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A Concise History of the Global Empire

A Concise History of the Global Empire

Like all past empires, the Global Empire has gone through its parable of growth and glory and is now starting to decline. There is not much we can do about it; we must accept that this is how the universe works.

For everything that exists, there is a reason, and that’s true also for that gigantic thing that we sometimes call “The West” or perhaps “The Global Empire.” To find that reason, we may examine its origins in an older but similar empire: the Roman one.

As someone might have said (and maybe someone did), “Geography is the mother of Empires.” So, the Romans exploited the geography of the Mediterranean basin to build an empire based on maritime transportation. Rome was the center of a hub of commerce that outcompeted every other state in the Western region of Eurasia and North Africa. It was kept together by a “Lingua Franca,” Latin, and by a financial system based on coinage, in turn based on the availability of gold and silver mined from the Empire’s mines in Spain. More than all, it was based on a powerful military system created by the Roman wealth.

Like all empires, the Roman one carried inside the seeds of its own destruction: the limited amount of its mineral resources. Roman gold and silver were used to pay not just for the legions but also for expensive commodities coming from China that the Empire couldn’t produce in its territory. As long as the Romans could keep producing precious metals, the amounts lost to China to pay for silk and spices didn’t matter so much…

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Are plastics killing us?

Are plastics killing us?

Jumping into the future head first, blindfolded, handcuffed, and in darkness

Jumping into a dark hole, head first, blindfolded, handcuffed

Plastics have been a feature of our world since the time they started being produced on a large scale in the second half of the 20th century. They are another giant experiment that we are performing on ourselves. As usual, we are jumping into the future head first, without thinking of what we are doing. Image by Dall-E

If you are a scientist, you may like doing experiments on mice. Not so much if you are a mouse. And yet, we are going through a series of planet-wide experiments in which we are playing the role of mice. Right now, humankind is engaged in determining the value of the climate sensitivity factor, that is, how the temperature of the atmosphere reacts to the CO2 concentration. This attempt may kill us all, but on the other hand, that’s the normal destiny of laboratory mice.

But the climate is not the only experiment we are engaged in. Several others aim to test how humans react to chemicals not normally present in nature. One is plastics.

Plastic waste is normally seen as ugly and obnoxious but not really dangerous. It is supposed to be inert, and, indeed, it normally is. You may occasionally bite off a piece of plastic from a wrapper while eating a sandwich, but nothing bad will happen to you — not immediately, at least. But plastics are not as inert as they seem to be.

Plastics are carbon-based polymers made by assembling smaller molecules, “monomers,” to form chains; the result is a solid that’s normally stable. Chains can degrade, releasing the monomers, molecules that are not inert at all. In addition, plastics contain all sorts of additives. A few are inert fillers, but most are not.

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Our Final Destiny: Catastrophe or Rebirth?

Our Final Destiny: Catastrophe or Rebirth?

Millenialism or renewalism?

The “Base Case” scenario of the first version of “The Limits to Growth” study, published in 1972. Note the shape of the curves: a slow growth is followed by a rapid decline, the typical “Seneca Shape.” Note also that the calculation shows a single cycle. Collapse, as seen in this scenario, is final and irreversible. Is it a “millenaristic” view of the future? Maybe, but we cannot exclude that the system will rebound in a farther future.

For decades after it was published, in 1972, the “Limits to Growth” was criticized with the accusation of being a “wrong prediction.” Remarkably, these accusations started immediately after the study was published, way before the main result of the calculations, the impending societal collapse, could be verified. It was a good example of the human attitude of thinking that what you don’t like cannot be true.

Today, more than 50 years later, the tide seems to be turning, and the study is being re-appraised; see, for instance, the book Limits and Beyond. Yet, we may be making the opposite mistake: turning a scenario into a prophecy and seeing collapse in the light of an unavoidable apocalypse for humankind.

It is not surprising. The history of human thought sees two attitudes going in parallel: “millenarism,” the idea that the world will go through a single cycle and then die, and the opposite one, which I might call “renewalism.” It sees death followed by rebirth in an infinite series of cycles, or at least a very long one.

The term “millenarism” is often attributed to Marcus Terentius Varro (116–27 BC), who said that Roma would last one thousand years. It is typical of the Jewish tradition as expressed, for instance, in the Book of Daniel in the Bible…

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

Oedipus: the Discovery of the Future

Oedipus: the Discovery of the Future

What do we know of that obscure realm where Gods and Daimones roam?

 

MYTHS of THEBES:OIDIPOUS

The story of how Oedipus killed his father and married his mother looks alien, even silly, to us. Yet, it resonates deeply with something profound in our modern souls. It is not just interesting for human psychology, but it is a reminder of how our ancestors discovered the future for the first time and with it concepts such as predestination, free will, and more.

I know the grains of sand on the beach and measure the sea;
I understand the speech of the dumb and hear the voiceless.
The Pythoness of the Oracle of Delphi to King Croesus.
__________________________________________________________________

Honestly, what do you make of Oedipus’s story? Seen in modern terms, it is a weird patch-up of elements that go from the silly to the incomprehensible. Do you know of anyone so careless that he married his mother and didn’t even realize it? And what should be made of the riddle of the Sphinx, supposed to be so difficult that no one in the whole city of Thebes could solve it? (“what creature walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at midday, and three legs at night?”) You can try it with an 8-year-old child, and she will probably solve it immediately.

Yet, the deep meaning of the myth is not silly, and it reverberates with something still present in our modern souls. So much that people such as Sigmund Freud, Claude Levi-Strauss, James Frazer, and Robert Graves discuss it at length in their works. But there is a point that I think hasn’t been discussed so often so far. Oedipus marks the turning point in history when our ancestors first started thinking about the future

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

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.

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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…

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…

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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…

Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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