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The Last Gasps of a Dying Empire

The Last Gasps of a Dying Empire

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
-Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1818 – (image by Dezgo.com)

All empires in history follow the same trajectory of glory, stasis, and decay. They start their existence around agricultural or mineral resources that they use to create a powerful military force. Then, they grow by conquering their neighbors. The structure of an empire is not different from that of other human enterprises: companies, states, or other groups of people who happen to collaborate with each other in formal or informal ways. It is just that empires are nearly pure military organizations. They live by war, and they die by war.

Necessarily, the resources that created the glorious empire are destined to run out, typically overexploited by the greedy imperial elites. At the same time, the empire itself creates structures that tend to destroy it: bureaucracy, desertification, pollution, and more. In time, depletion and pollution collaborate to bring down the mighty imperial structure and to bring it down fast. It is the essence of the “Seneca Effect,” according to the words of the Roman Philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca, who noted that “Increases are of sluggish growth, but the way to ruin is rapid.” At some point, the King of Kings, Ozymandias, will find that his time has come, and nothing will be left of him except carvings on stones in the desert that proclaim his eternal glory.

But between the phases of growth and the collapse, there is a gray zone, a short-lived age in which the empire is still powerful enough to attempt new conquests but too weak to succeed…

…click on the above link to read the rest…

 

What do the Rich Have in Mind? First, Their own Survival

What do the Rich Have in Mind? First, Their own Survival

We know very little about what the rich actually think, surely nothing like what transpires from their public declarations. I’ve always been thinking that the rich and the powerful are not smarter than the average commoner, such as you and I. But just the fact that they are average means that the smart ones among them must understand what’s going on. And what are they going to do about the chaos to come? They have much more power than us, and whatever they decide to do will affect us all.

Douglas Rushkoff gives us several interesting hints of what the rich have in mind in his book “Survival of the Richest” (2022)

The portrait of the average rich person from the book is not flattening. We are told of a bunch of ruthless people, unable to care for others (that is, lacking empathy), and convinced that the way to solve problems is to accumulate money and keep growing as if there are no limits. But Rushkoff tells us that at least some of them understand that we are going to crash against some kind of wall in the near future. And they are preparing for that.

Even without Rushkoff’s book, it seems clear to me that plenty of planning and scheming is going on behind closed doors. Large sections of our society are by now completely opaque to inquiry, and commoners have no possibility to affect what’s being decided. We know less of what’s going on in Washington’s inner circles than the Danish peasants knew of what was going on inside the Castle of Elsinore.

…click on the above link to read the rest…

The End of Europe: The Conclusion of a Long Historical Cycle.

The End of Europe: The Conclusion of a Long Historical Cycle.

The failure of the European Union may have started with the choice of the flag. Not that state flags are supposed to be works of art, but at least they can be inspiring. But this flag is completely flat, unoriginal, and depressing. It looks mostly like a blue cheese pizza gone bad. And that’s just one of the many things gone bad with the European Union. (attempts to make it more appealing failed utterly). It is the conclusion of a thousand-year cycle that’s coming to an end. It was probably unavoidable, but that doesn’t make it less painful. 

Europe has a long history that goes back to when the ice sheets retreated at the end of the last ice age, some 10,000 years ago. At that time, our remote ancestors moved into a pristine land, cultivated it, built villages, roads, and cities. They traveled, migrated, fought each other, created cultures, built temples, fortresses, and palaces. On the Southern coast of Europe, a lively network of commercial exchanges emerged, made possible by maritime transportation over the Mediterranean Sea. Out of this network, the Greek civilization was born, and then the Roman Empire appeared around the end of the first millennium BCE. It included most of Western Europe. (image from ESA)

As all empires do, the Roman Empire went through its cycle of glory and decline. In the 5th century AD, as Europe entered the Middle Ages, the Empire had disappeared except as a memory of past greatness. In the following centuries, the population of Western Europe declined to a historical minimum, maybe less than 20 million people. Europe became a land of thick forests, portentous ruins, small villages, and petty warlords fighting each other. No one could have imagined that, centuries later, Europeans would become the dominators of the world.

…click on the above link to read the rest…

What is the Next Thing that Will hit us? Brace for it, Because it may be Huge

What is the Next Thing that Will hit us? Brace for it, Because it may be Huge

Despite having ancient seers (the “haruspices”) as ancestors, I don’t claim to be able to predict the future. But I think I can propose scenarios for the future. So, what could be the next big thing that will hit us? I suggest it will be the disruption of the oil market caused by the recent measure of a price cap on  Russian oil.

Do you remember how many things changed during the past 2-3 years, and changed so unbelievably fast? There was a pattern in these changes: one element was that we were told they were just temporary, another was that they were done for our sake. We were told that we needed “Two weeks to flatten the curve,” and that “the sanctions will cause the Russian economy to collapse in two weeks,” and many more things. Then, our problems will be solved and the world will return to normal. But that didn’t happen. Instead, the result was a “new normal,” not at all like the old one.

Now, the obvious question is “what next?” More exactly, “what are they going to hit us with, next time?” There is this idea that there may be a new pandemic, a new virus, or the old one returning. But, no. They are smarter than that — so far they have always been one step, maybe two, ahead of us. They are masters of propaganda, they know that propaganda is all based on memes and that memes have a finite lifetime. Old memes are like old newspapers, they are not interesting anymore. A particular bugaboo can’t scare people for too long, and the idea of scaring us with a pandemic virus is past its usefulness stage. They may have probed us with the “monkeypox” pandemic, and they saw that it didn’t work. It was obvious anyway. So, now what?

…click on the above link to read the rest…

COP27: The Reasons for a Failure

COP27: The Reasons for a Failure

The COP27, in itself, wouldn’t deserve a comment. It is over, and that’s it — been there, done that, and nobody cared. But I think it is a good occasion to reproduce this text by Stuart B. Hill that nicely explains why we make mistakes all the time when trying to manage complex systems. The COP27, indeed, has been a good example of the concept of “pulling the levers in the wrong direction” as Jay Forrester, the creator of System Dynamics, explained to us. So, here it is. h/t Thorsten Daubenfeld. 

10 Common ‘Mistakes’ to Avoid, & ‘Needs’ to Meet, When Seeking to Create

Because of the holistic nature of the approach being advocated, all of the areas below overlap & are highly interactive & interrelated. This was written in response to the Commonwealth Government’s announcement of the Australia 2020 Summit in Canberra, ACT (19-20 April, 2008: http://www.australia2020.gov.au/); downloadable as a PowerPoint presentation from: www.stuartbhill.com

  1. Getting the usual ‘experts’ (mostly older males) together to talk & plan
    –       always leads to tinkering with existing (flawed) plans – [‘rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic’]; & being trapped in dominant paradigms
    –       excludes most, including those affected by such plans & their ‘fresh’ ideas

Need
–       involve mostly ‘different’ people, including (if possible) those most affected
–       start by focusing not on plans, but on values, beliefs, worldviews & paradigms
–       then feelings & passions
–       then, emergent from these, hopes, dreams, visions, imaginings, & creative thoughts
–       only then can ‘design/redesign-based plans’ be enabled to emerge (these proactively enable systems [structures & processes] to meet long-term to short-term, & broad to specific, goals, & to make systems as ‘problem-proof’ as possible)
–       then critically analyse, integrate, & flesh these out, etc
–       detail participatory opportunities, responsibilities, time lines, resource & support needs, means for monitoring outcomes (feedback), tracking progress, & for ongoing redesigning & fine tuning

…click on the above link to read the rest…

How to Beat Propaganda: the Grokking Strategy

How to Beat Propaganda: the Grokking Strategy

We CAN beat propaganda, but it takes some effort to avoid falling prey to the simple, yet effective, methods that the powers that be (PTB) use to control us. You need first of all to understand that there is no such thing as an “authoritative source.” All sources can be wrong, and many are there to trick you into believing that something is true when it is not. So, you need to listen to everybody and trust nobody. In this way, you can “grok” your information and not be grokked by the PTB.

I remember how, as a young scientist, I spent long hours at night perusing scientific journals in my department’s library, at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. The administrators wisely kept the library open all night for us, students and postdocs, to nibble at the treasure of knowledge stored there. It was the equivalent of what we do today when “surfing the Web”, it was just slower and more laborious. But it was a great experience: I soon learned that not all the articles found in scientific journals were trustworthy, nor were the scientists who had published them. When I started my career, frauds and lies in science were still rare, but even in “high-level” scientific journals, there were plenty of evident mistakes, unjustified assumptions, sloppy work, or, simply, irrelevant babbling.

It was a different story when I was a student. As a student, you are supposed to be “trained.” The term comes from the Latin “trahere, ‘to pull.’ It implies that your teachers can force you to learn whatever they think you must learn. So, you can pass exams in college without having understood anything of what you regurgitate to your examiners. But things change completely when you become a professional…

…click on the above link to read the rest…

Who is Giorgia Meloni, the Leader of the Italian Right?

Who is Giorgia Meloni, the Leader of the Italian Right?

The Right-Wing victory in the Italian election of this September has generated worries that Italy could be returning to some form of Fascism. But, as it is normally the case, things are much more complex than what you can gather from a few newspaper articles. Giorgia Meloni, the leader of the Right, has no possibility nor intention to return to the dark times of Mussolini’s “Fasci da Combattimento.” She faces an extremely difficult task and I argued in a previous post that she was given a chance to become prime minister with the specific purpose of acting as a scapegoat for the unavoidable troubles that Italy will face this winter. You can find a more detailed analysis in the post below, written by the Italian historian Franco Cardini. I tend to agree with most of the points he makes although, as usual, the future always surprises us and, recently, it has surprised us a lot!   
EVERYTHING LOOKS BAD, BUT MAYBE IT’S WORSE…
They will say, as usual, that I have a weakness for Giorgia Meloni, but she does what she does because she cannot and will not do anything else. It’s her time: she is in the business of politics, she knows that her bus is passing, and it is unlikely for her to have such an opportunity again. It was a beautiful victory: not only, and not so much, for the response of the ballot box, however negatively conditioned by the very high number of non-voters that no politician worthy of the name can ignore or underestimate, but for having played all his opponents with a masterful move. She was the ugly duckling of Parliament, perpetually slapped with the sword of Damocles by the renewed accusations of fascism that she could strike her at any moment. But she managed to score a masterful blow, built little by little and day by day.

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

What’s Really Happening in Ukraine? The Rules of Disinformation During Wartime

What’s Really Happening in Ukraine? The Rules of Disinformation During Wartime

The front page from the Italian newspaper “La Stampa” on Oct 12, 1941. A good example of wartime propaganda.  

War is a complicated story with plenty of things happening at the same time. Not for nothing there is the term “fog of war,” and it may well be that even generals and leaders don’t know exactly what’s going on on the battlefield. Then, imagine how the media are reporting the situation to us: it is not just a fog that separates the news from the truth: it is a brick wall. Yet, the media remain a major source of information. Can we use them to learn at least something about what’s going on, discarding the lies and the exaggerations?

To start, we can look at how wartime news was reported in historical cases. As an exercise in applied history, I examined how Italians were (dis-)informed by their government during World War 2. I used the archive of “La Stampa” one of the major Italian newspapers of the time, still existing today. The other national newspapers weren’t reporting anything really different. Another advantage is that the archive of La Stampa is free to peruse.

The archive contains a huge amount of material (all in Italian, sorry). I don’t claim that I examined everything, but I did go through the decisive moments of the war, in 1941/43. It is a fascinating experience to imagine people reading the news of the time and trying to understand what was really going on. Could they figure it out? Probably not, at least for most of them. But let’s go into the details.

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

The Age of Exterminations VIII — How to Destroy Western Europe

The Age of Exterminations VIII — How to Destroy Western Europe

US Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau Jr., (1891-1967). He was the proposer of the “Morgenthau Plan” that would have turned post-war Germany into a purely agricultural region, exterminating tens of millions of Germans in the process. Initially approved by President Roosevelt, fortunately, the plan was never put into practice. 

After that Germany surrendered, in 1945, the general attitude of the Allies was that the Germans deserved to be punished. One of the results was that the Allies deliberately limited the supply of food to Germany. Among other things, in the book titled The Death and Life of Germany,” (1959) Eugene Davidson reports how the US military authorities explicitly ordered the American servicemen in Germany, and their wives, to destroy the leftovers of their meals. They wanted to be sure that nothing would be left for their German maids and their families.

This attitude of the Allies predated the German defeat. In 1944, Henry Morgenthau Jr., Secretary of the Treasury of the United States, had proposed the plan that would take his name, the “Morgenthau Plan.” The plan called for the complete destruction of Germany’s industrial infrastructure and the transformation of Germany into a purely agricultural society at a medieval technology level. As a consequence, Germany wouldn’t have been able to import food from abroad and that would have resulted in the death of tens of millions of Germans. The Morgenthau Plan was initially approved by President Roosevelt, and it was even publicly diffused in the press. Fortunately for the Germans, it was later abandoned by President Truman, but it remained active as a practical set of guidelines for the allied policies in Germany until 1948. As a result, untold numbers of Germans died as the consequence of starvation…

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

The Tortuous Way to Nuclear Fusion

The Tortuous Way to Nuclear Fusion

Newspapers make you think that nuclear fusion for electricity production is within reach and that, unlike fission, it is cheaper, cleaner, and safer. Okay, it’s not online yet, it is argued, but it’s up to us how fast it will supply useful energy. Things appear more complicated than that as soon as we take a look at the extraordinary variety of methods adopted by all the initiatives proposed.

Some use fuel from nuclear warheads, such as Commonwealth Fusion Systems, of which ENI is a shareholder. Others use the boron-proton reaction, such as the TAE, financed by ENEL, Tokamak Energy promotes magnetic confinement, and First Light Fusion of Oxford has been inspired by the “claw” of Alpheus heterochaelis, the gun shrimp claw. There are about thirty companies in this market and just as many, very different, methods. For the most part, these methods have been already studied, and discarded, by the academic community, and yet the industry has not decided which path to follow. This confusion indicates how distant the goal is. Let’s revisit the story of fusion and the origin of this explosion of promises.

The inspiration for nuclear fusion came from looking at the sky, it originated with the mystery of the energy that powers the stars. At first they thought of gravity, a non-trivial idea for a body as large as the Sun. Jupiter, for example, a gaseous planet, has a surface temperature twice that of the Earth, powered by gravity while the planet shrinks of a few millimeters per year. Gravity was also Lord Kelvin’s hypothesis for the Sun’s power during a famous meeting of the Royal Society on January 21, 1887. The surface temperature of the Sun made him deduce that our star had been shining for about twelve million years, much longer than the Bible states.

William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin

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

All the World is a Stage: How the Global Drama is Being Played Out

All the World is a Stage: How the Global Drama is Being Played Out

The “Commedia dell’Arte” was a form of popular theatre, often played without a script. The masked actors would improvise according to the characteristics of their “persona”, their mask.

There are many ways of predicting the future, and my remote ancestors, the Etruscan Haruspices, would do it by examining the liver of a freshly killed goat. I may have inherited from them my interest in the future, although I don’t usually go around killing goats.

A gentler way of studying the future consists in considering the world as a stage. You know what the characters are, what they want, the way they usually behave. Then, when you put them on stage, they may act and create a drama even without following a script. It was the way the ancient Commedia dell’Arte worked. No script, actors would just play their part, according to their “persona.” a term that in Latin means “mask” and that in our times came to be related to “personality,”

It may also work for states. They have a certain persona, a way to behave that may be predictable. About two months ago, I proposed an interpretation of the current drama patterned on an older drama: the European tragedy of World War 2. The actors, the states, were different, but their masks were very similar, and I sketched out what their behavior could have been.
You see how things are going: the world powers are acting on stage as their masks impose them to do. In particular, the EU is playing the role that was of Italy in 1940. The lack of natural resources forces the EU to depend on foreign sources, in particular on importing natural gas from Russia — which plays the role that was of Britain in the 1930s: that of fossil fuel exporter…

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

Back to Reality: We are All Children of Oil

Back to Reality: We are All Children of Oil

Colin Campbell, founder of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO), speaks in Pisa in 2006. Officially, the Powers that Be (PTB) ignored the ASPO message, but it could be that they understood it all too well. That would explain many things about the current situation. For two years, we thought that all our problems were caused by a microscopic, peduncled critter. Now, we are back to reality: we are all children of oil, and we cannot survive without it.

A few days ago, I found by chance on my shelves some documents from the 2006 conference of ASPO (the association for the study of peak oil) that I and others organized in Pisa, in Tuscany. The conference had a certain global resonance: it was sponsored by the Tuscan government, hundreds of people from all over the world came to attend, and the international media commented on it. It was part of a wave of interest on peak oil and its consequences. Just as another example, see the leaflet on the right that I also found rummaging among old documents. It announces a meeting to be held in the Tuscan countryside in 2004, titled, “The Party is Over“, and subtitled “How to exit from the petroleum-based economy“Today, it looks as if these things are a hundred years old. How was it that there was an age in which you could express this kind of subversive thoughts in public and be given some space in the media? And how could we delude ourselves into thinking that we could have convinced that nebulous entity called “humanity” that we were running out of our natural resources, crude oil in the first place? Even more subversive, that we should reduce consumption and move to renewable sources before it was too late?

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

How we Became What we Despised. Turning the West into a New Soviet Union

How we Became What we Despised. Turning the West into a New Soviet Union

 
For everything that happens, there is a reason for it to happen. Even for turning the former Free World into something that looks very much like the old “Evil Empire,” the Soviet Union. I understand that this series of reflections will be seen as controversial, but I thought that this matter is important and fascinating enough to deserve a discussion.

It all started two years ago when we were asked to stay home for two weeks “to flatten the curve.” Two years later, we are looking, bewildered, at the wreckage around us and asking ourselves: ‘what the hell has happened?’

In such a short time, we found that our world had turned into something very similar to one that we used to despite. The old Soviet Union, complete with heavy-handed police, censorship of the media, criminalization of dissent, internal passports, and the state intruding on matters that, once, were thought to be part of every citizen’s private decision sphere.

Surprising, perhaps. But it is a rule of the universe that everything that happens has a reason to happen. The Soviet Union was what it was because there were reasons for it to be that. It was not an alien world populated by little green men. It was an empire similar to the Western one, just a little smaller, and it concluded its cycle a few decades before us. We can learn a lot from its story.

Dmitri Orlov, born in Russia, was among the first who noted the parallel path that the Western and the Soviet empire were following. His first book was titled “Reinventing Collapse” (2011). Let me propose to you an excerpt from the book where Orlov tells us of an event he experienced in St. Petersburg in the years just after the collapse of the Union…

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

How much does it cost to buy a scientist? Less than you would imagine, and it is perfectly legal

How much does it cost to buy a scientist? Less than you would imagine, and it is perfectly legal

Not a long, long time ago, in a region not so far, far away, a private company decided to set up a CO2 extraction plant. The idea was to extract carbon dioxide from the ground and to use it to make effervescent soft drinks and things like that.  Yes, exactly the opposite of the “carbon capture and storage” (CCS) that we are supposed to do to combat global warming.When the story became known, the debate flared on the media. People and associations took sides against the new plant. The university was involved, and several scientists released interviews where they noted the contradiction of extracting CO2 instead of burying it. Fortunately, the public outrage was sufficient to force the regional government to stop the plan. The plant was not built and, with some luck, never will be.

All is well that ends well, but there is a detail in the story that you may find interesting. It happens that I know very well the university of the region I am talking about. In particular, there was a faculty member, a geologist, who was supposed to be an expert on the geological properties of the area where the CO2 extraction was supposed to take place. He was a person who could criticize the story from a soundly based scientific viewpoint. But, during the debate, curiously, he remained silent. And, perhaps not so curiously, I discovered that he had accepted a research grant from exactly that company planning to extract CO2.

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

The Secret of Propaganda: Teaching Obedience

The Secret of Propaganda: Teaching Obedience

A classic example of modern propaganda. It dates from the 1940s and it shamelessly exploits the principle of authority. Note that there is no proof or evidence that a majority of doctors smoked Camels more than any other cigarettes. And there is no proof or evidence that, even if the claim were true, the doctors would be right. But the principle of authority works independently from data and truth and the campaign was a huge success. It is the great power of obedience.

Just a few days ago, I was a guest on a TV discussion on the usual subject* (practically, the only one being discussed nowadays).  At some moment, the discussion veered on propaganda, and the host** said something like, “but isn’t it strange that Germany fell so easily for the Nazi propaganda despite the fact that it was the most cultured society in Europe at that time?” And it dawned on me:

It was not despite. It was because.
Exactly that. Propaganda and education go hand in hand: they are one the consequence of the other. In an instant, my whole career as a teacher flashed in my mind. What are we teaching to our students? Plenty of things, of course, but mostly it is about trusting the authority. Obedience, in one word. 
I experimented at times with the opposite approach, pushing my chemistry students to criticize their textbooks. Many of my students are smart fellows, some of them appreciated the idea, and sometimes they found errors that I hadn’t noticed myself. But most of them found the exercise an annoying interlude in their studies. They were not stupid, either…

…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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