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Why Complex Systems Collapse Faster

Why Complex Systems Collapse Faster

All civilizations collapse. The challenge is how to slow it down enough to prolong our happiness.

Dennis Jarvis
Temple of the Great Jaguar, GuatemalaDENNIS JARVIS

During the first century of our era, the Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca wrote to his friend Lucilius that life would be much happier if things would only decline as slowly as they grow. Unfortunately, as Seneca noted, “increases are of sluggish growth but the way to ruin is rapid.” We may call this universal rule the Seneca effect.

Seneca’s idea that “ruin is rapid” touches something deep in our minds. Ruin, which we may also call “collapse,” is a feature of our world. We experience it with our health, our job, our family, our investments. We know that when ruin comes, it is unpredictable, rapid, destructive, and spectacular. And it seems to be impossible to stop until everything that can be destroyed is destroyed.

The same is true of civilizations. Not one in history has lasted forever: Why should ours be an exception? Surely you’ve heard of the climatic “tipping points,” which mark, for example, the start of the collapse of Earth’s climate system. The result in this case might be to propel us to a different planet where it is not clear that humankind could survive. It is hard to imagine a more complete kind of ruin.

So, can we avoid collapse, or at least reduce its damage? That generates another question: What causes collapse in the first place? At the time of Seneca, people were happy just to note that collapses do, in fact, occur. But today we have robust scientific models called “complex systems.” Here is a picture showing the typical behavior of a collapsing system, calculated using a simple mathematical model (see Figure 1).

…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…

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Limits and Beyond: The Yawning Gap

Limits and Beyond: The Yawning Gap

Chapter 1: The Story of an Idea

Limits and Beyond

The book Limits and Beyond, edited by Ugo Bardi and Jorgen Randers, provides a 50th anniversary review of the seminal report Limits to Growth (LtG). The following is from the back cover of the book.

50 years ago the Club of Rome commissioned a report: Limits to Growth. They told us that, on our current path, we are heading for collapse in the first half of the 21st century. This book, published in the year 2022, reviews what has happened in the intervening time period. It asks three basic questions:

  • Were their models right?
  • Why was there such a backlash?
  • What did the world do about it?

The book consists of 19 chapters, each written by a different author, two of whom — Dennis Meadows and Jorgen Randers — were part of the team that wrote the report.

In this post, we review the first chapter, written by Ugo Bardi. He says of the chapter,

The present section . . . tells the story of how the idea of civilization growth and collapse fared in history and how it was interpreted by the LtG study.

 

Ugo Bardi
Ugo Bardi

Historical Overview

This first chapter provides an excellent overview of the work of various scientists and authors that has led to our current understanding of physical limits and constraints. It shows how societies rise and fall, and how our current level of stable prosperity is so unusual. Starting with the 18th century authors Edward Gibbon and Thomas Malthus, Bardi describes the work of many analysts, including William Stanley Jevons, Rachel Carson, Aurelio Peccei, Jay Wright Forrester, M. King Hubbert and Joseph Tainter.

He describes how the LtG report was received, and discusses possible reasons for the largely negative response at the time of publication. However, the report’s insights seem to be increasingly relevant to today’s world..

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

Limits and Beyond

05 May 2022 – On the 50th anniversary of The Limits to Growth a new report to the Club of Rome – Limits and Beyond: 50 years on from The Limits to Growthwhat did we learn and what’s next? once again takes stock and asks questions fundamental for the survival of humanity on a finite planet.

The new report focuses on what we have learned since 1972 and what comes next. It addresses questions like: If we knew that continued growth in population, industrialisation, resource use and pollution would cause us to overshoot the carrying capacity of the Earth, why haven’t we done anything? What have we learned in the last 50 years? And how do we learn at last what we already know? Is it too late to avoid overshooting the planetary limits? And – what do we do now?

Bringing together two of the original authors of The Limits to Growth with an array of other world-renowned thinkers, scientists, analysts and economists from across the globe, the book highlights new and diverse ways of thinking about an old but increasingly pressing problem.

Ugo Bardi, member of the Club of Rome and co-editor of the book says, “If we want to avoid, or perhaps more realistically, mitigate the twin crises of climate change and resource depletion, then we need to move decisively to new ways of doing things and wean ourselves from our addiction to fossil fuels. Today we have renewable energy technologies which didn’t exist when The Limits to Growth report was published. But no technology, alone, will help us if we keep believing that economic growth is always and forever a good thing.”

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

Why Complex Systems Collapse Faster

Why Complex Systems Collapse Faster

All civilizations collapse. The challenge is how to slow it down enough to prolong our happiness.

Dennis Jarvis
Temple of the Great Jaguar, GuatemalaDENNIS JARVIS

During the first century of our era, the Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca wrote to his friend Lucilius that life would be much happier if things would only decline as slowly as they grow. Unfortunately, as Seneca noted, “increases are of sluggish growth but the way to ruin is rapid.” We may call this universal rule the Seneca effect.

Seneca’s idea that “ruin is rapid” touches something deep in our minds. Ruin, which we may also call “collapse,” is a feature of our world. We experience it with our health, our job, our family, our investments. We know that when ruin comes, it is unpredictable, rapid, destructive, and spectacular. And it seems to be impossible to stop until everything that can be destroyed is destroyed.

The same is true of civilizations. Not one in history has lasted forever: Why should ours be an exception? Surely you’ve heard of the climatic “tipping points,” which mark, for example, the start of the collapse of Earth’s climate system. The result in this case might be to propel us to a different planet where it is not clear that humankind could survive. It is hard to imagine a more complete kind of ruin.

So, can we avoid collapse, or at least reduce its damage? That generates another question: What causes collapse in the first place? At the time of Seneca, people were happy just to note that collapses do, in fact, occur. But today we have robust scientific models called “complex systems.” Here is a picture showing the typical behavior of a collapsing system, calculated using a simple mathematical model (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: The Seneca curve, from Bardi's ‘The Seneca Effect’ (2017). The intensity of something as a function of time (going left to right). For intensity, imagine it is the value of a financial stock. It grows slowly, then it declines rapidly when the company generating it goes bankrupt.

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

Destroyed by its own Propaganda: How Italy Lost World War II

Destroyed by its own Propaganda: How Italy Lost World War II

Someday, someone will write a history of the covert psyops of the 20th and 21st centuries. It will surely be a difficult story to unravel, because they are, indeed “covert operations.” Yet, it is not impossible to detect certain patterns that repeat all over history’s flow. So, it is an exercise that can help us wade through the tsunami of propaganda we are immersed in, right now. So, rather than delving into the current situation, let me tell you a story of a historical case that we can use as an example. It is a fascinating story, little known outside Italy, but it does tell us how easy it is for a country to self destroy by the wrong use of propaganda, especially with some help from foreign enemy powers. 

Let me tell you the story of how Italy wanted to become a world empire and how it utterly failed at the task, with just a little help from Britain, the Perfidious Albion. We start with the unification of Italy, in 1861, when the Kingdom of Piedmont defeated and annexed the Kingdom of Naples. If that happened, it was because Britain wanted it to happen.

It was a strategic issue. At that time, Britain controlled the Mediterranean Sea by controlling the two connections with the outside oceans, Gibraltar and the Suez Canal, while maintaining a military base on the island of Malta. By the 1830s, Britain had started having problems with France, which was showing ambitions of expanding into the Mediterranean Region. The British had already been shocked by Napoleon’s dash into Egypt, which had threatened their whole domination system. They absolutely wanted to avoid that it could happen again.

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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…

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The Greatest Holobiont on Earth: Old-Growth Forests

The Greatest Holobiont on Earth: Old-Growth Forests

A “holobiont” is a living creature formed of independent, but cooperating, organisms. It is a wide-ranging concept that can explain many things not just about the ecosystem of our planet, but also about human society, and even more than that. Photo courtesy of Chuck Pezeshky. This post was modified and improved thanks to suggestions received from Anastassia Makarieva.

When was the last time that you walked through an old-growth forest? Do you remember the silence, the stillness of the air, the sensation of awe, the feeling that you are walking in a sacred place? The inside of a forest looks like a cathedral or, perhaps, it is the inside of a cathedral that is built in such a way to resemble a forest, with columns as trees and vaults as the canopy.  If you don’t have a forest or a cathedral nearby, you can get the same feeling by watching the masterful scene of the forest-God appearing in Miyazaki’s movie, “Mononoke no Hime” (The Princess of the Ghosts).

In a way, when you walk among trees, you feel that you are at home, the home that our remote ancestors left to embark on the mad adventure of becoming human. Yet, for some humans, trees have become enemies to be fought. And, as it is traditional in all wars, they are demonized and despised. It was the English landlord Jonah Barrington who commented about the destruction of Ireland’s old forests that “trees are stumps provided by Nature for the repayment of debt.” And, as it is traditional in all wars of extermination, not a single enemy was left standing.

…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…

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The Saga of Crude Oil. An Epic Story told by Douglas Reynolds

The Saga of Crude Oil. An Epic Story told by Douglas Reynolds

The “bell curve” of oil production has been popularized together with the concept of “peak oil,” the point of the curve where the global crude oil production reaches its maximum, just before starting its irreversible decline. There is something universal in this curve that may describe much more than just the output of the oil industry. Have you ever tried to look at the curve in narrative terms? If you did, you may have noticed that it describes a typical heroic saga. The hero starts as a young hopeful, grows to be successful in his quest, then faces decline in old age. That’s the way the universe moves and it is not a coincidence that Douglas Reynolds chose the title of “An Energy Odyssey,” linking to Ulysses’ saga, for his recent book on the world cycle of peak oil. 

Every civilization has its founding saga. It is the story of a hero, or a group of heroes, who manage to overcome enormous difficulties, succeed in their task, and then fade slowly, enjoying the fruits of their efforts. The Sumerians had the story of Gilgamesh, the Greeks the Iliad and the Odyssey, Medieval Europe had Dante’s comedy, and there were many others.

What about us? We do not really have a saga that defines our civilization, except rather brutal ones that involve the bombing to smithereens of the enemies of democracy. Perhaps it is because our society is unlike any of the past ones: it was not created by heroes, but it grew over the availability of cheap and abundant sources of energy that no society ever had in the past: fossil fuels.
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How to keep gasoline prices low by bombing your gas station

How to keep gasoline prices low by bombing your gas station

An Italian fighter plane (note the “fasci” symbols on the wings) shot down in England in November 1940 during the bombing campaign mounted by the Italian Air Force during WW2 (source). Sending obsolete biplanes with open cockpits against the modern British Spitfires is one of the most glaring examples of military incompetence in history. Among other things, this old tragedy may give us hints about the current situation in the world and, in particular, why the consumers of fossil fuels tend to bomb their suppliers. 

Not everyone in Europe has understood exactly what is happening with gas prices, yet, but the consequences could be heavy. For a brief moment, prices rose of a factor ten over what was considered as “normal.” Then, prices subsided, but still remain way higher than before. That is directly reflected on electricity prices and that is not only traumatic for consumers, but also on the competitivity of the European industry.So, what’s happening? As usual, interpretations are flying free in the memesphere: those evil Russians, the conspiracy of the Americans, it is all a fault of those ugly Greens who don’t want nuclear energy, the financial lobby conspiring against the people, etcetera.

Let me try an approach a little different. Let me compare the current situation with that of the 1930s in Europe. Back then, fossil fuels were already fundamental for the functioning of the economy, but coal was the truly critical resource: not for nothing it was called “King Coal.”

The coal revolution had started to appear in Europe in the 19th century. Those countries that had large coal reserves England, Germany, and France, could start their industrial revolution…

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Olduvai IV: Courage
In progress...

Olduvai II: Exodus
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