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New Paradigm for the Earth’s Ecosystem: Anastassia Makarieva Speaks about the Biotic Pump in Florence

A New Paradigm for the Earth’s Ecosystem: Anastassia Makarieva Speaks about the Biotic Pump in Florence

Everything began with the idea of Charles Darwin of “evolution by natural selection.” It was a dangerous idea according to Daniel Dennett, but there was nothing dangerous in it unless you misunderstood it. And we know how it was misunderstood by the various suprematists, racists, white-supremacists, white-man-burdenists, and the like. But Darwin’s idea was simple: the biosphere is not static but adapts to changes in the ecosystem. That’s all. There is no species in the biosphere that is superior to other species, there is no collective movement towards some kind of “progress” – nothing of the kind. Everything changes to keep the biosphere alive.

Among other things, Darwin’s idea (dangerous or not) was the first attempt to understand the functioning of complex systems – among which one of the most complex is the planetary ecosystem. Curiously, the human brain, itself a complex system, often finds it difficult to understand complex systems, there must be some profound reason for this, but let’s skip the subject. Rather, the concepts proposed by Darwin have also evolved – or adapted – in time. We are beginning to understand that it is not enough to say that the biosphere adapts to changes, is too simple. This is not how complex systems work. They work through the mechanisms we call feedback where each element of the system influences others.

The step forward came from James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis with their concept of Gaia, a name that describes the fact that the biosphere adapts to changes in the ecosystem and at the same time generates changes in the ecosystem. The adaptation is mutual and two-way. Feedback, in essence.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Why I went underground and how I am enjoying my subterranean life

Why I went underground and how I am enjoying my subterranean life

Here is one of the windows of my new home. No, not the big one. Look at where my wife, Grazia, is pointing. Yes, that one!

This summer in Florence we already had two vicious heat waves. As I am writing, we are in the middle of the third one, even more vicious. It has been, actually, a continuous period of very high temperatures punctuated by a few storms that brought the usual floods and disasters.

Global warming is no joke. If you don’t plan for these heat waves you seriously risk your life, especially if you are not so young and you are not in perfect health. And people do die: we don’t have statistical data for this year, yet, but the reports from countries like Italy, Europe, India, and Japan tell of tens, maybe hundreds, of victims and thousands hospitalized.

As usual, people here and everywhere in the world suffer from the syndrome that Daniel Pauly calls “shifting baselines.” They seem to think that it is all normal because that’s what they have been seeing during the past decade or so. And they don’t seem to realize that they are living in houses that were designed and built in a world where heat waves were occasional and lasted just a few days, not the rule for more than one month per year.

Most homes in Florence have no air conditioning or have the kind of makeshift units that make a lot of noise but don’t do much to lower temperatures. Some people insist on saying that air-conditioning is “not ecological” because it consumes energy. In other cases, the city regulations forbid people to install the external unit of a truly efficient air conditioning system. And, worst of all, very few people realize how bad it is going to be in a few years from now.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Gaia Exists! Here is the Proof

Gaia Exists! Here is the Proof

Gaia is neither benevolent nor merciful. She is harsh and ruthless. 

Environmentalists are sometimes defined as “Gaia worshippers,” a term supposed to be an insult. That’s a little strange because most people on this planet openly worship non-existing entities and that doesn’t normally make them targets for insults. Maybe it is because there is an important difference, here: Gaia exists. Oh yes, she does exist!

Who or what is Gaia, exactly? The name belongs to an ancient Goddess but the modern version is something completely different. As you probably know, the term was proposed for the first time by James Lovelock in 1972 and co-developed with Lynn Margulis. As it happens for many innovative ideas, it was the result of a simple observation: if the Sun radiative intensity increases gradually over the eons, how come that the Earth’s surface temperature has remained within the boundaries necessary to keep the biosphere alive? There has to be something that keeps it like that and Lovelock proposed that the mechanism was based on regulating the concentration of greenhouse gases, mainly CO2.

So, Gaia is not supposed to be benevolent nor merciful, and not even a Goddess: we could say that She is what She is. But does She really really exist? Not everyone agrees on this point, the concept is often referred as the “Gaia hypothesis” and entire books have been written to demonstrate that there is no such a thing. Indeed, in the beginning, the idea was mostly qualitative and not proven. Lovelock proposed a clever model called “Daisyworld” that showed how a simple biosphere could control the temperature of a planet. But the Earth’s biosphere is not just made out of daisies and something more than that was needed. And, yes, over time proofs have accumulated to show that Gaia is much more than a qualitative hypothesis (or an object of worship by people believing in non-existing beings).

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

The First Recorded Ecological Collapse in History and How it Was Misunderstood.

The First Recorded Ecological Collapse in History and How it Was Misunderstood.

The Goddess Inanna in her full regalia as depicted on a Sumerian cylinder seal. On the left, Ninshubur (the Queen of the East) Inanna’s second in command. Inanna is sometimes called the “Goddess of Love,” but she was no gentle lady. She was known to tame lions, use weapons, fight her enemies, and, sometimes, devour their corpses. Among her several feats, one is to have smashed an entire mountain with her mighty mace. It may be the first historical record of an ecological collapse

Pushing the world’s temperatures over 2°C could well lead to the greatest ecological collapse ever seen in human history, but it wouldn’t be the first. There is a long series of human-caused ecological collapses at various scales, often the result of deforestation and erosion of the fertile soil. Perhaps the oldest recorded collapse is one that took place at some moment during the 3rd millennium BCE and that is recorded in a mythologized form by the Sumerian priestess Enheduanna, the first author of texts in history whose name is known to us.

The story of how the mountain Ebih “melted into a vat of sheepfat” is interesting in itself but it is most interesting for what it teaches to us. The Sumerians, apparently, never understood the problem of erosion of the fertile soil and their land — that we call “Iraq” today — was gradually turned into the desert that it is today.

It seems that the Sumerians couldn’t think of any better idea than faulting supernatural powers for the disaster that was befalling them. On the other hand, it may also be that the punishment that the Goddess meted to the mountain was seen as a curse that humans deserved for having mismanaged the fertile soil.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Did climate change cause the fall of the Roman Empire? No, but what may have actually happened is amazing.

Did climate change cause the fall of the Roman Empire? No, but what may have actually happened is amazing. 

“Vanity Fair” may not be the best source for reliable scientific information, but this cover is typical of an idea that’s becoming popular in the memesphere: that the Roman Empire fell because of climate change. Alas, this means stretching the data more than a bit and surprisingly, the opposite may be true: the climate changed because the Empire fell. Read on! (image source)

We have a problem with history: we often try to frame the past as if it were the same as the present. And that means projecting on the ancient our own troubles and fears. Add to this the difficulties we have in dealing with complex systems, the kind of systems that normally behave the way they damn please, and the results are often a complete mess.

The fall of the Roman Empire is a case in point. Maybe you know that in 1984 the German historian Demandt listed 210 (!!) causes proposed for the fall. It is fun to read how people just transferred to the Roman society whatever they were afraid of, from Communism to Culinary Excess.

In more recent times, we started being worried about things that weren’t well known in the 1980s. One is the decline of the energy return on energy invested (EROI), which is a true problem for our fossil-based society. It is much less obvious that it was a problem the ancient Romans and I wasn’t impressed by the attempts of Thomas Homer-Dixon to paint the Roman collapse as the result of an EROI decline. No data, no proof, just vague analogies.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Human Extinction: An Idea Whose Time had to Come. 

Human Extinction: An Idea Whose Time had to Come. 

A few years ago, a political movement that took the name of “extinction rebellion” would have been wholly unthinkable. On the other hand, after more than forty years of warnings on climate change and ecosystem collapse from the world’s best scientists, the message had to start going through, somehow. One consequence is the appearance on the social media of a crowd of deranged, depressed, misanthropic, and generally nasty people who have decided that extinction is what’s going to happen no matter what we do and who seem to enjoy insulting those of us who dare to express the opinion that maybe there are ways to avoid it. Other, fortunately, seem to think that we can still rebel against this manifest destiny and that’s the origin of the movement. 

These openly declared attitudes may be just the tip of the iceberg, others may well have decided that, if overpopulation is the cause of the problem, then there are quick and very dirty ways to solve it. They may be concocting dark and dire things we know nothing about. But, as usual, we see the future darkly, as in a mirror, and the time when we’ll see it face to face has not come, yet. 

Below, a text by “Reverse Engineer” of the Doomstead Diner who examines the question and, at the linked page, you’ll find also a longer video. (U.B.) 

Guest post by R.E. (Reverse Engineer).

Extinction has moved from the dark corners of the Collapse Blogosphere into the consciousness of the mainstream.  Just a few short years ago the discussion of human extinction was relegated to a few fringe websites, but not so anymore.  Now it has become Topic #1 in the discussions on many websites that concern themselves with topics of collapse.  Sometimes this comes to the exclusion of many other collapse related topics in economics, geopolitics, energy and social psychology that are impacting more directly right now.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

The Great Fossil Cycle and US: Story of a Family

The Great Fossil Cycle and US: Story of a Family

Last week, I published a post on how the economic decline of Italy led me to move to a smaller house, abandoning the mansion that my parents had built during better times. Complementing that post, I thought I could repropose a post I had published in 2017, reproduced here with some minor modifications. You can find more data about the story of the Bardi family on the “Chimeras” blog.

My great-great grandfather, Ferdinando Bardi. The story of the branch of the Bardi family to which I belong is inextricably linked to the great world cycle of the fossil fuels. (this painting was made by Ferdinando’s son, Antonio)

There was a time, long ago, when the Bardis of Florence were rich and powerful, but that branch of the family disappeared with the end of the Renaissance. The most remote ancestors of mine that I can track were living during the early 19th century and they were all poor, probably very poor. But their life was to change with the great fossil revolution that had started in England in the 18th century. The consequences were to spill over to Italy in the centuries that followed.

My great-great grandfather Ferdinando (born in 1822) lived in an age when coal was just starting to become commonplace and people would still use whale oil to light up their homes. He was a soldier in the infantry of the Grand-Duke of Tuscany and then of the King of Italy, when Tuscany merged into the newly formed Kingdom of Italy, in 1861. The family lore says that Ferdinando fought with Garibaldi in Southern Italy, but there is no trace of him in the records as a volunteer of Garibaldi’s army. He may have fought there with the regular army, though.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Climate Change Mitigation: Is it a Good Idea to Sweep the Carbon Under the Carpet?

Climate Change Mitigation: Is it a Good Idea to Sweep the Carbon Under the Carpet?

Above: our paper recently published in Nature Energy. Our conclusion is that, in terms of energy returns, renewable energy in the form of solar or wind is much better than carbon capture and storage for mitigating of climate change. Sweeping the carbon underground is not a good idea. 

We have a little problem: for more than thirty years, the climate scientists of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have been telling us that if we don’t stop emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere — mainly CO2 — we are in dire trouble. And we have done very little, nearly nothing. As predicted, we ARE in dire trouble.

There is some element showing that things may change: the polls indicate that more and more people are starting to understand the mess we are in and the action of the young Swedish activist Greta Thunberg is making waves in the memesphere. We may be awakening from a 30 years slumber to discover that we have to hurry up and do something. But what?

Not that we lack plans: every IPCC report released includes plans on what we could or should do to avoid the worse. We have to follow a steep trajectory of de-carbonization while, at the same time, maintaining a vital minimum supply of energy to society. But how to do that?

The most common idea floated in these discussions is to use Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS). It is straightforward: instead of releasing into the atmosphere the CO2 emitted by a power plant, you pump it underground, sequestering it in a porous reservoir, maybe one that, earlier on, had contained gas or petroleum.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Ugo Bardi: “Energy Dominance,” what does it mean? Decoding a Fashionable Slogan

Ugo Bardi: “Energy Dominance,” what does it mean? Decoding a Fashionable Slogan

Preface.  A very good article about energy and war, explains a lot about how the world really works.

***

“Now, I know for a fact that American energy dominance is within our grasp as a nation.” Ryan Zinke, U.S. Secretary of the Interior (source)

“All Warfare is Based on Deception” Sun Tzu, “The Art of War”

Over nearly a half-century, since the time of Richard Nixon, American presidents have proclaimed the need for “energy independence” for the US, without ever succeeding in attaining it. During the past few years, it has become fashionable to say that the US has, in fact, become energy independent, even though it is not true. And, doubling down on this concept, there came the idea of “energy dominance,” introduced by the Trump administration in June 2017.  It is now used at all levels in the press and in the political debate.

No doubt, the US has good reasons to be bullish on oil production. Of the three major world producers, it is the only one growing: it has overtaken Saudi Arabia and it seems to be poised to overtake Russia in a few years. (graphic source).

This rebound in the US production after the decline that started in the early 1970s is nearly miraculous. And the miracle as a name: shale oil. A great success, sure, but, if you think about it, the whole story looks weird: the US is trying to gain this “dominance” by means of resources which, once burned, will be forever gone. It is like people competing at who is burning their own house faster. What sense does it make?

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Why worry about pollution if life expectancy keeps increasing? Ahem…. are you sure?

Why worry about pollution if life expectancy keeps increasing? Ahem…. are you sure? 

It seems clear that we won’t get to reach Methuselah’s age: in most Western countries, the average life expectancy has started decreasing from 2014. It could be, mainly an effect of pollution. Image source.

If you ever got into a discussion on the evil effects of pollution, you know what happens. You list the problems with heavy metals, from lead to mercury, of pesticides, of fine powders, of plastics, of everything that is — or may be — carcinogenic, including the deadly glyphosate, aka Roundup. Then there comes always someone who says, “but all that cannot be so bad! After all, people keep living longer and longer!”

Alas, very, unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore. Let me show you some data: let’s start from the US (source).

And here are some data about European countries, from the World Bank 

Clearly, the nearly linear trend of growth of the life expectancy at birth stopped around 2014 in most Western countries. To put things in perspective, it is not the same for other countries: both in China and in Russia, life expectancy is lower, but it keeps increasing. (again, data from the World Bank)

Clearly, the nearly linear trend of growth of the life expectancy at birth stopped around 2014 in most Western countries. To put things in perspective, it is not the same for other countries: both in China and in Russia, life expectancy is lower, but it keeps increasing. (again, data from the World Bank)

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

The real Energy Return of Crude Oil: smaller than you would have imagined

The real Energy Return of Crude Oil: smaller than you would have imagined 

A simple but important study by Luciano Celi shows what is the real energy return that oil companies manage to attain. Much smaller than you would have believed, in several cases it is today well below 10. Which means that renewable energies already produce a larger EROI than oil and gas. No more excuses for not switching to renewables as fast as possible!And we have to do it fast because, as Celi shows, we are on the edge of the Net Energy Cliff of fossil fuels. 

Researchers involved in the energy sector know very well what the EROI (acronym of Energy Return on Investment) is and how frequently is cited in scientific publications, in spite of differences of definition among researchers.Well aware of the fact that I arrived last in the middle of a dispute that has engaged researchers for decades, I accepted the challenge and tried to understand, with Claudio Della Volpe, Luca Pardi, and Stefano Siboni, if there was a way to know something that is difficult know: the EROI of oil companies.

The method we have implemented is quite simple, even if with some useful simplification that we have discussed in details in our paper.

The denominator in the EROI value is the Energy Invested, while the numerator is the Energy Return (how much energy is gained with respect to the investment). Knowing the numerator it is quite simple (we are talking of oil companies) because this value corresponds to the production of a day (or of a year). The issue in different cases was knowing the value of energy cost of that production. It is difficult to know how much energy they use to produce what they produce in a year (or in a day), sitting at a desk without wandering the world knocking on the doors of companies. However… we have found an indirect way to have these data.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

What can we Learn From the Middle Ages About Collapse? The Great Challenge of the Seneca Bottleneck

What can we Learn From the Middle Ages About Collapse? The Great Challenge of the Seneca Bottleneck

The idea that a collapse is awaiting our civilization seems to be gaining ground, although it has not reached the mainstream debate. But no civilization before ours escaped collapse, so it makes sense to think that the entity we call “The West” is going to crash down, badly, in the future. Then, just as it happened to the Romans long ago, we are going to enter a new world. What will it be? Will it look like the Middle Ages? Maybe, but what were exactly the Middle Ages? It may well be that it was far from being the age of barbarism that the name of “dark ages” seems to imply. The Middle Ages were more a period of intelligent adaptation to scarce resources. So, can we learn from our Medieval ancestors how to manage the coming decline? 

Aa some moment during the 2nd century AD, the Roman mines of Northern  Spain ceased to produce gold and silver, depleted after some three centuries of exploitation. The Roman Empire lost its main asset: its currency, the money used to pay for the troops, the bureaucracy, the court, the nobles, and everything else. Without money, there was nothing that could keep the Empire together and, following the great financial crash of the 3rd century AD, the Western Roman Empire faded away into a galaxy of statelets and kingdoms. By the 5th century, Europe was officially in the period we call the Middle Ages and that would last for about a millennium.

Today, we tend to regard the Middle Ages as a period of Barbarism and superstition, truly a dark age of witch hunts and religious wars. But are we sure that it was so? Actually, the Middle Ages were a period of intelligent adaptation to the lack of resources, a society that may anticipate our future.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Something about the Oil companies’ EROI

Something about the Oil companies’ EROI

Researchers involved in the energy sector know very well what the EROI (acronym of Energy Return on Investment) is and how frequently is cited in scientific publications, in spite of differences of definition among researchers. Well aware of the fact that we arrived last in the middle of a dispute that has engaged researchers for decades, we accepted the challenge and tried to understand, with Claudio Della Volpe, Luca Pardi, and Stefano Siboni, if there was a way to know something that is difficult know: the EROI of oil companies.

The method we have implemented is quite simple, even if with some useful simplification that we have discussed in details in our paper.

The denominator in the EROI value is the Energy Invested, while the numerator is the Energy Return (how much energy is gained with respect to the investment). Knowing the numerator it is quite simple (we are talking of oil companies) because this value corresponds to the production of a day (or of a year). The issue in different cases was knowing the value of energy cost of that production. It is difficult to know how much energy they use to produce what they produce in a year (or in a day), sitting at a desk without wandering the world knocking on the doors of companies. However… we have found an indirect way to have these data.

The oil companies are requested to compile a Sustainability Report (SR) yearly. Even if not mandatory many companies have accepted to prepare them probably under the pressure of the public opinion or/and the business branch named CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility), especially after the alarms launched at the last world conferences on climate.In these Reports, it is possible to find the emissions of their up- and downstream activities expressed in CO2 equivalent.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Winning the War of Climate Communication. Is Greta Thunberg the Memetic Weapon we Needed?

Winning the War of Climate Communication. Is Greta Thunberg the Memetic Weapon we Needed?

Who speaks on behalf of young people about climate? Greta Thunberg does. She is the embodiment of the concept that what matters in communication is not the message but the messenger. Only a believable messenger can pass a believable message. And she is believable: she has a direct stake on the issue, it is HER future she is defending, just as the future of the people of her age. She is defending her future from old people who think only of their immediate satisfaction. They are the virus destroying the planet, she is the cure. 

Years ago, I think it was in the mid-1980s, I was berated at length and in colorful (to say the least) terms by a young lady in Berkeley for not having buckled her 4 years old daughter, a classmate of my son, while I was transporting her in my car. As partial justification for my unexcusable wickedness in that occasion, I can say that, as far as I can remember, at that time there was no mandatory seat belt law in California (and also that the car I drove at that time, a Dodge Dart, was so old that I think it didn’t have seat belts in the back seats!). But never mind that:  I was wrong and she was right.

The story of that day in Berkeley has come to my mind more than once in the debate on climate change. You see, today we tend to think as obvious that seat belts are saintly things that save lives. But it was not so obvious in the 1980s and in the 1970s: we have forgotten about that, but there was a strong debate on the matter with some people maintaining that there was no proof that seat belts actually saved lives.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

The Seneca Cliff According to H.P. Lovecraft

The Seneca Cliff According to H.P. Lovecraft

It is strange how sometimes fiction manages to catch human feelings and ideas in ways that are not easy to articulate in terms of facts and models. H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) has been one of the world masters of the horror genre, managing to flesh out some of our deep fears.

We can read Lovecraft’s story “The Doom that Came to Sarnath” as an allegory of our times. The prosperous and shiny city of Sarnath had a dark origin, the violence against the previous inhabitants of the region. And the whole drama unfolds with all the characters mentioned in the story aware that they’ll have to face some kind of retribution for what they did and, yet, refusing to admit it. And the retribution came to Sarnath in a form not unlike what the Roman philosopher Lucius Seneca had noted when he said that “growth is sluggish, but the way to ruin is rapid,” the Seneca Cliff.

In our case, we know what we did to the Earth’s ecosystem. We know about the greenhouse gases, we know about the slaughter of other species, we know about the pillaging of the Earth’s resources. We know all that but, like the inhabitants of Sarnath, we refuse to admit it. What kind of retribution can we expect in the future?

It is curious how the knowledge of the horror we did to our planet takes the shape of the tales of the horror genre. It is something modern, the ancient just didn’t have it. Think of Dante Alighieri: his Comedy is all about ghosts, but there is no horror anywhere in modern terms. Think of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, there is a ghost, a skeleton, a dark castle, but no horror elements. Why?

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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