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A World With no Debt and no Bankruptcies: How About Social Credit as Money?

A World With no Debt and no Bankruptcies: How About Social Credit as Money?

Mark Twain had a genial idea with his story “The One Million Pound Bank Note” published in 1853. It was such a huge amount of money that it couldn’t be exchanged, yet it gave its owner all sorts of perks and goods. It was, in a certain way, an anticipation of what we call today the “social credit score” obtained on the various social media services on the Web. It is a form of money that can be owned, but cannot be exchanged — in most cases, you can’t even go negative with your social credit. So, no debt, no bankruptcy. Would it be possible to build a financial system based on this concept? Not easy, but also an idea being examined nowadays, especially in China with their state-owned social credit system (shèhuì xìnyòng tǐxì). The text below is derived from the chapter on financial collapses of my new book “The Seneca Strategy,” to be published in later 2019.

The whole problem of financial collapses is the result of the existence of money. But what is money exactly? Without going into the various theories of money that economists are still discussing, we can say that once, money was something that everybody agreed on: a weight of precious metals. After all, the British currency is still defined in units of weight, even though one pound (in monetary terms) does not weigh a pound (in physical terms). Still, up to not too long ago, money was simply a token representing a physical entity, typically a certain weight of gold and silver. But things changed a lot with time and, with the 20th century, the convertibility of the dollar into precious metals was more theoretical than real. In 1971 president Nixon formally canceled it.

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

Climate Science Deniers Start Feeling the Heat. Now it is Foot-Dragging Time!

Climate Science Deniers Start Feeling the Heat. Now it is Foot-Dragging Time!

Greta Thunberg is both a cause and an effect in the great shift that’s ongoing in the public opinion about climate change. Climate science deniers are feeling the pressure and they are preparing to change their strategy. No more denying that AGW exists and that it is a danger for all of us. It is time to move to foot-dragging for profit.  

A post by Tim Ball on the despicable WUWT blog is well worth reading because it summarizes the plight of climate science deniers in the current debate. Ball says that he calls it quits because:

“you are asking people to believe that a small group of people managed to deceive the world into believing that a trace gas (0.04% of the total atmosphere) was changing the entire climate because of humans. In addition, that group convinced many others to participate in the deception.

The public view is that deceiving so many is just not possible. “Stark clear: Ball perfectly summarizes the problem for him and his band of science-deniers: how could anyone believe what they are saying? With Greta Thunberg bursting into the debate, their position is rapidly becoming untenable. So, they are shifting away from discussing whether AGW exists or not. Ball says, 

“I decided to stop trying to educate people about the global deception that is AGW. … The challenge now is to help people understand the differences between deceptively derived policies, and what is the best, most adaptive, most profitable, and most rewarding strategy for survival of the individual, business, or industry. “

And I couldn’t have said it more clearly. Ball and his ilk are preparing for a war of attrition against the attempt to do something to save humankind before it is too late, all in the name of the “most profitable” strategy. 

Italy Becoming Poor — Becoming Poor in Italy. The Effects of the Twilight of the Age of Oil

Italy Becoming Poor — Becoming Poor in Italy. The Effects of the Twilight of the Age of Oil

The living room of the house that my parents built in 1965. An American style suburban home, a true mansion in the hills. I lived there for more than 50 years but now I have to give up: I can’t afford it anymore. 

Let me start with a disclaimer: I am not poor. As a middle class, state employee in Italy, I am probably richer than some 90% of the people living on this planet. But wealth and poverty are mainly relative perceptions and the feeling I have is that I am becoming poorer every year, just like the majority of Italians, nowadays.

I know that the various economic indexes say that we are not becoming poorer and that, worldwide, the GDP keeps growing, even in Italy it sort of restarted growing after a period of decline. But something must be wrong with those indexes because we are becoming poorer. It is unmistakable, GDP or not. To explain that, let me tell you the story of the house that my father and my mother built in the 1960s and how I am now forced to leave it because I can’t just afford it anymore.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, Italy was going through what was called the “Economic Miracle” at the time. After the disaster of the war, the age of cheap oil had created a booming economy everywhere in the world. In Italy, people enjoyed a wealth that never ever had been seen or even imagined before. Private cars, health care for everybody, vacations at the seaside, the real possibility for most Italians to own a house, and more.

 …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…

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…

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…

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…

What’s Emperor Trump Doing? He is Busy at Splitting the Empire in Two

What’s Emperor Trump Doing? He is Busy at Splitting the Empire in Two

Donald Trump seems to be doing what Roman Emperors like Diocletian, Constantine, and Theodosius did long ago: splitting the empire into two halves. Trump may not have consciously decided to do that, but an Empire can only be as large as it can afford to be, and the American Empire can’t afford anymore to dominate the whole world. 

Flavius Theodosius Augustus “The Great” (347- 395 CE) was the last emperor to rule over the whole Roman Empire. His success was probably due in large part to his habit of plundering Pagan temples for the gold he needed to pay his troops. But Pagan temples were a limited resource and Theodosius himself seemed to understand that when, shortly before his death, he partitioned the Empire between his two sons, Arcadius and Honorius. Afterward, the empire would never be whole again.

The Roman Empire had been a strong centralized power during its heydays, but it never was very interested in creating an ethnical and linguistic unity among its subjects. The Roman authorities understood very well that it was less expensive to tolerate diversity than to force uniformity — a typical policy of most empires. So, the Empire remained split into two main linguistic halves: the Latin-speaking Pars Occidentis and the Greek-speaking Pars Orientis. Theoretically, Latin was the official language of the Empire but, in practice, it remained a bilingual entity and, during the 2nd and 3rd centuries, the Roman elite would rather speak Greek — considered more refined and classy.

The split of the two sides of the Empire was not just linguistic, it was economic as well. The Pars Occidentis remained based on mineral wealth which, in turn, fueled the Empire’s military power.

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

The Sower’s Strategy: Norway Leads the Way Toward the Energy Transition

The Sower’s Strategy: Norway Leads the Way Toward the Energy Transition

This is me, Ugo Bardi, in Oslo, February 2019. Norway is the country with the largest fraction of electric vehicles in the world. The Tesla in the background is not mine. 

I gave the name of “The Sower’s Strategy” or “The Sower’s Way” to the idea that we should use our remaining fossil resources to build the renewable energy infrastructure needed to replace them. The calculations by myself, Sgouridis and Csala show that it can be done: after all, this is what our farmer ancestors did when they saved some of the crops of the current harvest as seed for the next harvest.

For some reason, the idea that we should wisely invest the energy we have, while we still have it, seems to be incomprehensible to some people who maintain that fossil fuels are evil (which is true) and that for this reason anything you can make with fossil energy is evil, too, including renewables (which is not true). So, the penetration of the “Sower’s meme” has been modest, up to now. But from a recent trip of mine to Norway, I noted that the Norwegians put this strategy into practice, even though they probably never heard of the name I gave to it!

Norway, as you surely know, used to be among the largest oil-producing countries in the world, the largest in Europe. The peak was around 2002 and by now production has declined to about half of what it was during the glory days. (data below from Rune Likvern)

The gas production in Norway has not yet peaked but it is plateauing and it is time for the Norwegians to think about a future without oil. So, what did the Norwegian government do? They followed the Sower’s strategy using the revenues from oil sales to build up a more and more energy independent system. (and zero dependence on nuclear energy!)

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

The Biodiesel Disaster: Why bad Ideas are Always so Successful?

The Biodiesel Disaster: Why bad Ideas are Always so Successful?

This is a modified version of an article that was published on “Il Fatto Quotidiano” in Italian on Jan 31, 2019

Behind the simian mask, there is yours truly, Ugo Bardi, sitting at his desk.  The sign is in Italian, but you can understand that it is against biodiesel and in favor of Orangutans. 
Sometimes it happens that you are asked a question that forces you to reflect. So, a few days ago, I was at a public meeting on energy and climate and I was telling about the work we do at the university and with the Club of Rome. In the debate, someone asked me: “But, professor, from all these models of the world you make, after all, what did you learne?”.

Some questions are not easy when the topic is complex and you have to summarize the answer in a few sentences. And you have to come up with something right away! But I think I could put together a good answer when I said, “The main thing we’ve learned is that the models work well. Even the famous model of ‘The Limits to Growth’ that the Club of Rome had proposed in 1972 still describes reasonably correctly the state of the world today. But this has a consequence: the system is predictable because it tends to move in a certain direction. And this means that changing things is very difficult “.

The problem of the difficulty of changing things, even when it would be necessary, came back to me by later on, when reading a recent report on biodiesel. This stuff is really terrible: it causes deforestation and destruction of the fertile soil. In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, it is much worse than traditional diesel fuel.

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

Tolstoy on War: The Systemic Vision of a Tragedy

Tolstoy on War: The Systemic Vision of a Tragedy

Leon Tolstoy set his novel, “War and Peace” (1867) during the Napoleonic invasion of Russia of 1812. But he had not witnessed that war — rather, Tolstoy had fought in another senseless and bloody war, the Crimean War (1853-1856), an experience that deeply influenced his thought. Tolstoy had a deep vision of the tragedy that wars are and his viewpoint is similar to our modern one based on statistics, although obtained by intuition only. Above, a painting by Vasilii Nesterenko (2005) that celebrates the Russian defense of Sevastopol in 1855.

From Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” (1867)
To us it is incomprehensible that millions of Christian men killed and tortured each other either because Napoleon was ambitious or Alexander was firm, or because England’s policy was astute or the Duke of Oldenburg wronged. We cannot grasp what connection such circumstances have with the actual fact of slaughter and violence: why because the Duke was wronged, thousands of men from the other side of Europe killed and ruined the people of Smolénsk and Moscow and were killed by them.

To us, their descendants, who are not historians and are not carried away by the process of research and can therefore regard the event with unclouded common sense, an incalculable number of causes present themselves. The deeper we delve in search of these causes the more of them we find; and each separate cause or whole series of causes appears to us equally valid in itself and equally false by its insignificance compared to the magnitude of the events, and by its impotence—apart from the cooperation of all the other coincident causes—to occasion the event.

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

The Making of Greta Thunberg: Memetic Weapons for the Meme War

The Making of Greta Thunberg: Memetic Weapons for the Meme War

If I say that this young lady, Greta Thunberg, is a meme I mean no disrespect for her — we all are memes! Actually, I think she is a great girl. But the story of how this particular meme was pushed up into becoming an important feature of the planetary memesphere is teaching us so much of how our world works. And how fundamental is memetics as a science. Truly, read on. You’ll learn of things you wouldn’t have suspected existed!! 

Ladies and Gentlemen, first of all, let me introduce to you the study on memetics performed by myself and these two wonderful coworkers of mine, Sara Falsini and Ilaria Perissi. Everyone loves their own brainchild and I do love mine (ours): so, allow me to say that this work may be the first (at least one of the first, I believe) that uses system dynamics as a tool to study memetics. Maybe it will open up a whole new field of studies, but let me tell you this story.

So, what is a meme? A meme is a meme is a meme (as Gertrud Stein never said): a wonderful concept! Think of the blind crocodiles in sewers of New York, that was a pre-internet meme. Or, for a more recent one, “Obama was not born in the US.” A meme is not just an idea, but an idea that reproduces itself — analogous to the gene in biology. It was invented by Richard Dawkins in 1976 and he probably didn’t suspect what can of memes he was opening.

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

The Decline of Transition Towns: Why do Good Ideas Always Flare up and Then Disappear?

The Decline of Transition Towns: Why do Good Ideas Always Flare up and Then Disappear?

If you don’t know what the Transition Town Movement is, you can take a look at their page, here. It is an interesting idea to increase the resilience of the civilization network by making each node less dependent on other nodes. 

The figure above shows how the concept of “Transition Towns” flared up in the late 2000s and then slowly declined in terms of Internet searches, as shown by Google Trends. That not everything is well with the Transition Town Movement seem to be confirmed by this page. What happened? Was it a bad idea? It didn’t work in practice? Or people just got bored of it?

Sam Allen finds the reason for the decline Transition Towns in the fact that ” we hitched our wagon to the peak oil narrative big time.” In reality, complex systems always behave in a complex manner and the attempt to find a simple explanation for why things go in a certain way is normally bound to fail. Here, saying that “peak oil didn’t come, therefore people stopped being interested in transition towns” is really forcing the system into an oversimplified narrative.

In the studies we are performing on memetics (1), we are discovering that memes are virtual creatures, only marginally correlated to the real world. So, if the Transition Town meme declined, it doesn’t mean that the idea is not valid or not useful, it has to do, rather, with the limited lifetime of memes in our society, something probably correlated with the way the human mind works.

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

Why do Societies Collapse? Diminishing Returns are a key Factor, a new Study Says

Why do Societies Collapse? Diminishing Returns are a key Factor, a new Study Says 

In 1988, Joseph Tainter published a fundamental study on the collapse of societies, proposing the existence of a common cause, diminishing returns, for the fact that all past empires and civilizations had eventually collapsed. Recently, myself and my coworkers Sara Falsini and Ilaria Perissi performed a system dynamics study that confirms Tainter’s ideas and goes deeper into the origins of the diminishing returns of civilizations. It was published now on “Biophysical Economics and Resource Quality

Why do civilizations collapse? It is a question that has been haunting the nebulous entity we call “The West” from the time when Edward Gibbon published his “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” in 1776. The underlying question in Gibbon’s massive study was ‘are we heading for the same destiny as the Romans?’ A question that generations of historians have tried to answer, so far without arriving to answer on which everyone would agree.

There are, literally, hundreds of “explanations” for the decline and fall of empires, and the same confusion reigns for the fall of the past civilizations rising to glory and then biting the dust, becoming little more than ruins and footnotes in history books. Is there a single cause for these collapses? Or is collapse the result of many small effects that, somehow, gang up together to push the great beast down the Seneca Cliff?

One of the most fascinating interpretations of the collapse of civilization is Joseph Tainter’s idea that it is due to “diminishing returns.” It is a well-known concept in economics that Tainter adapts to the historical cycle of civilizations, focusing on the control structures designed to keep together the whole system, the bureaucracy for instance. Tainter attributes these diminishing returns to an intrinsic property of control structures to become less efficient as they become larger.  Below, you can see a rather well-known graph taken for Tainter’s book “The Collapse of Complex societies.” (1988)

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

Olduvai IV: Courage
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