterward, reports continue coming from Russia, describing battles fought between the Germans and the Soviets, but the Italians have disappeared. It was as if the quarter million men of the army had vanished into thin air.

That doesn't mean, of course, that the Italians couldn't know at least something about what was happening on the Russian front. It would have been easy to understand that something had gone terribly wrong just from what the press did not say, that is from the disappearance of all mentions of the Italian forces in Russia. Besides, there were tens of thousands of veterans who were repatriated after the defeat: many were sick, wounded, frostbitten, or in desperate conditions of psychological shock. They were told by the government to say nothing about what they had seen in Russia, but it is unthinkable that all of them obeyed and, in any case, their presence couldn't be ignored. Yet, the "media fog" that the government had enacted was successful. Italians seemed to be unable to discuss or express their outrage at the disaster, at least as long as the Fascist government remained in control of the country. Only years after the war was over, the disaster in Russia became widely known.

A similar situation existed with the war. In the 1940s, Italy and Germany both faced what we call today an "existential threat" in the form of military annihilation. Yet, their citizens were never told, up to the last moment, that the war was being lost. Also in this case, it was not difficult to understand what was going on from what the newspapers did not say, but it seemed impossible to state it in public or to debate it.

Now, it is always difficult to generalize, but I think that these historical examples can tell us something about how governments can hide truth: simply by not mentioning it. In other words, governments cannot make the truth disappear, but they can "blur" it, marginalizing it and making it appear unimportant.

Today, the entity that we call "The West" is facing existential threats in the form of resource depletion and global warming. Yet, the mainstream media are completely silent about resource depletion and, at least in the US, they seem to be aiming at silencing the discussion on global warming. Not that people cannot know what's going on, there are plenty of blogs and discussion groups where you can learn the truth. But it remains an unofficial, marginal truth that plays no role in the general discussion. The main discussion remains dominated by concepts such as "making the country great again" and "restart growth," probably as impossible as it was for Italy to defeat the Soviet Union and the USA together, during WWII.



________________________________

Below you can see the last piece of news on the Italian newspaper "La Stampa" that mentions the "ARMIR", the Italian expeditionary force in Russia. It is dated 22 December 1942 and it only states that the defensive measures taken to contain the Soviet attacks are being successful. I was unable to find further mentions of the ARMIR in later issues that appeared during the war. By February 1943, the Italian forces in Russia had ceased to exist.





Wednesday, July 5, 2017

The "Seneca Cliff", how the concept evolved


An image taken at a recent meeting in Barcelona. You can see the evolution of the concept of "collapse", from Malthus to Forrester. The latter can be seen as the true originator of the concept that I call the "Seneca Cliff" or the "Seneca Effect



Malthus (1766 - 1834) is supposed to be the catastrophist in chief, the prophet of doom whose prophecies never came to pass. And yet, if you read what he wrote (not everyone does), you see that he never mentioned the concept, familiar to us, of "civilization collapse". Malthus was perfectly able to imagine pestilences, wars, and famines; all common occurrences at his time. But he wasn't aware of the idea that population could grow well above the "Malthusian limit" and then crash.

The idea of a cyclical pattern of growth and decline came much after Malthus, you find its origins in biological studies, with Lotka and Volterra being perhaps the first to propose it in the form of a mathematical model in the 1920s and 1930s. Later on, in the 1950s, Marion King Hubbert proposed his "bell-shaped" curve for the cycle of production of crude oil in a specific region. For us, it is a relatively well known story even though most people seem to remain convinced that - somehow - growth can go on forever.

Finally, the idea that the bell shaped curve is asymmetric was explicitly expressed in terms of a mathematical model by Jay Forrester, in the 1960s, Even though Lucius Annaeus Seneca had already proposed it in qualitative terms long before, Forrester can be seen as the true originator of the concept of "Seneca Cliff."

Over more than a century of work, humankind has developed tools that make us able to face the future. We only have a little problem: we are not using them; our current leaders don't even know that such tools exist. And so, our destiny is to slide down, blindfolded, along the Seneca Cliff.



Who

Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" to be published by Springer in mid 2017