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Politics in the Age of the Coronavirus. What can we learn from the Italian Elections? 

Politics in the Age of the Coronavirus. What can we learn from the Italian Elections?

Sep 20, 2020. The president of Italy, Sergio Mattarella, votes at the Italian regional elections. In these elections, the first in the age of the COVID, the victory went to the Left largely by means of over a better strategy in managing people’s perceptions of the epidemic. Here, I report some personal considerations on how this result may tell us something about the coming US presidential election.

The regional elections of this weekend in Italy were held after a debate still dominated by the COVID epidemics. Although the virus itself was not mentioned so much in the speeches and in the political programs, the rest of the debate was shallow and lacking ideas on both sides. The Left was unable to propose anything better than “restarting growth,” and the Right little more than vague talks of “Italexit.”

So, the COVID epidemic hovered like a ghost over everything that was said and done. The Left coalition, the parties supporting the current government, had placed their bets on appearing tough on the epidemic. The government-controlled media tried to reinforce this perception by doing their best to terrorize citizens with daily catastrophistic reports. This strategy had a risk: if the elderly were to stay at home for fear of being infected at the polling station, then a disaster was looming for those parties that relied on their vote: in particular the Democratic Party (the former communists).

The Right, instead, never found a coherent strategy on the epidemic. Sometimes, it tried to convince its electorate that the epidemic was brought to Italy by black immigrants from Africa, but that worked only on people already convinced that all evils in Italy arrive from Africa.

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Famines as Military Weapons: Is Europe in Danger?

Famines as Military Weapons: Is Europe in Danger?

 A Dutch girl photographed at the time of the “hongerwinter”, the famine that hit The Netherlands in 1945, during WW2. 

In the West, we tend to think of famines as events of the remote past that will never return, a view typified by Steven Pinker in his 2011 book The Better Angels of our Nature.” This attitude is often accompanied by sneers at Paul Ehrlich who, in 1968, had predicted extensive worldwide famines that were soon to occur. Even when famines are discussed as a real possibility, they are seen as affecting only those remote countries where hordes of dark-skinned or slant-eyed people already live in near-starvation conditions.

We forgot how close in time was an age in which hunger was a fact of life and famines a common occurrence. The last important famine in Europe was in the Netherlands in 1946 — that was less than a hundred years ago, not in the Middle Ages. Our lack of historical memory is the reason why we see books such as “One Billion Americans” by Matthew Yglesias, where the author happily neglects the problems involved with supplying food and energy to a U.S. population three times larger than it is nowadays.

The real problem with assessing the possibility of future famines is that they are often man-made, that is actively created by human actions. Starving an enemy is a time-honored strategy that works beautifully. We have a detailed report of how it was put into practice by the Romans at the time of the Siege of Jerusalem of 70 AD, but it is surely much older than that. In recent times, the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, threatened Iran in 2018 by saying that they must listen to the U.S. ‘If They Want Their People to Eat.’  Clearly, the temptation to starve another country into submission never completely disappeared and it may returning.

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The lure of imperial dreams: What are our leaders going to do to us?

The lure of imperial dreams: What are our leaders going to do to us?

Donald Trump is often represented wearing some kind of imperial garb. Actually, his presidency may have been less imperial than that of his predecessors. Yet, his style as president is very much “imperial” and his winning slogan in the 2016 elections, “MAGA,” (make America great again) has a deep imperial ring to it. Earlier on, Benito Mussolini, the leader of the Italian government between the two world wars, was destroyed (and with him Italy and not just Italy) by his Imperial ambitions.

When things get tough, people seem to think that they need tough leaders and this is a clear trend in the world, nowadays. It is a deadly mechanism that tends to bring dangerous psychotic personalities to the top government positions. I already noted in a previous post how imperial ambitions coupled with incompetence (both common conditions in high-level leaders) can destroy entire countries.

Here, let me examine an interesting feature of how Benito Mussolini (1883 -1945) ruled Italy. Despite his warlike rhetoric, during the first phase of his government he pursued a moderate foreign policy, avoiding wars. Then, the second phase of his rule was characterized by a series of disastrous wars that led to the destruction of Italy (and not just of Italy) and to the downfall of Mussolini himself. Whether this story can tell us something about a possible second term for Donald Trump as president, is left to the readers to decide.

Benito Mussolini and the Italian Empire: How Leaders’ Absurd Decisions Lead to Collapse.

Benito Mussolini ruled Italy for 21 years after the “March on Rome” of 1922. Many things happened during those years but, on the whole, you could think of the Fascist rule as having two phases: one before and the other after the turning point that was the invasion of Ethiopia, in 1935.

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How Poor Leadership can Create Collapse or Make It Faster: Lessons from European History

How Poor Leadership can Create Collapse or Make It Faster: Lessons from European History

The damage that a bad leader can generate is simply fearsome, especially if that leader has a lot of power and he is nearly impossible to remove from his position. If then that leader controls a large military apparatus, even including nuclear weapons, then the disasters that can happen are beyond the imaginable. If you, like me, doubt the competence of our current leaders, there is plenty to be worried about.

The problem seems to be that our system of choosing leaders guarantees to propel to the top all sorts of power-mongering psychopaths. And as the power we manage increases, going from nuclear weapons to the control of the Web, the chances for truly disastrous damage created by an incompetent leader also increase.

Maybe there should be a science of incompetent leaders that might be a branch of the more general “science of evil.” In this post, I propose a brief exploration of this field that starts with the idea that the past is the way to understand the future. So I repropose a theme that I had already examined: that of Louis Napoleon (Napoleon III) (1808-1873) one of the best examples we have of an incompetent leader who ruined the state he was leading. At that time, fortunately, there were no nuclear weapons available and Luis Napoleon himself was not so aggressive and bloodthirsty as other famously bad leaders. Nevertheless, the damage he generated was considerable and we can learn something from his story.

Napoleon 3rd: how to destroy an empire in the making.  

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The Triumph of Catastrophism. How Greta Thunberg Carried the Day

The Triumph of Catastrophism. How Greta Thunberg Carried the Day

Disclaimer: I am NOT saying here that the Covid-19 does not exist nor that people didn’t die because of it. If you react with the term “denialism” you are only showing that you have no rational arguments to produce.


Do you remember that weird girl from Sweden? Yes, the one with the braided hair. What was her name? Greta something…. It is strange that so many people seemed to pay attention to what she was saying about things like climate change. Why should anyone be worried by that? Nobody cares about climate change anymore when there are much more important matters at hand with the great pandemic sweeping the world? And yet, strangely, nowadays people are doing exactly what Greta had told them to do

Not long ago, I published on Cassandra’s Legacy a post titled “The Great Failure of Catastrophism.” In it, I argued that some 50 years of warnings from scientists had been completely ignored by the powers that be. I also argued that a relatively minor perturbation, as the one caused by the Covid-19 epidemic, had been enough to consign all worries about climate to the dustbin of the silly ideas that nobody should care about. 

 

But things keep changing and I am now amazed to see that humans are acting exactly as if they had listened to Greta Thunberg. Do you remember? She said we shouldn’t use the plane, that we should travel less, use less energy, consume less. Exactly what’s being done.

People are not flying anymore so much, they stopped most of their long distance traveling, the mass migration called “international tourism” seems to have disappeared for good.

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Gaia, the Return of the Earth Goddess

Gaia, the Return of the Earth Goddess

Temple worship in Ur, from Sumerian times. Note in the lower panel people are bringing all sort of goods to the temple represented as the abstract structure on the right.
House founded by An, praised by Enlil, given an oracle by mother Nintud! A house, at its upper end a mountain, at its lower end a spring! A house, at its upper end threefold indeed. Whose well-founded storehouse is established as a household, whose terrace is supported by lahama deities; whose princely great wall, the shrine of Urim! (the Kesh temple hymn, ca. 2600 BCE)
Not long ago, I found myself involved in a debate on Gaian religion convened by Erik Assadourian. For me, it was a little strange. For the people of my generation, religion is supposed to be a relic of the past, opium of the people, a mishmash of superstitions, something for old women mumbling ejaculatory prayers, things like that. But, here, a group of people who weren’t religious in the traditional sense of the word, and who included at least two professional researchers in physics, were seriously discussing about how to best worship the Goddess of Earth, the mighty, the powerful, the divine, the (sometimes) benevolent Gaia, She who keeps the Earth alive.

It was not just unsettling, it was a deep rethinking of many things I had been thinking. I had been building models of how Gaia could function in terms of the physics and the biology we know. But here, no, it was not Gaia the holobiont, not Gaia the superorganism, not Gaia the homeostatic system. It was Gaia the Goddess.

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How does it feel living in a crypt? Impressions after one year

How does it feel living in a crypt? Impressions after one year

 In “The Outsider” (1926), H. P. Lovecraft tell the story of someone who lives underground and who discovers his true nature only when he comes out of his crypt and sees his own image in a mirror. That’s not exactly my case, but it is true that I have been living underground for more than a year, by now. It has been a good experience

Last year, I published a post on Cassandra’s Legacy describing my experience with living in an underground apartment in Florence, chosen as my new home with the specific idea of resisting to the summer heat waves, intensifying every year because of global warming. After about one year, I can confirm that it was a good idea and I can add some more details. Below, I reproduce last year’s post. 

First of all, I can confirm that an underground apartment is way better than any other kind of homes in the hot summers of central Italy. This year, summer is not being so terrible as last year, but we are in the midst of heat wave that will last at least one more week, probably more. Right now, the thermometer inside my apartment marks 26.2 C, which is a nice temperature. Outside, it is hot and damp, a climate unsuitable for human beings. 

Then, of course, I also spent a winter in this apartment. It is not very small, about 140 square meters, but it was possible to heat it at a very reasonable price using the existing gas-powered system. Nothing fancy, here, but the apartment has three sides against the rock of the hill, so there was very little dispersion of heat. 

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The Corona Crisis: Fighting the Authoritarian Response

The Corona Crisis: Fighting the Authoritarian Response

At least 20 thousand people (some say many more) marched in Berlin on August 1st 2020 to protest against the restrictions imposed by governments against the Covid-19 epidemic. Unanimously branded as “criminals,” “neo-nazis,” and “idiots” by the Western media, their presence is nevertheless an indication of a growing movement of resistance against the authoritarian crackdown in Europe.

As I am writing, the Covid epidemics has been over for at least two months in Europe. In the US, instead, the epidemic is over only in the large cities while it is still ongoing in the central states, only recently showing signs of abating. The result is a different perception of the situation. In the US, the progressive movement is still trying to use the epidemic as an anti-Trump weapon, accusing the president of not having been authoritarian enough and not having imposed even more draconian measures. In Europe, instead, the public is starting to perceive that nobody is dying of Covid-19 anymore and that their governments are terrorizing them about a threat that has ceased to exist. It is still an embryonic movement, routinely demonized and criminalized by the government propaganda machine, but it is clearly rising. The recent manifestation in Berlin of tens of thousands of people (perhaps many more) is a clear indication of this trend. Earlier on, we had seen something similar in Italy.

You will be probably baffled by this interpretation of the Berlin demonstration, especially if you live in the US, or if you routinely watch TV or read newspapers in a Western country. But there is a logic in everything that happens and the general perception of the coronavirus is rapidly changing. As an example of this growing interpretation of the situation, let me report, below, a few paragraphs from the book “The End of the Megamachine” by Fabian Scheidler, at present in press in the English version.

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What if your government has decided to kill you? An interpretation by Antonio Turiel

What if your government has decided to kill you? An interpretation by Antonio Turiel

In the 1976 movie, “Logan’s Run,” the law is that everyone must die when they turn 30. And everyone accepts that law. 

“Necroeconomics” is a concept used by some economists to describe the results of the collapse of the Soviet Economy, in the 1990s. Apart from the pure economic disaster, the collapse led to a trend of population decrease that, in some cases, is continuing to this day. The term may have a more general meaning and Warren Montag discusses how a purely market economy might deal with workers in a situation in which there are no sufficient resources to keep all of them alive. The idea that the state might decide that some people need to be eliminated has been called “necropolitics.”

These concepts do not necessarily imply that your government has decided to kill you. The extermination may be the unwanted result of wrong policies or one of the unavoidable consequences of the overexploitation of the resources that make people live. But what if the government secretly decided to eliminate a fraction of the population, judged to be a useless burden for society? We all know that it happened in some states in a non-remote past. What form could it take today?

This idea has been explored by Antonio Turiel of the “Oil Crash” blog in a story published in Spanish two years ago and titled “Good Vibrations.” When I read it the first time, I found it fascinating but hardly prophetic. It seemed to me just farfetched that people, anywhere in the world, would meekly accept to be ordered by their government to take a drug that they knew would kill them. But, today, I think that Antonio may have been more prophetic than he himself could have imagined. So, I translated the story into English, and here it is. Not for the faint hearted!

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The End of an Age: The Failure of Catastrophism

The End of an Age: The Failure of Catastrophism

Colin Campbell, the founder of the association for the study of peak oil and gas (ASPO) explaining the essence of oil depletion.

The considerations below originate from a post by Michael Krieger where he describes how he is so dismayed by the reaction of the public to the current epidemic that he is closing his blog to rethink the whole matter over. You can read of similar feelings in a post by Rob Slane of the “Blogmire” and of Chris Smaje on “Resilience.” Many others are dismayed at how badly the Covid-19 crisis was managed: a threat that was real but by all measures not so terrible as it was described. Nevertheless, it generated an overreaction, more division than unity, political sectarianism, counterproductive behaviors, and it ultimately led people to accept to be bullied and mistreated by their governments and even to be happy about that.

The “peak oil movement” was started by a group of retired geologists around the end of the 1990s. You could call us “catastrophists,” but catastrophe was not what we were aiming for. We were not revolutionaries, we never thought to storm the Bastille, to give power to the people, or to create a proletarian paradise. We were scientists, we just wanted society to get rid of fossil fuels as soon as possible, although we did think that the final result would have been a more just and peaceful society. 

But how to reach this goal? Of course, we understood that humankind is nothing homogeneous, but we saw no reason why the people in power shouldn’t have listened to our message. After all, it was in their best interest to keep the economy alive. So, the plan was to diffuse the message of resource depletion as a scientific message, not a political one.

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On the Edge of the Cliff: We need a new way of seeing the world

On the Edge of the Cliff: We need a new way of seeing the world

A new blog by Ugo Bardi, “The Proud Holobionts”
Long-term predictive models don’t have a very good record, but some turned out to be prophetic. One case is that of Hubbert’s 1956 prediction of a peak in the production of fossil energy shortly after the start of the 21st century. He was optimistic about the possibility of replacing fossil fuels with nuclear energy, but, apart from that, he was right on target. Now we are on the edge of the cliff and we have to take a different attitude toward the ecosystem that supports our existence. The concept of “Holobiont” may help us a lot in this task. We are holobionts, the ecosystem is a larger holobiont, we must find a way to live together. 

The American geologist Marion King Hubbert deserves the credit of having been the first to see the main trends of the 21st century, nearly 50 years before it were to start. In his 1956 paper, Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels, he presented the figure above: a bold attempt to place the human experience with energy on a 10,000 years scale.

Of course, Hubbert was overly optimistic about nuclear energy which, in reality, started declining before fossil fuels did. But, with this graphic, Hubbert had laid down the human predicament, several years in advance with respect to “The Limits to Growth” (1972). Catton’s “overshoot” (1980), and many others. Without a miracle that could replace fossils well before they would start declining, the human world as it was in the 20th center was doomed. Nuclear energy was not, and could not have been, that miracle.

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The Energy Transition: Who has the right to speak?

The Energy Transition: Who has the right to speak?

Italy is not a windy country and it relies mainly on the sun for its renewable energy. Nevertheless, some spots of the Appennini mountains are swept by enough wind to make it possible to build wind plants. In the picture, you see the wind farm of Montemignaio, not far from Florence, where one of the first large wind plants in Italy was built, already in 2001. It has been working beautifully for nearly 20 years. Other wind plants are planned in Italy, but a strong local opposition and a lack of long-term vision at the national level make their construction difficult and slow.


While the ecosystem starts showing signs of collapse, we desperately need to do something to promote the renewable energy transition. But we seem to be stuck: blocked by science denial, political polarization, sheer ignorance, and slick propaganda. Mostly, what we need seems to be a new way of seeing priorities in a world dominated by financial profits only. But, as the situation becomes worse, we seem to be retreating more and more into obsolete views where everyone sees nothing but their personal short-term interests. In the text below, you can find the transcription of a speech given by Professor Andrea Pase of the University of Padua in an ongoing debate on the advisability of building a wind power plant on the Apennines, in Italy. Pase masterfully identified a key element in the question: scale, both spatial and temporal. The same concept applies to many other public utilities. Who has the right to speak about a new, planned infrastructure? It often happens that the inhabitants of the affected territories engage in defending what they see as “their” land.

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The ten worst predictions in history: learning from past mistakes

The ten worst predictions in history: learning from past mistakes

Ugo Bardi experiments with new predictive methods.

This post was inspired mainly by the shock I had with the various failed attempts to predict the outcome of the Covid-19 epidemic. It was truly a sobering experience: bad predictions, clueless politicians, arrogant scientists, idiotic journalists, and more. It made me doubt of the usefulness of models in general. I think we are doing several (too many) things wrong with the way we use models and (sometimes) we trust them. I’ll be discussing more on this subject in future posts, for the time being, here is a list of failed predictions that I think can teach us something.

1. Coronavirus Deaths. In 2020, the model developed in large part by Neil Ferguson at the Imperial College in London was the main element that led the British government to engage in a strict “lockdown” policy to avoid the hundreds of thousands (perhaps millions) of deaths that the model predicted as a result of the COVID-19 disease. Most European States followed suit. It is still early to evaluate how the real world followed the model but, if we look at the result proposed in the “Report n. 9“, we see that the model was clearly overly pessimistic. The authors of the model defended their work saying that their prediction of doom was just one of several scenarios, which is correct, but weak as a defense. In the future, we’ll be able to say if Europeans truly wrecked their economies for nothing but, for the time being, the coronavirus experience can be seen as a sobering experience on the limits of the models as predictive tools.

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A question you always wanted to ask but you never had the time to: Is the “EROI” of energy studies the same as the R factor in epidemiology?

A question you always wanted to ask but you never had the time to: Is the “EROI” of energy studies the same as the R factor in epidemiology?

There is a certain logic in the way the universe works and so it is not surprising that the same models can describe phenomena that seem to be completely different. Here, I’ll show you how the same equations describe chain reactions that govern such different phenomena as the spread of an epidemic, the cycle of extraction of crude oil, and even the nuclear reaction that creates atomic explosions. All these phenomena depend on the efficiency of energy transfer, the parameter that’s known in energy studies as EROI (energy return on energy invested), related to the “transmission factor” (R) of epidemiological models. Above, a classic clip from Walt Disney’s 1957 movie, “Our friend, the atom.” 

You may be surprised to discover that epidemiological models share the same basic core of peak oil models. And it is not just about peak oil, the same models are used to describe chemical reactions, resource depletion, the fishing industry, the diffusion of memes on the Web, and even the nuclear chain reaction that leads to nuclear explosions. It is always the same idea: reinforcing feedbacks lead the system to grow in a frenzy of exploitation of an available resource: oil, fish, atomic nuclei, or people to be infected. In the end, it is perhaps the most typical way the universe uses dissipate potentials. As always, entropy rules everything!

Modeling these phenomena has a story that starts with the model developed in the 1920s by Vito Volterra and Alfred Lotka. They go under the name of “Lotka-Volterra” models or, sometimes, “Prey-Predator” models. This heritage is not normally recognized by people in the field of epidemiology, but the model is the same: the virus is a predator and we are the prey.

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How catalytic events change the course of history: From the 9/11 attacks to the coronavirus pandemic

How catalytic events change the course of history: From the 9/11 attacks to the coronavirus pandemic

The 9/11 attacks of 2001 are classic examples of  “catalytic events” that change the course of history. They can be seen as triggers for “Seneca Collapses,” sudden and catastrophic, they are well described by Seneca’s words, “the way to ruin is rapid.” It is the way history moves: never smoothly but always in bumps. The most recent example of a catalytic effect of this kind is the current epidemic of coronavirus.

If you are a chemist, you know very well how catalysts work small miracles: you had been trying for some time to have a reaction occur without success, then you add a little pinch of something and things go “bang.” In no time, the reaction is complete. Then, of course, as a chemist you know that catalysts don’t really work miracles: all they can do is to accelerate reaction that would occur anyway. But that may be mightily useful, sometimes.

The concept of catalysis can be used also outside chemistry, for instance in politics. Let’s go back to the year 2000, when the group of American neoconservatives identifying themselves as the “Project for a New American Century” (PNAC) issued a document titled “Rebuilding American Defenses.” In that document, they argued that the American public could be led to accept a major shift of the available resources to military purposes only by means of “some catastrophic and catalyzing event – like a new Pearl Harbor.

Surely, the PNAC members were highly successful with their plans, perhaps more than they themselves would have imagined. One year later, in 2001, the world saw the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and on other locations, providing exactly the “catastrophic and catalyzing event” they had invoked.

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Olduvai IV: Courage
In progress...

Olduvai II: Exodus
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