Saturday, March 17, 2018

The View From Les Houches: What is the origin of Collapse?

At the physics school of Les Houches, in March 2018, Gregoire Chambaz of the University of Lausanne gave a talk on the phenomenon of "collapse caused by diminishing returns of complexity." (The image above is not from Les Houches but from a meeting in Lausanne last year).

In itself, it is already interesting that a meeting of physicists gives space to the idea of societal collapse, but the school of Les Houches was one of the rare cases of a truly interdisciplinary meeting. The result was a wide variety of approaches, including the talk by Gregoire Chambaz who approached the problem examining the concept of "diminishing returns of complexity" proposed by Joseph Tainter already in 1988. You can find a summary (in French) of Chambaz's work at this link.

If you are a reader of this blog, you probably know Tainter's graphic to explain his concept. Here it is.

The idea is that, as societies become larger, they must develop more and more complex control systems in order to manage the whole system. These control systems may be in the form of bureaucracy, an imperial court, the army, the church, the legal system, and more. And, as these systems become larger, they become unwieldy, rigid, and unmanageable. The effort needed to increase their size is not matched by the benefit they provide. According to Tainter, this is the ultimate reason for the collapse of large societies.

As a model, Tainter's one has proved to be hugely popular and surely it is a "mind sized model," easy to understand and providing an immediate grasp of the evolution of the system. The problem is that Tainter's model has no evident basis in physics. There is no precise explanation of what would cause the behavior that Tainter proposes, not it is possible to measure concepts such as "the benefits of complexity." It is only a qualitative model.

Can we model this kind of collapse using physics? Perhaps. In principle, there could be two reasons why the system stops improving its performance as it grows in size. One could be an effect of entropy. If you work in a large organization, you understand how, over time, it becomes a tangle of contradictory rules and of people and offices which seem to exist only to prevent any work being done (OK, I have in mind the University of Florence, but I am sure it is not the only case in the world). But how to quantify this effect?

Then, the reason for this behavior could be another one. Maybe it is not an intrinsic property of a large system to lose efficiency as it grows, but an effect of the slow decline of the net energy that it uses. That would explain many things and I put together a tentative dynamic model a few years ago which seemed to work. We are working on improving it taking into account the dynamics of the Seneca Effect. It is a work we are doing together with my coworkers Sara and Ilaria, but it will take a little time before we publish it.

Overall, the impression I have is that we are starting to develop an extremely rich field of studies, that of critical phenomena in complex networks. Tainter gave us a first indication of the way to go, but there is much, much more to do before we can say we have a solid theory explaining the periodical collapse of civilizations we observe in history.  But we keep going.

Friday, March 16, 2018

The View From Les Houches: The Return of Space Mining?

Robert Ayres, well known for his work on biophysical economics, gave a talk dedicated to space mining at the School of Physics in Les Houches this March. Ayres just touched the subject that gave the title to his talk, spending most of the time to describe the plight of the mining industry, faced with the shortage of rare minerals. Yet, the fact that he used that title is an indication of the increasing popularity of the meme of mining space. It is still a marginal subject of investigation, but you can see the trend in Scopus, here, for the search term "space mining":

In a previous post of mine, I was not optimistic about space mining. I said that there was nothing interesting to mine in space and that the whole idea was proposed by people who knew little or nothing about geology. Asteroids and other small space bodies contain no ores because they never went through the processes of deposit creation that took place on the Earth. No ores- no mining. Basically, the growth of interest in the subject may be more a symptom of growing desperation rather than something that could be plausibly done.

I remain more or less of this idea: going to space to bring minerals back to Earth makes little sense, But, recently, I have been re-examining the concept and I discovered that there may be a logic in it if we just we change the target market from the Earth to space.

Space is a growing business with plenty of interesting applications: communication, exploration, astronomy, earth monitoring and more. Elon Musk is no fool and if he developed a heavy rocket launcher, it is because he saw the need of it. So far, every gram of the devices and the structures sent to space came from the Earth's crust. And sending things to space is awfully expensive. So, it could make sense to examine the possibility of assembling space structures using materials mined in space.

It would still be difficult, perhaps impossible, to mine rare minerals in space, but asteroids are rich of elements such  such as iron, nickel, aluminum, titanium, silicon and even carbon and water in the form of ice. These minerals are not there in the form of ores, but they form a sufficiently large fraction of some asteroids that extracting and purifying them could make sense. Take also into account that space is rich in solar energy that can be transformed into electric power by PV panels and that in space you have little to worry about pollution and greenhouse gases.

Of course, putting together a mining industry in space is a task which was never attempted so far and the unknowns are enormous. It was discussed back in the 1970s when the concept of "space colonies" became popular. But, over the years, it became clear that humans are not made for space; too expensive and too dangerous. Instead, space is a good place for robots which can do the same things human can do in a better and cheaper way. And these robots could be made, at least in part, from materials obtained from asteroids.

Is it possible? It depends on the trajectory of the world's economic system. If we manage to collapse as badly as some models predict, then space robots will soon become something made of the stuff dreams are made of - just like the angels which once were thought to be pushing planets along their orbits. But if humankind manages to keep a functioning industrial economy, then why not? Our robot-children could explore space and maybe build a new silicon based ecosystem, out there. The future is beautiful because it is always full of possibilities.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

The View from Les Houches: Of Rare Metals and Cute Kittens

Les Houches, March 2018. José Halloy of the Université Paris Diderot discusses mineral depletion in his presentation. Note how he utilizes Hubbert curves to estimate the trajectory of mineral extraction. He predicted that the dearth of very rare elements will negatively affect the electronics industry, perhaps killing it completely.

José Halloy's presentation at the Les Houches school of physics was focused on the availability of rare minerals for electronics. This is a problem that's rarely discussed outside the specialized world of the "catastrophists", that is of those who think that mineral supply may be strongly restricted by depletion in a non-remote future. In this field, Halloy seemed to side with the "hard" catastrophists, that is expressing the option that depletion will make certain things, perhaps even the whole electronics industry, impossible.

The problem, indeed, is there: modern electronics is based on the unrestricted use of very rare minerals - the term "very rare" indicates those elements which are present only in traces in the earth's crust and which, normally, do not form exploitable deposits of their own. If you pick up your smartphone, you probably know that it contains several of these very rare elements gallium (for the transistors), indium (for the screen), tantalum (for the condensers), gold (for the electric contacts) and more.

Most of these elements are "hitch-hikers" in the sense that they are produced as impurities extracted from the production of other elements: for instance, gallium is a byproduct of aluminum production. Whether we can continue to supply these elements to the electronic industry in the future depends on a host of factors, including whether we can continue to extract aluminum from its ores. In this sense, recycling is not a good thing since recycled aluminum, of course, does not contain gallium, because it has already been extracted during the refining phase. Note also that recycling tiny amount of very rare elements from electronic devices is extremely difficult and very costly. So, in the future, the supply of these elements is going to become problematic, to say the least.

Does it mean the end of electronics? José Halloy seemed to be very pessimistic in this sense, but I think the question was not posed in the correct way. If you ask whether current electronic devices can survive the future dearth or rare mineral, the answer is obvious: they can't. But the correct question is a different one: what kind of electronic devices can we build without these elements?

Here, I think we face a scarcely explored area. So far, the industry has been produced all kind of devices focusing solely on performance on the basis of the assumption that there aren't - and there won't ever be - mineral supply problems. Can we make a smartphone without gallium, indium and all the rest? That is, limiting the elements used to the basic ones, silicon, aluminum, and other common materials? It is a difficult question to answer because, really, it has never been addressed, so far.

Yet, I think there are excellent possibilities to develop a new generation of electronic devices which are both using very little (and perhaps zero) rare elements and which are designed for complete (or nearly complete) recycling. The basic element of all electronic circuits, transistors, can be made using silicon and, in general, there are alternatives to rare metals for most devices, even though in most cases not with the same performance. For instance, light emitting diodes (LEDs) are currently based on gallium nitride (GaN) and there seem to be no comparable substitutes. Without LED, we would have to go back to the old cathode ray tubes (CRTs) which we consider primitive today. But, after all,  CRTs performed well enough for us up to not many years ago. So, it would be an inconvenience, but not the end of the world.

So, it is clear that we'll have to settle on reduced performance if we want an electronics without rare elements, perhaps on a strongly reduced performance. But maybe we don't need the kind of performance we have been used to in order to keep going. Think about your smartphone: it is an incredibly complex and powerful device used mostly for trivial tasks such as looking at clips of cute kittens and sending likes and thumbs-up to other machines. Does "civilization" really need these devices? It is all to be seen.

For a fascinating discussion of an industrialized world running without rare metals, see the excellent book by Pierre Bihouix "L'age Des Low Tech" (in French - alas!)

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The View From Les Houches: What Are Models For?

Sandra Bouneau, researcher and lecturer at the university of Paris-Sud, shows her model at the School of Physics in Les Houches, France, in March 2018. As you can see from the image, her model is complex and detailed. It is one of the several models presented at the school which attempt to describe the trajectory of the transition.

Overall, all the models based on physics (including Bouneau's one, as far as I understood it) arrived to similar conclusions, confirming the calculations that myself, Denes Csala, and Sgouris Sgouridis published in 2016. In practice, the transition is possible, but it won't happen all by itself. The economic system needs to be pushed in the right direction, in such a way that it will be able to provide the necessary investments.

The problem is that the system is not being pushed hard enough. Some parts of it, including the US governments, are pushing in the wrong direction, dreaming of an impossible "energy dominance" (and even if it were possible, what good would it be for America?).

At the bottom of the whole problem, it is the fact that policy-makers don't believe in models, although they may declare the opposite. There have been many models developed during the past century or so which would have created a different world if the powers that be had acted on the advice provided - first and foremost "The Limits to Growth" of 1972. But that model was not only disbelieved but positively demonized.

In the end, All models are made to search for trajectories which avoid collapse, so ignoring models ensures collapse. And that's what we are doing!

Monday, March 12, 2018

The View from Les Houches: Thermodynamics vs. Economics

School of Physics in Les Houches, France, March 2018. Juergen Miknes shows some of the concepts that he has developed in his parallel analysis of thermodynamics and economics. It is a remarkable synthesis that you can find described in detail here. In the slide above, he suggests to replace the Cobb-Douglas function, commonly used in economics, with a function based on the concept of Shannon's entropy.

I am not sure of a number of things in Miknes' work, in particular the idea of equating (in some ways at least) the growth of entropy with the growth of production. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating work.

Something that surprised me (but probably I shouldn't have been surprised) was how strongly Miknes was challenged by an economist in the audience. Apparently, economists don't like their field invaded by those pesky physicists. So far, economists have been able to keep physics away from their secluded garden and continue keeping the field open only to people with the right credentials (according to them). For how long, it is all to be seen.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

The View from Les Houches: the Revenge of Lotka and Volterra

Les Houches, March 2018. Fatma Rostom of the University of Paris, shows the basis of her model of the energy transition. It is the good, old Lotka-Volterra model, also known as the "Predator-Prey" or the "Rabbits and Wolves" model. (the LV model, among friends)

Perhaps surprising, this model, presented first in the 1920s, is enjoying a new life today and it was mentioned in several talks. Long considered a toy for freshmen in biology, it turns out to be extremely rich in its capability of describing the stepped dissipation of thermodynamic potentials in a nonequilibrium system.

Dr. Rostom modified the model in order to take into account economic and monetary factors, but even the "raw" LV model can describe real-world phenomena. It was found to be at the basis of the Hubbert Curve (Bardi and Lavacchi, 2009) and it was recently shown to be able to describe the cycle of exploitation of fisheries (Perissi et al. 2017). And, of course, the model is at the basis of the dynamical interpretation of the "Seneca Effect"

The talk by Dr. Rostom was very good for several reasons, one for her emphasis on "mind-sized" models, a concept that I had introduced some years ago under the influence of Seymour Papert. In the current situation of confusion and even of despair, we badly need models that policymakers can understand if they have to act in a meaningful way

But, in the end, what results did Dr. Rostom reported. Well, not very optimistic ones, as you can see in this paper of hers and others

Saturday, March 10, 2018

The View From Les Houches: Can We Move to Renewables Fast Enough?

Les Houches, March 2018. At the School of Physics on the Energy Transition, Gregor Semieniuk of the University of London shows the updated trends in investments in renewable energy. 

Just a few years ago, there was ground to be optimistic about the energy transition. Renewable energy production showed a robust growth and the same happened for investments. If the trend could have continued, renewables would have swamped away fossil fuels easily and seamlessly.

Instead, something went wrong in 2012. The growth of investments stalled, it went up and down for a few years and, by now, it is clear that it has plateaued. Investments in renewable energy are not growing and we don't know if they will ever restart growing.

While it is true that the prices of renewable energy are going down, at these investment rates it is clear that we can't go through the transition fast enough to comply with the Paris targets. Possibly, we won't even be able to replace fossil fuels before they become too costly to produce. This is the result that myself and my coworkers Csala and Sgouridis obtained two years ago. According to our calculations, humankind would need to invest at least ten times as much, likely much more, in terms of energy to go through the transition fast enough.

In his talk, Gregor Semeniuk showed other estimates confirming that the investment rates in renewables are not sufficient for what we need to do. The gist of his presentation was that if governments don't intervene, the transition will not happen fast enough. He showed several examples of past transitions which took place mainly because they were driven by the resources provided by the state.You can find the hugely interesting paper on these matters by Mazzucato and Semieniuk on "Technological Forecasting and Social Change" and also more material at this link.

There remains the fundamental problem: how do we increase investments in renewable energy? Our faith in the free market is not helping us in this issue.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

The View From Les Houches: Saving the World Using Physics

 Above, Carey King from the University of Austin, Texas, shows his Trump socks during his talk at the meeting of the School of Physics in Les Houches, France. I strongly suggest to read King's hugely interesting paper titled Information Theory to Assess Relations Between Energy and Structure of the U.S. Economy Over Time. You may find in it aswers to questions you have been asking yourself for a long time.

The School of Physics in Les Houches, France held a session on Energy Transitions during the week from March 4th to March 9, 2018. About 70 scientists, mostly physicists, gathered in a remote village in the French Alps to discuss the energy transition, the supply of mineral resources, and climate change.

It was one more attempt by scientists to save the world. Having been there, I can say that the task is difficult but this group managed to come up with several good ideas, some of which might even work.

In future posts, I'll try to summarize some of the talks at the school. For the time being, let me just thank the organizers for the good experience:

Hervé Bercegol
Marie Degremont
Zeynep Kahraman
Jacques Treiner

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Italian Elections: The Great Five-Star Surprise

Nearly definitive results of the Italian national elections of March 4, 2018. the "five-star movement" (M5s) got the most votes, although the center-right wing coalition (CDX) has the largest number of seats in the Italian parliament. For the center-left (CSX), it was a total disaster. So, what made the M5s party so successful: my impression is that their mode of functioning could be described as  "government by Facebook, for Facebook, in the name of Facebook." Is it our political future?

In several senses, it is not difficult to understand the results of the recent Italian elections. Think of the center-right leader, Mr. Berlusconi, as an older Mr. Trump. At nearly 82, Mr. Berlusconi still tries to play the role of the alpha-male while his acolytes built up a program based on building a barrier against immigrants (not exactly a wall, because there is a sea in between Italy and Africa, but the concept is the same.). The center-right is also pursuing policies akin to "making Italy great again" (or perhaps grate again, if they were referring to Parmesan cheese). In short, the Italian right and the American right are very similar, including such details as allowing citizens to carry firearms.

The left - what remains of it - is represented by Mr. Matteo Renzi, the perfect equivalent of Ms. Clinton, in terms of being both hateful and out of touch with reality. Just like Ms. Clinton, Mr. Renzi and his followers managed to conduct an unbelievably obsolete and counterproductive campaign. The left carefully avoided any references to new ideas or - God forbid! - ideas that could be understood as being "leftist". During the campaign, they gave the impression of being completely dominated by the right, desperately trying to tell voters that they would do the same things that the right was proposing, just with a little extra human touch - maybe. One wonders whether Mr. Renzi was actually paid for the job of finishing off the remnants of the Italian left. It was a necessary outcome anyway, the only surprise was how well the Italian left played the role assigned by the Gods to those whom they want to destroy - that is, of becoming crazy. (at least, however, so far the Italian Dems didn't blame Putin for their defeat(*).)

But how about the "five-star" movement? Who are they? Why did they win? For sure, there is no equivalent of the M5s in the US or anywhere in the West - so far. Their strong point, it seems, was the obsolescence of the traditional political parties. Politicians are widely perceived as thieves and, perhaps worse than that, they are deeply embedded and compromised with the "system."

In the US, the "system" is mainly represented by the military-industrial complex, pushing for more and more money for more and more useless wars overseas. In Italy, there is less emphasis on the military system, but the government is surely embedded with this and other traditional power centers, including the oil and gas industry. Otherwise, how would you explain that the Renzi government engaged in the destruction of the Italian renewable energy industry, killing tens of thousands of jobs? Do this and more idiocies, and eventually, the people will remember that and punish you, if they can.

In the end, Italians seem to have reasoned that their political system is so deeply corrupt to be unrecoverable, at least in terms of the traditional political forces (e.g. the left). So, they rewarded a force claiming to be composed of honest citizens - in a way amateurs rather than professional politicians. And the M5s movement won despite the concerted effort of both the Left and the Right to defame them.

My impression, however, is that there is more than that. The M5s movement may be the harbinger of things to come.Maybe the M5s success will turn out to be short-lived. But the great intuition of the founders of the M5s movement (Beppe Grillo and Roberto Casaleggio) that social media are destined to become more and more important. And that not just as tools for politics. Social media are becoming politics.

If you look at how the M5s movement works, you see that it is unlike anything you would call a "political party." I could say it looks like more like a version of Facebook. No leaders, no plans, no ideology, just a general idea that a networked group of people debate to find the best solutions for the problems we face. It seems to work - it is a new way to manage the system.

Government by Facebook, in the name of Facebook, for Facebook? Maybe.

*Note added on March 9: As we might have expected, Putin has been accused to have meddled in the Italian elections. The task fell on Samantha Power, former UN envoy during the Obama administration, presently in the midst of a scandal involving abusing her of power when she was at the UN. I don'think anyone took that seriously on either side of the Atlantic Ocean. Power's tweet was ignored by the American press and ridiculed in the Italian press in the rare cases when it was considered worth of attention.


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" (Springer 2017)