Welcome to the age of diminishing returns

Sunday, October 4, 2015

A distant mirror: bimillenary of Germanicus' campaigns in Germania

(Image: a battle scene showing Roman troops fighting Barbarians. This relief is much later than the times discussed in this post, but it gives some idea of how these battles were seen in Roman times: "Grande Ludovisi Altemps Inv8574" by Unknown - Jastrow (2006). Licensed under Public Domain via Commons)

Julius Caesar Germanicus, grandson of Emperor Augustus, was called "Germanicus" not because he liked the Germanic peoples; rather, he was engaged in a ruthless, scorched earth campaign against them. Nevertheless, he managed to accomplish very little; mainly to show that the Roman Empire, despite all its might, could not possibly conquer Germania. 

Success, sometimes, shows one's limits more than defeat. That's a lesson that the Romans had to learn the hard way when they tried to subdue the Germanic tribes east of the Rhine, between the first century BC and the first century AD. The attempt involved a long series of campaigns and, perhaps, the climax came exactly two thousand years ago, from 14 to 16 AD, when the Romans invaded Germania with no less than eight legions under the command of Tiberius Claudius Nero, known as Germanicus (at right), grandson of Augustus and the adopted son of Emperor Tiberius. The total number of the troops employed could have been at least 80 thousand men, perhaps close to a hundred thousand; about a third of the whole Roman army. Using a modern term, we could say that the Romans were trying to steamroll their enemies.

In this case, the concept of "steamrolling" can perhaps be intended in an almost literal sense. Tacitus makes it clear for us in his "Annals" that the Romans were going into Germania with in mind something much different than "bringing civilization" to those primitive peoples. No, no such silly idea; the Romans were there to teach those Barbarians a lesson. For this, they were burning villages, slaughtering everyone, or taking as slaves, as Tacitus says, even "the helpless from age or sex." Germanicus' name, evidently, didn't imply that he loved Germanic people. Again, using a modern term, we could say that the Romans were practicing a scorched earth campaign, if not an outright war of extermination.

And yet, all these efforts achieved little. Over three years of campaigns, Germanicus' troops won all the battles they fought; but they couldn't break the Germanic tribes. And the cost of keeping so many men in the field was becoming unbearable even for the mighty Roman Empire. In 16 AD, Emperor Tiberius recalled Germanicus to Rome. He also ordered the legions to abandon the territories they had conquered and to retire behind the fortifications along the Rhine, from where they had started their campaigns. Germanicus was given a big triumph in Rome, but, a few years later, in 19 AD, he died, possibly poisoned by Tiberius himself who feared the competition of a popular general.

So, Germanicus' campaigns had shown the might of the Empire, bit also its limits: there were some things that the legions just couldn't do. That was a lesson that Emperors understood well and, indeed, the Romans never tried again to attack the Germanic territory. Two thousand years afterward, we see in these remote events a distant mirror of our age. The parallels with our current situation are many, and I am sure that the word "Iraq" is already coming to your mind. Yes, the Iraq campaign was a series of victories, just like Germanicus' campaigns. But, from a strategic viewpoint, modern Iraq, just like Germania two thousand years ago, turned out to be a conquest too expensive to keep.

But there is more to be seen in this distant mirror and so let's go a little more in depth into history. First of all, Germanicus' campaigns were the consequence of an earlier, failed campaign: the defeat of Teutoburg in 9 AD, when three Roman legions were annihilated by a coalition of Germanic tribes. Not even their commander, Consul Publius Quinctilius Varus, escaped alive. Teutoburg was not only a disaster, but a mystery as well. How could it be that the Roman legions, not exactly amateurs in practicing the art of war, blithely marched into a dense forest where a large number of Germanic warriors were waiting to hack them to pieces?

I wouldn't be too surprised if Varus himself were to appear to me one of these nights as a bluish ghost in my bedroom. Then, he could  tell me the story of why exactly he was sent to Germania as the governor of a province that existed only on paper and supplied with insufficient troops to control a region that had never been really pacified. Lacking this apparition, we can only speculate on this story, but it takes little imagination to conclude that someone, probably in Rome, wanted Varus' head to roll. Whoever they were, anyway, they probably couldn't imagine that so many more Roman heads would roll together with Varus' one. We will never know for sure, but we know that the man who led Varus into the trap in the forest, Arminius, was a Roman citizen, albeit born in Germania. Varus was betrayed.

I know what you are thinking at this point. And, yes, we can find some kind of a parallel with modern history in the 9/11 attack to the twin towers in New York. Let me state that I am not discussing conspiracy theories, here; what I want to highlight is the similarity of the reaction of the ancient and the modern empires to events that both perceived as an existential threat. Just as the US citizens were deeply scared by the 9/11 attacks, the Romans were deeply scared by the disaster of Teutoburg and that had political consequences.

The main consequence of the defeat of Teutoburg was that it strongly reinforced the position of the Emperor as the military leader of the whole Empire. Don't forget that, in the early 1st century AD, the idea that there was to be an emperor at the head of the Empire was still something new and plenty of people would probably have liked the Republic to be re-established. That was what what Brutus and Cassius had tried to do by killing Julius Caesar. But, after Teutoburg, reinstating the Republic became totally out of question. You probably have heard of Suetonius reporting that Emperor Augustus, on hearing of Varus' defeat, would walk aimlessly at night in his palace, murmuring, "Varus, Varus, give me back my legions!" That was a master propaganda stroke on the part of Augustus, a consummate politician. By showing himself so concerned, Augustus was positioning himself as the defender of the Empire against the barbarian menace.

Not only Teutoburg reinforced the role of Emperors; the campaigns by Germanicus reinforced the effect. If Teutoburg had shown that the Germanic tribes were the existential threat for the Empire, then, Germanicus' failure showed that they couldn't be destroyed. The result was that the Empire positioned itself for a long term war. That generated the equivalent of our present military-industrial complex: a standing army and a set of fortifications along the Imperial borders. That was good business for the military contractors of Roman times. However, the Empire bled itself to death in order to maintain the colossal defense works it had built. Before Teutoburg, the Roman army had been producing wealth as the result of the conquest of foreign lands. After Teutoburg, the army became a destroyer of wealth, costing much more than it produced; as Germanicus' campaigns clearly demonstrated. As time went by, the Roman Empire became weaker and weaker, but it stubbornly refused to admit it and to accept the barbarians in roles that were not those of mercenaries or slaves.

Four centuries after the battle of Teutoburg and Germanicus' campaigns, an enlightened empress, Galla Placidia, broke the rules in a bold attempt to revitalize a dying empire. She married a Barbarian king and tried to start a new dynasty that would merge the Germanic and the Latin elements of the Empire. She didn't succeed; it was too late; it was too much for a single person. The Roman Empire had to go through its cycle, and the end of the cycle was its disappearance; a relic of history that had no reason to exist any longer.

This is the destiny of empires and civilizations that, as Toynbee says, die most often because they kill themselves. So it was for the Romans, our distant mirror. A dark mirror, but, most likely, our destiny will not be much different.


See also


Note also that I created a new blog "A Distant Mirror" to act as a repository of all the post published here that deal with Roman history. It is still being filled up.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Climate Change: a clash of epistemologies

Guest post by Elisa Vecchione.

Elisa is currently Research Fellow at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (UK) and Associate Fellow to the Groupe of Sociologie Pragmatique et Reflexive at EHESS (Paris). She is interested in any normative aspect of scientific uncertainty, especially in policymaking, dispute settlement, and also economic modelling of climate change. 

In a post published earlier this year, Ugo Bardi explains that the debate on climate change is going nowhere due to a fundamental incommunicability – or a ‘clash’ as he calls it – between different types of epistemologies over climate change. In his post he refers to some exchange between scientists and a newcomer – not any newcomer, actually the vice-president of the Italian Coal Industry Associations –which happened on the blog of the Italian Society of Chemistry (SCI). The newcomer used this section to attack climate science and climate scientists. The latter fully felt the attack and reacted as if their own persona had been aggressed. Apparently, the exchange degenerated in assorted insults and personal smears.

Quoting Ugo, “stiffen up and look offended when someone belittles climate science is not useful." Indeed, it is not. But as I dare reading through the lines of Ugo’s post, the reason why it is not has nothing to do with the consequences of such insulting exchange – certainly the newcomer has not changed his mind on climate change; it has to do with the reasons of such incommunicability between different categories of individuals, one which raises conflicts rather than mere disagreements. To understand such conflicts Ugo mobilises the idea that the two groups – the scientists and the newcomer – are endowed with opposite epistemologies, that is, opposite ways of knowing and believing the world. The discrepancy goes beyond differences in perceiving the world and understand it accordingly; the discrepancy concerns the way the world is analytically constructed and given a sense.

I am sure that Ugo would have appreciated the concept of ‘epistemological rationality’ used by Alban Bouvier, a French social epistemologist, with reference to discursive exchanges between reciprocally suspicious interlocutors, in which each party considers that the arguments of the other rely on false or unreliable knowledge. This seems indeed a good description of the situation described by Ugo. One could then ask how to make the two groups coming to terms with each other’s knowledge. However, I suggest not underestimating that a conflict is a conflict, involving issues of power, defence and control of territory. I am unsure whether these issues precisely correspond to a conflictual parent-child relationship in which scientists try to patronise climate change as their own field of epistemic authority, or to a war between royal families to be possibly settled through some marriage agreement. Probably, there are even more typologies of relationship accounting for that situation of conflict. I would suggest we investigate them indeed, starting by the position of scientists whose claims to knowledge are, by default, epistemologically more powerful. I have not known Ugo for long, but I am quite sure that at least he does not belong to the first category I mentioned. Other hard scientists like him, however, do belong to it and try to patronise the climate change debate. I am sure that Ugo, with his post, is trying to suggest the danger of such practice.

Ugo knows what he talks about. He points to the resentment that many scientists feel when they are challenged by any people claiming some legitimacy in debating climate change and along with it, some authority and power. This is equivalent to have scientists empowering someone else over climate change. That’s exactly where scientists may fail as either authoritative fathers or monarchs. Many scientists do not accept that the debate can be other than scientific and at the same time they are unconscious that their language talks social or political or cultural, even though it speaks science.

Like other colleagues, Ugo knows how facts stand over climate change. However, differently from other colleagues, he acknowledges some humility in his knowledge as he recognizes that ‘facts’ do not speak themselves. There is no supreme language to speak for everybody, not even that of science. The way he knows facts comes from an epistemological process of knowledge selection, construction and conclusions, a process that, simply said, builds some story. For instance, he knows facts of climate change through his own story about the depletion of natural resources in the past, in the present and the future. Certainly his story is a scientific story, following the scientific rules of writing: how to select and collect data, how to put them into some logical sequence, how to elaborate them through a language – supposedly that of modelling –, how to read them, and how to extract their sense. However, the last passage is the less scientific one. Ugo Bardi seems to know that the sense of scientific stories cannot be universal. I will suggest why. Scientific stories do not simply terminate but are brought to some conclusion by the scientist at work. Such conclusion binds together the whole sequence of the story by endowing it with a sense and a morality.

Now, as I have already said, I don’t know Ugo so well, hence I cannot tell the morality of his own story of climate change. However, I suggest he reflects on it like many other scientists committed to promote awareness and action on climate change. The conclusions brought to the sequence of facts of climate change contains the logic of the whole sequence – its epistemology - and also its ontology. It contains the reality which each scientist refers to while he is trying to cope with the unknown. Science does not exhaust the latter nor the reality we create of it; therefore, settling the conflict between different epistemologies would not solve the communication problem between the scientists and the rest of the world. However, investigating epistemologies could be the first step to access ontologies along with their ‘realities’, made of rules, norms, visions of the word and, especially, relation with any form of authority.

Should climate modelers be subjected to some psychoanalysis in order to realise what society they are talking about when they speak science? James Hillman, initiator of the movement ‘archetypal psychology’, suggested that the practice of story-telling could heal better than interpretation can do. If we are not ready to go that further, however, Hayden White, philosopher and theoriser of the idea of ‘meta-history’ as historical imagination, suggests that story-telling is a form of consciousness of the story-tellers connected to the urgency of the moment he or she lives in. We shall hope that scientists are conscious of their own power along with its modes of exercise and its limits, which epistemic preparation can only partially account for.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Stewards of the earth: a role for humankind

This post was inspired by a meeting held last week in Florence on the subject of the Pope's climate encyclical, and, in particular, by the presentation given there by Father Bernardo. prior of the San Miniato church. I had been thinking about the relation of religion and the environment for some time and, as a comment, I reproduce below a text that I wrote on the interpretation of an ancient Sumerian myth that, in my opinion, describes an ancient ecological catastrophe, not unlike the one we are facing nowadays. Many elements of the ancient Sumerian religion have survived through the millennia and are still with us; in particular the concept that humans have both power and responsibility: they are there to serve the creation, not to use it for their purposes. (h/t Antonella Giachetti)

When I started my career in scientific research, I could hardly have imagined that the Catholic Pope would, one day, teach to scientists (and not just to them) how to do their job. And yet, it seems that we have arrived exactly to this point.

The attempts performed so far to settle the debate on the various disasters befalling on us (and that we ourselves created) have led to nothing. For how many decades have we been trying to get an agreement to avoid the climate change disaster? Now we are putting our residual hopes on the Paris conference of this year, but do you really think that a group of politicians and bureaucrats dressed in dark suits will be able to save the planet?

What we are seeing, instead, is the utter failure of a way of thinking that we call sometimes "positivism" that has its origins in the 19th century with thinkers such as Condorcet, Saint Simon, Comte, and others. At that time, it seemed to be a good idea to use the reason and science to settle all questions. Maybe a good idea, but, in practice, it doesn't work. We know everything about what's happening and why. It is all scientific method and logic. And, yet, the message doesn't pass; we keep destroying everything, including ourselves.

Pure reason doesn't tell us that we should do something to keep alive the other species sharing the earth with us. Pure reason has led us to such absurdity as believing that individual egoism is the best way to manage the earth's commons (this idea is a kind of religion, but an evil one). Pure reason turns the ecosystem into a giant supermarket where you don't even have to pay for what you get (as long as there remains something to get).

We need to take a different view. A view that doesn't see humans as the owners (or perhaps parasites) of the planet, but as stewards of the earth. A view that tells us that humans have a responsibility toward the planet. Without such a view, we'll keep behaving like bacteria in a Petri dish; unworthy of creatures said to have been created "in the image and the likeness of God". I think you don't have to be Christian to take this attitude, and, likely, not even religious or a believer in a transcendent God. But I think you have to have at least a feeling that there exists something, out there, that goes beyond the mere satisfaction of personal desires. It is not even a question of survival, more a question of dignity for humankind.

This is an old idea, the idea that humans are not here to be the masters, but as stewards of the planet on which they live. It goes back to the ancient Sumerians, and, below, I report a paper that I wrote about an ancient Sumerian myth that may describe a plight similar to the one we are facing now.


 From "Chimeras", Aug 23, 2015

Inanna and Ebih: a report of an ancient ecological catastrophe?

Ugo Bardi
Dipartimento di Scienze della Terra – Università di Firenze
Polo Scientifico di Sesto Fiorentino,
Sesto Fiorentino (Fi) via della Lastruccia 3, 50019, Italy


“Inanna and Ebih” is the modern title of a text written by the Sumerian poet Enheduanna around the second half of the third millennium BCE. It describes the conflict between the Goddess Inanna and the mountain called Ebih, which ends with the destruction of the latter. I suggest that the poem may be interpreted as the result of the way the ancient perceived what we call today an “ecological catastrophe,” that is the result of overgrazing and deforestation of a fragile mountain environment.

1. Introduction

The “Inanna and Ebih” poem was composed around 2300 BCE by the Sumerian poetess Enheduanna and it was rediscovered in the 20th Century (1)⁠. The story told in the poem can be summarized in a few lines. We read first that the Goddess Inanna is preparing to do battle against the mountain "Ebih," because the mountain “showed her no respect”. Before attacking, Inanna goes to see the God An, whom she calls “father,” apparently to ask for his help. An, however, is perplexed and Inanna decides to fight alone; eventually managing to triumph over the mountain. This story must have been well known in Sumerian times; so much that several copies of it have arrived to us, written in cuneiform on clay tablets. So, its meaning must have been clear enough for the people of ancient times and they must have found the story interesting enough that they kept copying it many times, apparently also as a standard exercise for young scribes (2)⁠. 

However, for us, "Inanna and Ebih" is hard to classify as a poem, even baffling. The characters, their conflict, and the very fact of a God battling a mountain appear totally alien to our modern feelings. As a story, it is far away from all the modern canons of what we define as “literature” or “poetry.”

The present paper adds some considerations to the understanding of the story of Inanna and Ebih. It is based on the concept that the ancient faced the same physical problems as we do, for instance soil erosion, deforestation, and the like. However, their way to see and describe these problems was much different. So, it may be that the story we are considering describes an ancient ecological catastrophe, the destruction of a forest ecosystem, told in a form that is not easy for us to recognize but that appears clear, once understood. The story also may be an echo of a conflict still existing in modern times: the need to preserve natural environments against the attempt of overexploiting them.

The author does not claim to be able to read Sumerian and the present discussion is based on the versions of the story available in modern languages; that is on the one by Betty De Shong Meador (3)⁠, the one available in the electronic corpus of Sumerian Literature (4)⁠, the version in French by Attinger (5)⁠, and the Italian one by Pettinato (6)⁠. These translations were found to differ in some details, but the overall content was the same.

2. Inanna and Ebih: interpreting the myth

There are several ways to interpret ancient myths. Perhaps the best known one is the “comparative” method, pioneered, among others, by Claude Levi-Strauss (7)⁠. It consists in finding common elements among different myths; as they can be found in different cultures and different ages. These common elements evidence the basic structure of the myth and help understand its general meaning, framing it in its specific context.

In the case of "Inanna and Ebih", we could first look for stories involving Gods engaged in fighting mountains, but such a plot appears to be very rare. A similar plot is the Sumerian text referred to as “Lugal-e,” from the first term it begins with (8)⁠. It goes back to times close to those of Enheduanna, but it is probably later. In Lugal-e, we are told of the divine hero, Ninurta, fighting a demon called “Asag” that turns out to be a “pile of stones”, perhaps to be identified as a mountain with that name. Karahashi has discussed this myth explicitly in comparison with that of Inanna and Ebih, finding several points in common, especially in the terminology used. (8)⁠

Another myth showing some structural similarities is the Greek myth of the Chimera. In this case, the hero is Bellerophon, semi-divine as the son of the God Poseidon and, as a monster, the Chimera has some Chthonic elements, especially in its fiery breath that may lead to identify it with a mountain. Both Pliny the Elder in his “Natural History” and Maurus Servius Honoratus in his commentary to Virgil's Aeneid state that the Chimera has to be intended as a representation of a volcano. We also find a similar interpretation in Plutarch's “Moralia” (3.16.9) where we are told of how Bellerophon cut away a section of a mountain called “Chimera” which was producing a nasty reflection on the plain; which, in turn, dried up the crops. In an earlier work (9)⁠, the author of the present paper proposed that the source of the myth of the Chimera is to be found in ancient East Asian mythology. It is not impossible that one source could be the story of Inanna and Ebih.

Apart from these stories, mountainous monsters are rare in the world's lore. Some mountains were certainly important in religious terms, such as Mount Olympus for the ancient Greek and Mount Fuji in Japan, up to relatively recent times. Neither, however, were deified in the role given to Ebih in the story we are discussing here. We can find occasional stone monsters in modern fiction; for instance in The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien (1937), we can read the description of stone monsters hurling gigantic boulders against each other. Other fantasy chthonic monsters appear in environments such as role playing games. On the whole, however, we can say that a plot describable as “God fights mountain” is very rare both in ancient and in modern lore. Hence, it is nearly impossible to use it as a basis for the comparative method of interpretation of the myth of Inanna and Ebih.

At this point, we could attempt to classify the myth of Inanna and Ebih as an example of the generic theme of a shining hero fighting an ugly monster. There are plenty of ancient and modern myths based on this idea; however, such an interpretation misses some of the elements that make the slaying of Ebih so puzzling. Why is the monster a mountain? Why does it enrage Inanna so much? What are the reasons of Inanna's quarrel with the other Gods? Clearly, there is something more in this story that makes it unlike the traditional hero/monster conflict.

A different line of interpretations of the myth is reported by Delnero (2)⁠. It is based on the idea that the story is, actually, a representation of the conflict existing at the time of the author, Enheduanna, between the Akkadic and the Sumerian elements of the Mesopotamian civilization. It is known that such a conflict existed and other poems by Enheduanna may refer to it. For instance, in “nin-me-sarra” (Lady of bright virtues) Enheduanna appears to describe an insurrection that leads to her being chased away from her temple. The interpretation reported by Meador (p. 181) is that the insurgents were led by a man named Lugalanne, or Lugalanna, possibly of Sumerian ethnical origin, against the Akkadian ruler of the time, Naram-Sin, Enheduanna's nephew (3)⁠. 

There is clearly something in these interpretations and the violence that pervades Enheduanna's texts may well be a reflection of the violence that characterized her times. However, there remains the problem that “Inanna and Ebih” is so abstract in the characterization of its protagonists that, if it really describes a local conflict of Enheduanna's times, it is not clear which side should be identified with which element of the myth. Maybe this interpretation was clear to the ancient Sumerians, but that may be reasonably doubted.

Meador (3) provides a deeper interpretation of the story, seeing the poem as an early version of the Biblical myth of the Garden of Eden; with Inanna as the Sumerian equivalent of Eve/Lilith. Whereas, in the Bible, Eve is punished for her action, in the Sumerian myth Inanna takes the initiative and refuses to submit to the father-God; destroying Eden in the process. Meador also sees the story as a reflection of an ancient conflict between a female dominated pantheon, with Inanna in the role of the Mother Goddess, and an emerging male dominated pantheon, with An as a fatherly figure, ruling the other gods. This conflict is evident in several other Sumerian and Akkadian mythological stories where, for instance, Inanna is pitted against her brother Gilgamesh. This is a very interesting interpretation as it implies that “Inanna and Ebih” is related to even more ancient myths, perhaps going back to pre-literate times. This seems to be hinted in the text, when Inanna is said (in Meador's translation) to “wear the robes of the old, old Gods” (3)⁠. Attinger (5)⁠ and Pettinato (6)⁠ explicitly name these "old Gods" as “Enul and Enŝar” who may be, indeed, Gods of a more ancient age (10)⁠ (p. 53). 

However, even this way of seeing the myth does not explain the meaning of some elements; for instance, if this is the story of a conflict between a mother Goddess and a father God, what is exactly the role of the mountain Ebih?

A different way to look at this myth is the “Euhemeristic” or “rationalistic” way, consisting in explaining the myth in terms of natural phenomenaThis way of interpreting ancient myths was more popular in the past than it is today, but it never went out of fashion. However, modern scholars tend to be much more cautious in explaining (some could say, “explaining away”) the elements of complex stories into banal physical phenomena. When Servius said that the Chimera was a volcano, he may have meant that the ancient were so naïve to mistake a volcano for a lion, but that, of course, is unlikely, to say the least. Rather, the ancient were facing the same physical phenomena as we do and, for them, describing a thunderstorm in terms of actions performed by a God named Zeus was a way to make it consistent with their cultural and mental tools. We do the same in modern times when we ascribe certain events to abstract and perhaps supernatural entities whose existence can be reasonably doubted (e.g. “the free market”).

Regarding Sumerian/Akkadian myths, naturalistic explanations have been proposed by Jacobsen (11)⁠, but not specifically for the story of Inanna and Ebih. However, if we examine the story in light of a possible rationalistic interpretation, we immediately see how the destruction of the mountain hints to an ecological catastrophe caused by deforestation and overgrazing.

In the myth, the Ebih mountain is described as a luxuriant place: fruits hang in its flourishing gardens. It has magnificent trees, lions, wild bulls and deer are abundant, just as wild bulls and grass. Then, we see Inanna attacking the mountain with fire and with a rain of rocks. In another of Enheduanna's poems, translated by Meador as “Lady of Largest Heart” (3)⁠ we read some lines that may refer to Inanna's fight against Ebih:

She crushes the mountain to garbage,
scattering the trash from dawn to dark,
with mighty stones she pelts,
and the mountain,
like a clay pot
with her might
she melts the mountain
into a vat of sheepfat.

It takes little imagination to see that the poem could well be referring here to the degradation of the soil on the slopes of a mountain, turned into mud slipping downhill. Mountain terrains are especially sensitive to soil erosion and the problem is especially severe in hot climates subjected to episodes of heavy rain interspersed with dry period, as it is the case of the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern climate.

Mesopotamia is a flat land, but its inhabitants briskly traded wood and other forest commodities. Today, most of the mountain ranges of Northern Africa and Middle East are degraded and eroded in various degrees. But that was not the case in ancient times and it will suffice to note how the mountains of Lebanon were a source of timber for ancient Sumerians (as recorded in the myth of Gilgamesh and Enkidu), whereas in modern times these regions are nearly completely deforested and eroded (12)⁠. From the available data (13)⁠, it appears clear that the mountains of the Zagros region, which are probably where the “Inanna and Ebih” refers to, were still largely forested in Sumerian times, but it is also clear that they were already being deforested; a slow process that has led to the present condition of serious environmental degradation (14)⁠.

The ancient knew about the problem of soil degradation. McNeill and Viniwarter (15) summarized several elements of the question, reporting that already in 2000 BCE, that is at a time not far from that of Enheduanna, farmers in the Middle East had already developed ways to fight soil erosion. They also report how Roman writers, such as Varro, had a keen interest in soil quality and on the need of avoiding erosion. It is also well known how Plato, in his "Critias" (4th century BCE) describes the erosion and the degradation of the mountains of Greece. An interesting pre-industrial document on this issue was written by Matteo Biffi Tolomei around the end of the 18th Century (16)⁠. It tells of the attempt to maintain the forest cover of the Appennini mountains in Tuscany, Italy, and of how the attempt failed after much debate among those who defined themselves the “modern” party (favoring the cutting of the trees) and the “old” party (favoring, instead, to keep the forest cover). This conflict of a few centuries ago is not framed in religious terms, but, in it, we may perhaps see a reflection of the much older conflict of Sumerian time that may be reflected in the story of Inanna and Ebih.

3. Conclusion: religion as a way to interpret the world

Religion in Sumerian times was certainly something very different than the way we intend it nowadays. However, certain elements of the concept of religion are common to all its forms (see e.g. Thorkild Jacobsen (11)⁠ for an exhaustive account of the characteristics and of the historical development of the Sumerian religious view of the world). A religious view of the world may see beyond the simple, short term advantage of an action (cutting trees), to note the long terms disadvantages (soil erosion). Today, we may see this kind of approach in the recent papal encyclical on climate change (17)⁠ and the Islamic declaration on global climate change (18)⁠. That may have been the point also of the history of Inanna “punishing” the mountain named Ebih, something that may be interpreted as destroying the humans who weren't been careful enough to maintain and sustain its ecosystem.


1. Kramer SN. Sumerian Aythology: A Study of the Spiritual and Literary Achieve-ment in the 3rd Millennium B.C. Memoirs of. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society; 1944.
2. Delnero P. Inana and Ebih and the Scribal Tradition. A Common Cultural Heritage:Studies on Mesopotamia and the Biblical World in Honor of Barry L Eichler [Internet]. CDL Press; 2011 [cited 2015 Aug 8]. Available from: https://www.academia.edu/1908001/Inana_and_Ebih_and_the_Scribal_Tradition
3. Meador B. Inanna, Lady of Largest Heart: Poems of the Sumerian High Priestess Enheduanna [Internet]. Austin (Tx): University of Austin Press; 2000 [cited 2015 Aug 3]. Available from: https://books.google.it/books?hl=en&lr=&id=B45PvLlj3ogC&oi=fnd&pg=PR3&dq=inanna+and+ebih&ots=PCrv4Pptzm&sig=2nUOlV-Ef5ewoPe-dNMa-pzfv_A
4. Black JA, Cunningham G, Fluckiger-Hawker E, Robson E, Zólyomi G. Inana and Ebih: translation [Internet]. The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature. [cited 2015 Aug 3]. Available from: http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/section1/tr132.htm
5. Attinger P. Inana and Ebih. Zeitschrift für Assyriologie und Vor Archäologie [Internet]. 1998;88:164–95. Available from: http://www.degruyter.com/dg/viewarticle/j$002fzava.1998.88.issue-2$002fzava.1998.88.2.164$002fzava.1998.88.2.164.xml
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9. Bardi U. Il Libro della Chimera. Firenze, Italy: Polistampa; 2008.
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18. Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change [Internet]. [cited 2015 Aug 23]. Available from: http://islamicclimatedeclaration.org/islamic-declaration-on-global-climate-change/

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Volkswagen scandal: say goodbye to the internal combustion engine!

By now, I guess that everyone in the world has heard of how Volkswagen cheated consumers by falsifying the results of the emission tests from their diesel engines. It is a true witch hunt unleashed against Volkswagen. Maybe there are good reasons for it, but I think it is also something that should be taken with caution. A lot of it.

I have been a consultant for the automotive industry for some 20 years and I think that I know the way they operate. And I can tell you that they are not equipped for "cheating", intended as willingly ignoring or breaking the law. They just don't do that, they understand very well that the result could be something like what's happening to Volkswagen nowadays; something that could lead to their end as a car manufacturer. On the contrary, carmakers tend to be extremely legalistic and apply to the letter the current laws and regulations.

This said, it is also clear that car makers are there to make a profit and their managers are supposed to "get results". So, if the laws and the regulations are not clear, or do not explicitly say that something is forbidden; then, if that something is supposed to provide some advantage to the company, it may be done.

This is, I think, what happened in this case. It is very well known that the results of the pollution tests made in the lab are always much better than those made on the road. And it is very well known that the performances of cars as measured in standardized tests are always much better than those of real cars. It is all very well known and documented: look for instance here and here. (h/t G.Meneghello).

So, if cheating is so diffuse, why was Volkswagen singled out in this scandal? Maybe they were doing something especially bad, but I would be surprised if they were to turn out to be the only ones using the trick they have been accused to use for hiding nitrogen oxide emissions. Besides, I am sure that, before doing what they did, they checked with their legal department and got some kind of green light: possibly reasoning that if it was not explicitly forbidden it was not illegal. Anyway, I leave to conspiracy theorists the obvious implications that could be derived from this story.

Rather, I would point out something that I learned in my work with the automotive industry. It is that the story of pollution abatement in internal combustion engines is a good example of the diminishing returns of technology. And not just that, it also illustrates very well how good intentions can easily conflict with reality and actually backfire.

It is a long and fascinating story that, here, I can just sketch it in its main lines (*). Anyway, the concept of "pollution" became popular in the 1970s and it quickly became clear that a major culprit were the emissions from car engines. That led to a major debate: some thought that it was necessary to get rid of internal combustion engines and replace them with electric motors, others that it was possible to reduce pollution from engines to acceptable levels. The latter position won (do you remember the "who killed the electric car" movie?)  and that led to a long series of legislative actions, especially in Europe, aimed at the development of less polluting and more efficient engines. On the whole, the results appear to be good (see, e.g. here).

However, what the Volkswagen scandal tells us is that, likely, most of the recent improvements may have been obtained, if not by cheating, at least by a creative interpretation of the rules. An especially telling point, here, has to do with the specific point that led to incriminate Volkswagen: the abatement of nitrous oxides. The problem is especially nasty because it arises from conflicting needs. One is of having low pollution, the other high mileage. To have high mileage, you need to increase the efficiency of the engine, and this can be done using diesel engine instead of the conventional gasoline engines. Diesel engines work at higher temperatures and pressures, and that makes them more efficient. But that makes them also produce more nitrous oxides. It has to do with the thermodynamics of combustion and you should know that if you try to fight thermodynamics, thermodynamics always wins. The problem is basically unsolvable, at least at costs compatible with the price of a normal car. And when you face an unsolvable problem, often the reaction may be to cheat. This is, evidently, what happened with the automotive industry and the results have been exposed by the Volkswagen scandal.

But, if it is true that we cannot win against thermodynamics, it is also true that we don't need to fight against it. A battle against the combustion engine was lost in the 1970s, but the war can still be won: the electric car is making a spectacular return. Electric motors do not produce any gaseous pollution, they are much more efficient than internal combustion engines, and, in addition, they are compatible with renewable energy. What can we ask more? This time, let's try to avoid the mistakes we made in the past.

 (*) this is something that I hope to be able to describe in detail in a new book that I am working at. 


Monday, September 21, 2015

What happened to peak oil? The cycle of a meme and of its antimemes

The result of a Google Trends search for the term "Peak Oil". The fading out of the concept may be due not so much to reasons related to the validity (or non validity) of the concept but, rather, to a memetic phenomenon equivalent to the development of an immune response in the human body. Not all memes have sufficient viral power to entrench themselves in the human mindspace.

Likely, you haven't heard much, recently, about peak oil. If you did, it was only to hear that it was "wrong". Indeed, as you see in the figure above, peak oil had a peak of interest around 2006, a second one around 2008, then it gradually declined.

Why this decline? You might say that it was because the recent drop in oil prices. Maybe, but note, from the figure, that the interest in peak oil started a steady decline just when oil prices went up to reach a plateau at levels over 100 $/barrel. Then, you might say that the decline is because peak oil didn't appear when it was predicted. Maybe, but the record of the "peakist" approach is not bad at all when compared with of mainstream oil pundits. Had any of them anticipated such things as the burst of high oil prices that started in 2005? Did any of them foresee that the oil industry would have had to switch to expensive and difficult resources, that they had always shunned before, in order to keep production from falling?

So, why is peak oil fading away from our consciousness? The problem seems to be that, as a meme (a knowledge unit replicating in virtual space), peak oil just doesn't seem to have a large viral power. Peak oil is not the only case of a loss of interest in some concepts (memes) for no obvious reason. Take a look to the Google trends for "Global Warming." ("climate change" does a little better, but not so much)

So, the planet is going to hell, but people just don't care. Not even a blip of interest, for instance, in 2012, when the Arctic ice sheet collapsed to levels never seen before. The last peak of interest in global warming was created only by the climategate story, and then it was flatland all over.

There are many other examples of peaking and successive decline of various concepts. Take a look, for instance, to "communism"

Of course, the fact that a concept shows a peak of interest doesn't mean that it has to fade away forever. You could identify a peak of interest also in many commonplace concepts such as "electricity." But, here, the interest never faded away and, indeed, electricity remains a normal element of our lives.

Perhaps we could use the concept of "full width at half maximum" (FWHM) as an approximate measurement of the lifetime of these concepts. In this way, we can put together a list of memes and their lifetimes, measured by Google's trends or Google ngrams. This is, obviously, a very approximate set of numbers, they are there just to give an idea of the spread in the lifetime of some memes.

Meme                                approx FWHM, years

Nibiru                                0.3
Andrea Rossi's E-Cat        1
Peak Oil                             5
Global Warming                5
Cold Fusion                       17
Limits to Growth               30
Nuclear Energy                  35
Communism                      50
Electricity                          > 100

The FWHM (time duration) associated with these concepts can be seen as an indication of the capability of a meme to establish itself in virtual space. This depends, first of all, on the capability of the meme to replicate itself rapidly: the meme must be interesting, understandable, and, often, have some relation with reality. Then, if a meme is the equivalent of a gene (or a virus) in biology, then, if there are antigens, there must be antimemes (or, perhaps, "antimems"). This immune response may take the form of "memetic antibodies" which directly fight the invading meme. This is a fight that we see everyday: we call it "debate". As a result, the meme may go viral and infect the infospace of the Internet, or be rejected. In the second case, it may remain in a quiescent state, infecting only marginal areas.

This behavior can be seen in many examples. For instance, the meme of Andrea Rossi's nuclear device, the "E-Cat," flared up rapidly and then practically disappeared, just as rapidly. In this case, there was no need for a strong intervention of the immune system. The meme itself was weak, since the E-Cat simply couldn't deliver the cheap energy that it had promised to deliver. The same can be said of a meme such as the planet Nibiru hitting the Earth. It rapidly disappeared after that it was clear that no such thing was going to happen.

How about the "peak oil" meme? Unlike Nibiru or the E-Cat, peak oil is a serious concept, backed up by a lot of research. However, it didn't really get viral enough to become a mainstream meme. The main problem, here, may have been the choice of the term: "peak oil" conjures a specific moment in time when something exceptional should happen, even though it is not clear what. When people saw that nothing special was happening, they lost interest. The decline of the peak oil meme was helped by the anti-memetic system that created effective antimemes such as "they have been predicting peak oil already for 30 years ago."

About "global warming", we have problems, too: first of all, we propose a concept that people can't perceive in their everyday experience. Then, the immune system has generated strong antimemes that turned out to be extremely effective; such as "there has been no warming during the past 19 years". Indeed, "climate change" has fared much better than "global warming" as a meme. But even climate change is hard to perceive for the public, and it fails to evoke such things as ocean acidification, sea level rise, food supply disruption, and many others.

In the end,  it is all part of the game: the memetic immune system does its job of filtering away memes that are silly, useless, and dangerous. However, like its biological counterpart, sometimes it attacks the wrong targets, a true "autoimmune" genetic reaction. There are memes we badly need to diffuse in the world's infospace: that oil depletion is real and dangerous if we don't do something about it; that climate change is real and it is dangerous, if we don't do something to stop it.

Biological autoimmune diseases are common and dangerous; and the therapy is always difficult. In the memetic case, we are in also in a difficult situation. Maybe there are ways to avoid the slaughter of good memes; but it is not an easy task. In any case, I think that at least one thing is clear from this discussion: memes that have already generated a strong immune response have little or no chance to diffuse. "Peak oil" is basically a dead meme.

We need new memes that describe the same concepts. For instance, we should mention "depletion" rather than "peaking" as a way to describe the gradual loss of high yield mineral resources. Maybe ASPO (the association for the study of peak oil) should be renamed as something like ASOD (association for the study of oil depletion) (*)Maybe we could develop something more creative, such as "oil senility," why not? Then, it has been proposed to replace the term "climate change" with "climate disruption," and that could be a good idea. These are just examples; surely we can think of other possibilities. Just remember one thing: a good virus is a virus that mutates a lot!

(*) But we should be very careful with acronyms. I just discovered that, really, ASOD would not be a good name for an association studying oil depletion!


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)