Tuesday, January 23, 2018

How long will the rich be willing to share the roads with the poor?

In Ray Bradbury novel "Fahrenheit 451" we are told of a world with no private cars (above, a still from the 1966 movie by Fran├žois Truffaut). Bradbury had correctly understood that dictatorships not only tend to burn books but also don't like their citizens to own private cars. In this post, I argue that the growing social inequality in the West may soon lead to the demise of the private car for the middle class. This evolution may be helped by such concepts as TAAS (transportation as a service). 

In his "The Betrothed", (1827) Alessandro Manzoni tells us of how a dispute on the right of the way led to a bloody duel between two noblemen. The story takes place during the 17th century and it seems that, at that time, whether one should cede the way to another was a question of rank.

Of course, in our (perhaps) enlightened times, this attitude looks absurd. When you see a stop sign at a crossroad, you are supposed to respect it, independently of whether you drive a rusty Toyota Corolla or a shiny Porsche Cayenne. But, if you think about that, the rich must be very unhappy about having to share the road with all those poor people with their clunkers. They might well be thinking of ways to have the street all for themselves, avoid traffic jams, and regain the mobility that cars provided when there weren't so many of them.

Is it possible? Well, think of this: the diffusion of private cars in the Western World, and in particular in the US, took place during a period when inequality was declining and reaching values which were possibly the lowest in modern history. But things have changed a lot since then. Here are some data for the Gini Index in the US (from the US Census Bureau)

The Gini index is a measure of the income distribution: it is between a minimum of 0 and a maximum of 1, but in practice, it is between 0.2 and 0.7. The larger the Gini index is, the higher is inequality. And you see how, during the past decades, inequality in the US has been increasing. Similar trends can be seen in other Western countries. 

So, the concept of "public roads" for everyone was developed in a historical period when the Gini index in the US was around 0.35. Today it is around 0.45. That's a very significant variation which is surely destined to have important social consequences. I was telling you before that in Italy during the 17th century, the right of way was determined by one's social status rather than by "Stop" signs at crossroads. So, what was the Gini index, then? We don't have values for Italy but, according to Ourworldindata, the Gini index in England was of the order of 0.5 in the 18th century, close to the current value of 0.45 for the US. Just like the nobles of that time, our modern nobles may well think that there is no reason for them to share the road with the commoners. So, what may happen?

For one thing, the concept of "public road" is being eroded in various ways. In the US it is done under the name of "gated communities" whereas in Europe you see entire sections of cities declared off-limits to cars by local governments, unless you are a resident. Another way to expel the poor from the street is to make cars or fuel very expensive, that can be done by means of taxes and that's traditionally done in Europe. 

Increased costs may have already reduced traffic in some regions of the world. In Italy, the consumption of gasoline is down to nearly half of what it was ten years ago. But in the US, the situation is far less dramatic. Other regions of the world show intermediate trends. On the whole, private cars are not growing in numbers, but they are not disappearing, either. There are good reasons for this.

The problem is clear: there is no way that you can serve this kind of urban environment at a reasonable cost with conventional public transportation, buses or trains. And, of course, the people living there have no place where they can go on foot. So, they will try everything they can to stick to their cars. It is the only way they have to move around. 

A further, and somewhat perverse, characteristic of private cars is the fact that they have a considerable capital cost. So, once you made the effort of buying one, driving an extra mile (the "marginal mile") is not so expensive. Actually, the more miles you drive, the less each mile will cost and this is an incentive to drive more. 

So, it looks like a no-win situation for the rich, unless they really want to create a zombie apocalypse in order to expel the poor from the roads. But there is another possibility: it is called "Transportation as a service" (TAAS). This is basically a hi-tech rental service. The idea is that you don't own a car anymore, but you rent it as you need. Theoretically, TAAS should be less expensive than the current scheme because you share the same car with other people. And middle-class suburbanites should be happy to use TAAS. 

But, as it often happens, technological changes bring about unexpected social changes. With TAAS, you don't have anymore the "marginal mile" effect, so that in order to save money you have only one strategy: cut the number of miles traveled. With the current trends of rising inequality and impoverishment, suburbanites will be forced to cut all the non-strictly needed trips. 

Not just that: the concept of TAAS allows differential tariffs leading to the possibility of a control of the traffic flow unthinkable today. Want to use TAAS during the rush hour? You are welcome, but you must pay more. Want to drive in a posh shopping area? Again, you are welcome, but you have to pay for the privilege. Want to go to the beach this Sunday? You know what you have to do. But, in exchange, we can offer you a special TAAS deal if you go shopping at the supermarket tonight at 3:00 am. 

In the end, TAAS may well sweep the poor out of the public roads even faster than the current trends are doing. Will we arrive at a point when priority at crossroads will be determined by the social status of drivers, as it was in the 17th century? We cannot say, but TAAS vehicles could be programmed to behave exactly in this way. All traffic lights may be green for those who can pay.

Of course, this is not a fault of the TAAS scheme in itself. Transportation as a service is a good idea that should bring us a more efficient transportation, less noise, and less pollution. The problem it is the result of the increasing inequality in society which, in turn, is related to the gradual disappearance of our energy slaves, fossil fuels. If we don't find a way to replace fossil fuels with something equivalent to power our society, we will return to the kind of world that Manzoni described to us. A world where you could be killed because someone thought he was nobler than you and wanted the right of way.  

Below: an illustration of Manzoni's novel "The Betrothed." It is the scene when two aristocrats quarrel over a question of priority and the result is a duel in which one of the two is killed. 

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Trump and Berlusconi: harbingers of the coming Seneca Cliff

Donald Trump and Silvio Berlusconi have many similarities as country leaders. I argue here that they are the symptom of a giant political transition which is reversing the trends that started more than two centuries ago with the French revolution.  Human rights have a cost and this cost has been paid, so far, by fossil fuels (our "energy slaves"). Now that our dark slaves are leaving us, who will pay? Not a small problem and the result seems to be an ongoing "Seneca Transition" catapulting us to a new and different world. 

After one year of Trump presidency, America looks more and more the same as Italy was when Berlusconi ruled it. I am not going to list the similarities between Berlusconi and Trump: it has already been done and everyone knows about the sex scandals, the outrageous behavior, the offensive way of speaking, all that.

For Silvio Berlusconi, this kind of behavior led him to be prime minister for a total of 9 years, over more than 20 years in which he strongly influenced Italian politics. Today, it looks perfectly possible that, at 81, he may become prime minister again with the coming national elections, in March, replacing the fading star of his heir, Matteo Renzi (aka "Berlusconi 2.0").

Donald Trump uses the same methods developed by Berlusconi and he seems to be attaining a remarkable political staying power. Fighting him, the American Left is making the same mistakes that the Italian left made with Berlusconi: demonizing him while aping his political choices. Actually, the American Left is doing even worse: at least the Italian Left never accused voters to be so dumb that they could be easily swayed by the propaganda tricks of a foreign power. A surefire way to win elections: first you tell voters they are morons, nay, traitors, then you ask for their vote.

But there is a method to this madness. The Left is making the mistakes it makes because it operates on the basis of an obsolete political paradigm. Most of the political struggle up to recent times has been based on a principle discovered first by Harold Hotelling in the 1920s (it is called the Hotelling-Downs model): he who controls the center, wins (it works also in economics and with chess).

There is a problem with this model: it works only if there is a political center. As I described in a previous post, that's not true anymore: today there are two centers and the way to win elections is to occupy one of the two, as Donald Trump perfectly understood. Hillary Clinton didn't and her defeat was unavoidable.

Once you take notice of this double-peaked distribution, it is clear why the demonizing of the man at the top doesn't work: the more you demonize him from the left, the more he is seen a hero from the right. This is also something that Donald Trump perfectly understands, but not the Dems, evidently.

And now, what's going to happen? In a previous post, I argued that political polarization is a necessary reaction of society to scarcity. Here I may add that Berlusconi and Trump are symptoms of a giant political phase transition just starting.

The origins of what we are seeing are in the 18th century when fossil fuels - coal at that time - generated a rapid economic expansion. The political response to the newly gained prosperity was the French Revolution, giving birth to the political movement that we call "the Left." The French Revolution introduced the concept of human rights and, traditionally, the Left has emphasized rights while the Right has emphasized duties.

Having rights is nicer than having duties, but the problem is that human rights have a cost and that this cost was paid, so far, by fossil fuels. Now that fossil fuels are on their way out, who's going to pay?

On this point, the Left has nothing to propose but empty promises and people are starting to understand that. That's the reason for the rise of the political Right everywhere in the world. It is a political phase transition that's wrenching us away from the familiar fossil-powered world and catapulting us to a different world.

Phase transitions are normally abrupt and often violent (part of the concept of the "Seneca Effect").  Surely, the French revolution was violent and abrupt and it would be a miracle if all the problems we'll face in the future will be leaders like Berlusconi and Trump and their heirs. They are verbally aggressive but, so far, not so much in physical terms. They are part of the transition, but they are not causing it and the transition will not end with them.

Where the transition will take us, it is impossible to say. What we can say is that a person who has only rights but no duties is a monster while a person who has only duties and no rights is a slave. Neither condition is appealing and, eventually, we'll find a compromise and settle for something in between. But it will take time.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

How to convince the public of the danger of anthropogenic global warming

Last year, the vagaries of life led me to chair a commission charged with examining the candidates for the admission to the Italian Chemists Association. It was a rather formal exam that was supposed to provide the successful applicants with the legal status necessary, for instance, for certifying chemical analyses. Overall, the applicants did poorly, but one of them, a young lady, did much better than the others. So much that I thought I could encourage her to do even better. So, let me tell you about a question I asked her during the examination.

Me. Dear candidate, I would like to conclude this exam with a question that may be a little outside your area of expertise, but which I think will give you a chance to show your understanding of some basic concepts of chemistry. The question is: can you propose an experimental test that would prove that human-generated greenhouse gases are warming the Earth?


Me. It is not such a difficult question. I am only asking you to apply to the problem what you know of chemistry and of spectroscopy.


Me. Let me help you. Maybe you can start by telling me something about the thermal effects occurring when you expose an infrared active gas to infrared radiation.


Me. I am sure that you heard about global warming. Can you tell me what is the mechanism of the so-called "greenhouse effect"?


Me. Well, I guess that it is time for the commission to retire to examine your application. You did well with the other questions, so don't worry.


Now some comments:

- The question of the "proof" that humans are causing the observed warming is not an easy one to answer and indeed is a favorite question by anti-science trolls. For instance, this recent post on "Carbon brief" claims to bring this proof but if you examine it carefully, you'll note that it only proves the existence of a correlation between the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere and the temperature. Which is a strong indication in favor of the current interpretation of global warming but, strictly speaking, not a proof. Correlation, as it is well known, doesn't mean causation. Conversely, you can find a good discussion on the empirical evidence of anthropogenic global warming based on spectroscopic measurements in this post on skeptical science. This is what I hoped the candidate would have been able to devise by herself.

 -  The students that come out of our classes are persons who know so much about so little that, if the trend continues, soon they'll know everything about nothing. The young lady I had been telling you about went through five years of training in chemistry at a high-level university (at least in terms of Italian standards). Yet, she had learned strictly nothing about climate change, an issue that involves the physical survival of humankind (and of that young lady as well). The decline in the preparation of students is a qualitative consideration of mine, but it is confirmed by almost everyone I know who is involved with what we call "higher education," and not just in Italy. How it has happened that universities transformed themselves from enlightening institutes into brain-dumbing machines is beyond me to understand. But I think it is, mostly, because our society doesn't reward people for being smart (unless it is Putin's fault - as always).

-  Climate science is difficult. The basic principles of climate science are not so difficult, but their implementation in the real world is devilishly complicated. Try to answer the question of why the stratosphere cools when the troposphere warms and you'll see what I mean. Devilish, indeed. So, when I read someone proposing to educate the public in order that they may understand climate science, well, it is a laudable idea, but so difficult to be impossible. There are some valiant efforts, such as the "climate kids" site created by NASA, but, really, most of the well-intentioned people who are convinced that anthropogenic global warming is real, think so because they trust the scientists. It is mostly a question of trust, not of data.

- Our strategic plan seems to have been, so far

1. We educate the public in science and in Climate Science in particular.
2. A majority of people understand that Anthropogenic Climate Change is real and dangerous.
3. They elect wise and enlightened leaders.
4. The world leaders act swiftly and effectively against Climate Change.
5. The problem is solved.

Hmmmmmm . . . .

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Epistemology of Earthsea: Is the Universe a Machine?

Above, two characters of the Earthsea world: Ged and Vetch (Ged is the one with the scars on his face). Behind Ged, the Shadow. A wonderful image by Paul Duffield

I propose here a modified version of a post that I published last year on "Chimeras".  I argue here that all our troubles are epistemological in nature: we don't know how to find the truth. In the Earthsea series, Ursula Le Guin gave us some hints - although no solution - about this dilemma. 

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. (Arthur C. Clarke)

Imagine that you have never been exposed to the thousands of years of accumulation of what we call "culture". Imagine that you are looking at the world with fresh eyes; as if seeing it for the first time. You see all sort of things: people, animals, rivers, rocks, building, mountains, and much more. And you try to make some sense of all that. So, you notice that some things move, grow, shrink, and change shape. There seems to be some hierarchy in this kind of entities; some move fast and some slow, some don't move at all, but that doesn't mean they never do (think of a volcano). You could think that all these things have a soul; that, in a way they are like you, there is a certain kinship in all things.

If things have a soul, there follows that you can speak to them. To people, you can talk and they talk back to you. Animals won't talk back to you but they may listen. You can talk to plants, streams, and rocks; who knows? They might be listening. You may well try to convince the sky to produce some rain when you need it. Praying, dancing, offering sacrifices. That's the origin of what we call "religion", that's a very, very old way of understanding the universe. The universe has a soul. It is a soul. It is a definition of God (or of the Gods).

But there is also another way of seeing the universe: it is to assume that it is a sort of a machine. A machine is not something you talk to; it is something you act upon. And if you act in the right way, it will react predictably and as expected. So, you may pray to get the benevolence of the soul of a great forest tree, but you may also chop it down with an axe. Predictably, the tree will fall after a sufficient number of chops. You can do the same with an enemy: if you hit his head with a battle axe, the results will be predictable. If you know the functioning of the machine, then you can make it behave as you want to. This is the origin of magic; that some also call "craft". Finding the rules that things follow gives you power on them. It is the origin of modern science.

Religion may be older than magic, but they seem to have been going in parallel in human history. Take one of the oldest Western pieces of literature, the Iliad, and you'll find Gods appearing on almost every page, but no wizard ever crosses them. Instead, in some of the earliest literature we have, the Sumerians left us plenty of healing recipes where they freely mix invocation to Gods with herbs and other substances that surely had some healing powers of their own.

In time, religion and magic diverged more and more to the point that most modern religions despise magic as evil (and some religions despise science for the same reason). Priests may well perform rituals to obtain something for the benefit of the faithful, but they are always careful to state that success or failure is never guaranteed. If you pray God you may ask to be cured of your ailment. If you are cured, then you are supposed to thank God for His benevolence. But if you get worse, then you are not supposed to blame God for that. The divine will is unfathomable and it may be argued that it is your fault because of some sin you committed that made you unworthy of God's benevolence.

Over history, magic took different paths. One was that of the Europan alchemists. They tended to renounce to all the dark incantations of old times and they became true empiricists, originators of what we call the "scientific method". Their theoretical basis was faulty and they lost a lot of time in tasks that today we recognize as impossible. But they were always in search of things that worked. Modern science is wary of recognizing their role, but the basic idea is the same: the world is a machine: you don't need Gods to operate on it. And, in a certain way, the daughter of alchemy, science, triumphed. In most of the Western World, people trust a doctor more than a priest; even though they may also pray God to give them a hand, just in case.

There is a problem with the universal machine, though. Magic, just as science, has no moral compass: the end result of magic doesn't depend on whether it is done for a good or a bad purpose. Science-based medicine will cure an evil person just as well as a good one, while the best modern technologies have created weapons that will kill anyone. And this is a big problem especially when science fails - and it does. While you can't sue priests (or God) for malpractice, you can and you do sue doctors. And modern science has been unable to maintain its promises and it can be seen as an evil form of black magic for having lost control on those that it did manage to deliver; think of nuclear energy while, at the same time, unable to reverse the damage it created in the form of climate change, pollution, and more disasters.

Now, let's go to Le Guin's series, Earthsea, and see what we can learn from a parallel world to ours. Earthsea is a society nearly fully based on magic, just as our modern world is nearly fully based on science. Earthsea is a machine all based on the "old speech" that plays the same role as mathematical models in our world. This old speech, in other words, is something like an instruction manual for the world machine. Then, the novel describes idealized scientists - portraited as wizards. They are benevolent, crafty, intelligent, and always worried about not doing damage to the equilibrium of things. One wishes our scientists were like that!

That allows Le Guin to dissect the dilemmas of science in a variety of narrative plots. The key of the whole series of Earthsea is that even wise mages have problems. One is that they can do very little; we see them mending broken vases, curing goats' infected udders, raising - sometimes - the 'magewind' to push boats onward, and curing human ailments only when they are not too serious. So, wizards are at times considered useless and rejected. One of the stories of the series deals with an age in which wizardry had fell from grace and was widely despised. Just like what may soon happen to science in our world.

True, the protagonist of most of the stories, Ged, also fights dragons, but dragons are not the real problem with magery in Earthsea. The problem is the same we have with science in our world: the lack of a moral compass. So, in the first story of the series, Ged's enemy is not a dragon but himself. And, later on, it will be another mage, turned evil.

Over and over, the mages of Earthsea are at loss on how to deal with the Otherworld; the realm of the dead. A realm that's alien to magic and to science, but that's the natural domain of religion. So, Earthsea is not a Godless world; it can't be. We are told that it was created by an entity called "Segoy" who may be is a dragon, or maybe a God. And it is hinted that there is something more; much more than that and at least one region of Earthsea, the Kargad Lands in the North, are described as dominated by a religious vision of the world. Initially, the Kargish are just pirates and barbarians, but then they take up power and importance in the stories, hinting that their view may be on a par - perhaps superior - to their crafty Southern Neighbors. It is like that: Earthsea is a real world, it is alive.

Maybe we should just read about Earthsea for the pure joy of doing that. Or, maybe, we can read it in order to learn something about the contradictions and the problems of our world. What's all our science for? Can it solve problems or does it just create more of them? Can we attain the "balance" that the wizards of Earthsea keep striving for? How can we keep our nuclear dragons for burning all of us to cinders? Can we survive the great transformation that we call "climate change" that was created by our scientists but that our scientists are unable to control, now? What should we do with our dull and arrogant wizards who think they know more than anyone else?

Will we ever know if the universe is a soul or a machine? Maybe not. Like Ged in his little ship, the Lookfar, "we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past" (*). It is our destiny to follow the great current that's taking us across the ocean of time to an unknown destination. Or maybe toward Earthsea.

(*) For those readers who live in Earthsea and may not have heard of "The Great Gatsby" by Scott Fitzgerald, that's where the quote comes from.

About Earthsea, see also this post of mine on Chimeras.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

The Seneca Effect: a Book Review by Jantje Hannover

This is a review of the German edition of "The Seneca Effect" written by Jantie Hannover for the site of the radio station "Deutschelandfunk." Very well done by someone who really read the book. Here I report a translation made mainly using "Google Translate," and also some intervention on my part. Not a very good English, but at least understandable (U.B.)

Collapsing SystemsWhat empires and avalanches have in common

The Italian chemistry professor Ugo Bardi has written a book about the Seneca effect. He refers to the abrupt collapse of systems: observed in avalanches and balloons, but also in financial market bubbles and powerful empires.
By Jantje Hannover
When a balloon bursts or an avalanche takes place, it is a network structure that suddenly reorganizes. (image stock & people / Michael Nolan and Oekom Verlag)

Net, nodes, and collapses

"It would be a consolation to our weak souls and our works, if all things would slowly pass away as they arise, but as it happens, growth is slow, while the road to ruin is fast."

This is what the Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca said about 2,000 years ago. And as if Seneca had wanted to prove this sentence, in the course of his life he too had become more and more wealthy and influential, even rising up to become advisor to Emperor Nero. Until he fell out of favor and was eventually suspected of being part of a plot against the Emperor. Then, Nero ordered him to commit suicide.

The author Ugo Bardi, Professor of Chemistry in Florence, is interested in rapid crashes after a successful ascent, a development, shown as an example by numerous physical processes. He baptizes this phenomenon the "Seneca effect". In the diagrams and illustrations in Bardi's book, mostly diagrams that show the development of different events, the "Seneca curve" is by far the most frequent: "All breakdowns have certain characteristics in common: they are always collective phenomena, that is, they appear only in so-called complex systems, that is, in network structures of 'nodes' that are interconnected by links, a collapse is the rapid restructuring of a large number of such links.

The easiest way to illustrate the idea of this network structure in complex systems using the Internet. Ugo Bardi cites the example of the Facebook predecessor, Friendster. Some users had logged out, others found that they had too few contacts and also logged out. The net imploded.

About rising and falling

Even if a balloon bursts, an avalanche emerges, or the tension of the continental plates discharges in an earthquake, these are ultimately links in a network structure that suddenly reorganize itself - with possibly catastrophic consequences for humans, a real "Seneca ruin", as Ugo Bardi says. He shows that financial bubbles and the collapse of powerful empires have comparable properties. An example is the Roman Empire. According to Bardi's analysis, it had to go down mainly because the minerals gold and silver, the most important elixir of the Roman financial system, were increasingly difficult to obtain: "Depletion is a tricky concept which has little or nothing to do with the fact that a mineral actually becomes scarce or even runs out. Rather, it is a question of costs and benefits. Mining costs increase over time as miners first exploit the easily accessible and highly concentrated ores. "

At first, the Romans and their vassals did not need more than a sieve to wash the gold nuggets out of the river sand. Soon, they needed pickaxes and shovels, as well as digging mines and employing machinery and trolleys. In the end, mining devoured so much money that it was no longer worth it. And it is precisely on this point that today's humanity is heading for at high speed, says Bardi. Even if today they can resort to incomparably more sophisticated technologies, we are currently in danger because of the low oil price: "Unfortunately, at present it does not look as if the governments of the world and the public are realizing the problem of mineral scarcity and that we are moving only very slowly towards a decline in consumption. But no matter what is done or not done today, the world's current industrial system has to undergo major changes, so great that its continued existence is by no means assured."

The future of the world

The collapse of the global economy due to the scarcity of raw materials was also predicted by the Club of Rome 45 years ago with its study "The Limits of Growth". Bardi considers the scenarios computed by computer simulations to be up to date. For the parameters of resources, economic development, population growth or food supply, the scenario generated mainly Seneca curves, that is steep crashes. Today, the collapse could be imminent, but - like an earthquake - cannot be accurately predicted. The same applies to the flora and fauna of the planet Earth, also called Gaia, which flourish like the world economy in a complex network structure.

"According to the Gaia hypothesis, the earth's ecosystem has some ability to create and sustain conditions that enable life, and our earth behaves, at least in part, even as a living thing. That is, Gaia holds homeostasis (balance), so that the ecosystem is able to avoid major disasters and recover from inevitable ones. "

The author shows that the earth maintained an approximately constant temperature over the last 542 million years because more complex life forms have continued to exist all over this time. It seems that the earth has compensated for increasing intensity of the sun's irradiation, which has been increasing, by regulating the carbon content of the air. As we know, humankind is currently and consistently turning the carbon thermostat in the wrong direction.

Fossil empire at the crossroads

Ugo Bardi's report is in places quite demanding for the non-naturalist, for example when it comes to discovering in the course of world events the action of the second principle of thermodynamics or the phenomenon of phase transition. But the author packs his broad knowledge in a humorous and understandable language, incorporating historical events, anecdotes, and even science fiction novels, and manages to keep the interest of the reader over and over again.

"Our present-day empire, which we can justifiably call the 'fossil empire', is at a crossroads, because fossil fuels have well exceeded their usefulness, even if we do not want to admit it, and they are putting us in danger. Today, the threat of this problem is not yet sufficiently penetrated into the consciousness of our imperial rulers. "

And because that is so, Ugo Bardi has devoted some chapters to coping with the collapse. However, he considers these possibilities quite vague and relativizes them, given the egoism of the people and their tendency to refuse to give back what they once had. After all, the collapse also brings opportunities, because only in this way could something new arise. In any case, Bardi's attempt to make the imminent danger to the inhabitants of planet earth a little more concrete by means of processes in complex systems remains absolutely worth reading.

Ugo Bardi: "The Seneca Effect Why Systems Collapse and How We Can Handle It",
translated by Gabriele Gockel and Sonja Schumacher, Oekom Verlag, 312 pages, 25 euros.

Monday, January 8, 2018

The Romans and Us. Why State Violence is on the Rise

The Spanish police injured hundreds of people, including women and the elderly, during the referendum for the independence of Catalunya, in 2017 (image source). It was not the worst that states can do - and have have been doing - to their citizens, but it is an indication that state violence is on the rise. Perhaps we can find reasons for this trend if we look back at history, all the way to ancient Rome. The Romans were extremely cruel and violent, perhaps an effect of their reliance on slaves. In our case, we have replaced human slaves with fossil slaves (fossil fuels) but, as they are abandoning us, we risk to return to the violence of ancient times.

The more you study ancient Roman history, the more you realize how similar to us the Romans were. The economy, money, commerce, travel, bureaucracy, laws - so many things in our world find a parallel in the Roman world, even though often in a much less sophisticated form. So, if you were to use a time machine to be transported to ancient Rome, you would find yourself in a familiar world in almost all respects. Except for one thing: you would be startled by the violence you would encounter. Real, harsh, brutal violence; blood and death right in front of you, in the streets, in the arenas, in theaters. It was not the random kind of violence we call "crime," it was violence codified, sanctioned, and enacted by the state.

When we think of violence in Roman times, we normally think of gladiator games. Those were surely bloody and violent, but just part of the story of how the Roman state managed violence. The Roman courts meted capital punishment with an ease which, for us, is bewildering. Poor people, slaves, and non-Roman citizens were especially likely to be declared "noxii" (plural of noxius) and condemned to death.

In those times, there was no such thing as a "humane" way of killing the noxii. On the contrary, their suffering was supposed to be an example - the more they suffered, the better. They were tortured, beaten, flogged, crucified, chocked, dismembered, burned, and more. It seems that they could even be killed also for theater plays: when the plot involved the death of a character, the actor playing the role could be replaced with a noxius who would be killed for real for the pleasure of the audience. (Tertullian reports this, although it is not clear how common it was).

As another example, the Roman law said that when a slave killed a master, all the slaves of that household were to be executed, even those not involved in the murder. Tacitus, (Ann. 14.42.2) reports that the law was put into practice when the slaves of a rich patrician - hundreds, at least - were executed after that their master had been killed by one of them over, apparently, a love rivalry. That was justified because it was to be seen as an example.

How is it that a supposedly advanced civilization as the Roman one could behave in this way? One word: slavery.

That needs to be explained. First of all, all societies are based on some kind of social control. If humans were ants, cooperation would be coded in their genes. But, in humans, personal interest may go against the common good. To avoid that, there is a need for negative or positive enforcement: what we commonly call the carrot or the stick.

Positive enforcement may be food, sex, shelter, and other forms of gratification. Negative reinforcements can be the denial of all that, but also physical punishment: flogging, beating, torturing, etc.

In our society, we tend to believe that positive reinforcements are better than negative ones. For instance, we agree that our accountants, lawyers, teachers, doctors, and the like don't do their job because they are flogged or beaten if they don't. They do their best because they look for money, the primary form of positive enticement in our world.

Our society is possibly the most monetarized in history in the sense that we tend to believe that money can push people to do more or less everything. You probably know the joke about how economists hunt elephants: they don't, but they believe that elephants will hunt themselves if they are paid enough.

But how about the ancient Romans? In many cases, they used money just like we do. For instance, the Roman soldiers fought because they were paid: the very word "soldier" comes from a late Roman coin. Probably, the Romans knew perfectly well that negative reinforcements - beating, flogging, etc. - were not the best way to entice people to do their best. But they had a big problem with their slaves.

Slaves were the backbone of the Roman society, but how could they be motivated to work? By paying them money? Hardly. The majority of slaves were engaged in menial tasks, sometimes they were expendable manpower for mines and other dangerous tasks. Giving money to them would have had no sense: how could they spend it? The Roman economy couldn't produce the variety of toys and trinkets that we use to mark people's social status - a game we know as "keeping up with the Joneses."

It is true that some slaves formed an upper crust of professionals - they occupied the social space that's today occupied by the middle class. These relatively well to do slaves could own money, but that didn't change the fact that they were slaves and, in most cases, they were expected to remain so for life. Freeing slaves was maybe a positive stimulus, but it was rare and often just a way for a master to get rid of an old and useless slave.

So, negative enforcements - the stick - were used to control the slaves. Harsh punishments were lavishly applied not only to slaves, but the underclass of the libertii (freed slaves), the poor, and the foreigners. The Romans were so cruel because they had to constantly remind to the underclass what was their place and that they were always just one step away from being sent ad bestias, condemned to be eaten by wild beasts in the circus.

Everything has a logic and it seems that also being cruel has a logic - although not a pleasant one. And now we can apply this logic to our society. We don't have human slaves, but we have fossil slaves in the form of fossil fuels. We deal with fossil fuels in ways similar to those the Romans used toward their slaves (as noted also by Mouhot). Just like the Romans used their human slaves to build their civilization, we used the power of fossil fuels to build ours. One of the consequences is that we didn't need (so far) the kind of wanton cruelty that the Romans used toward their slaves. Our fossil slaves never complained about being burned inside boilers and engines.

But it is also true that fossil fuels are becoming gradually more expensive as we use them, because of the depletion of the best resources. Then, we badly need to reduce their use in order to avoid the worst effects of global warming. Our fossil slaves are leaving us; it is unavoidable.

The consequences are already visible: increasing inequality, extreme poverty, societal stress, and more. We haven't returned to the kind of formal separation among classes that defines some people as "slaves" in the Roman sense of the term, but we are seeing the rise of "debt slaves." In principle, debt is something that is supposed to be repaid by hard work. But, in many cases, it is becoming apparent that no matter how hard and for how long a person will work, they'll never be able to repay their debt. So, how can debt slaves be motivated?

The answer is the same that the ancient Romans had found: using negative enforcement methods, that is punishments, even harsh ones, meted by the state in its various branches: the police, the judiciary, the army, etc. And it seems to be exactly what we are seeing.

It is difficult to find reliable statistics on the increasing trend of state violence. Possibly, the most evident set of data we have is for the incarcerations in the US, showing an increase of a factor of five of the number of inmates from 1980 to 2014. Other forms of state-sanctioned violence can be judged only in qualitative terms, but it seems clear that we are in a historical phase in which states are more and more torturing, beating, shooting, and harassing unarmed citizens. The beating of Spanish citizens by the state police in Catalunya in 2017 is just an example.

So, here we are: seeing a spiral of violence that threatens to engulf all of us. To avoid that, I think we can learn a lot from the experience of the ancient Romans. Their source of energy was human slaves and that was the reason leading them to be so horribly cruel and violent. We have been lucky enough that we didn't need human slaves (so far) and so we could create a reasonably peaceful society - at least a society that was far less cruel than that of the ancient Romans. But if we have to revert to human slaves, we'll return to a cruel and bloody world, as it has been the rule for most of human history.

If we want to avoid this sad destiny, the only hope we have is to replace the fossil slaves with renewable, solid-state slaves who won't complain about staying in the sun to provide energy for us. A solar-powered society doesn't need human slaves and it can be reasonably peaceful. We can build a society based on solar energy, but we have to do it fast -- before the dark fossil slaves leave us forever.


A good book on violence in Roman times is "Spectacles of Death"; by Donald G. Kyle (1998) a paper on economic inequality during the Roman Empire is the one by Scheidel, W., & Friesen, S. (2010). "The Size of the Economy and the Distribution of Income in the Roman Empire", Journal of Roman Studies, 99 DOI: 10.3815/007543509789745223

Friday, January 5, 2018

The Impending Curtailment of Conventional Oil and the Total Resource Curtailment

In a previous post titled "The Soft Belly of the Oil Industry", I mentioning the impending unlocking of numerous negative feedbacks affecting the oil industry. I argued that the gradual increase of production costs, the need of reducing emissions, the weakened demand created by the electrification of transport, and more were going to take the industry on a ride along the "Seneca Cliff." Here, Geoffrey Chia goes beyond that, arguing that the negative feedbacks generated by a collapsing oil industry will affect the whole economic system.  It may be pessimistic as an interpretation, but it is a perfectly possible chain of events.  

Why the impending curtailment of Conventional Oil will lead to Total Energy curtailment and Total Resource curtailment

by Geoffrey Chia, January 2018

Outside of Medicine I am an expert in nothing*. In depletion matters I defer to the resource and energy experts such as Professor Ugo Bardi and Alice Friedemann who have conducted painstaking research and performed exhaustive quantitative analyses to arrive at robust conclusions. My main use, if I have any use at all, is to transmit important concepts from the experts to the general public in a qualitative manner, sometimes using my own original visual metaphors and bad jokes, which may hopefully facilitate better understanding by the lay audience. I also tend to view these issues through a medical lens in terms of diagnosis, prognosis and management planning, my aims being to prevent or minimise human morbidity (suffering) and mortality (premature death). Unfortunately due to gross overshoot, humanity are now well past any hope of cure and we are now into the phase of palliative care of a terminally ill industrial civilisation.

I have written and talked much about the imminent catastrophic curtailment of net conventional oil and why unconventional oils are a fraudulent mirage. We will soon tumble down a steep "net oil cliff". Alice Friedemann has done a superb job explaining why curtailment of just one petroleum fraction, diesel, will lead to Total Energy curtailment. Without the services provided by diesel powered vehicles and machinery, coal and natural gas fired electricity generators will be starved of fuel, nuclear power plants will fail and even renewable energy grids will ultimately fail for lack of maintenance. Conventional Oil cliff = Total Energy cliff.

Petroleum curtailment will also lead to Total Resource curtailment. Prof Bardi has written volumes about resource depletion and the Seneca cliff. Industrial agriculture will collapse in the absence of petroleum powered machines to till and sow the land, to apply (fossil fuel derived) fertiliser and pesticides, pump irrigation water, harvest the crops and to process and distribute the products.

The extraction, production and distribution of mineral resources will also collapse with petroleum curtailment. Below (in green italics) is my take on the economic relationship between the two. The main message I wanted to confer from that snippet was that "market price" cannot be used as an index of the abundance or scarcity of a commodity. The contemporary price of a commodity is highly dependent on whether conventional oil also happens to be abundant at that time (among many other factors, including supply vs demand and market distortions). Minerals which are depleting can still be cheap if conventional oil is plentiful, as was the case in the 1990s. If however both the minerals and conventional oil are depleting, which they are now, mineral production will eventually inevitably tumble down a Seneca cliff.

If all the critical outputs which support industrial societies are scheduled to tumble down their respective Seneca cliffs, if the collapse of global industrial civilisation is imminent and inevitable, what can sapient people do to mitigate against future suffering and premature death?
Seek out trustworthy like minded folks and set up your off-grid permaculture community in a rural climate resilient location.

The Ehrlich-Simon wager:

On a slight tangent, let us briefly mention the famous bet in 1980 between the environmentalist Paul Ehrlich and economist Julian Simon regarding the future prices of five selected minerals. After ten years it was found that all the prices had fallen, hence Simon was declared "winner" and economists around the world trumpeted their triumph over the scientists. Ehrlich's error was to make the bet on the basis of price, which as we mentioned is a rubbery variable prone to all sorts of fluctuations, distortions and manipulations. 

The point Ehrlich wanted to make was that as time goes by, it becomes progressively more difficult for us to harvest, process and deliver the same amount of product (e.g. metal ingots). This is because we would have previously harvested all the "low hanging fruit", the easy pickings, ab initio. We always transition from initially easily scooping up high concentration ores to eventually scrounging the depths for low grade dregs. If Ehrlich had bet that the ENERGY costs of delivering the same amount of product would be higher after ten years (actually a fifteen or twenty year bet would have been preferable), he would have made a better wager. This is an example of how even the smartest of scientists can run into trouble when trying to extrapolate the future on the basis of that most unreliable of variables, price.

The situation is more complicated however. Just like petroleum, minerals go through a phase of rising extraction, a peak of extraction then terminal decline. Even if extraction of a particular ore is entering terminal decline, if that time period coincides with increasing energy availability (as was the case around 1990 with abundant petroleum available pre Peak Oil), then even though ore extraction and processing require more energy, the product may be cheaper due to energy being cheap at the time.

On the other hand, was Simon's victory a result of greater wisdom or intelligence with regard to how prices work? Actually, no, it was just dumb luck, as was explained in David Murphy's 2011 post in TOD: http://www.theoildrum.com/node/7343

Moral of this story? Making judgements and predictions based on price is prone to all sorts of pitfalls.

* Inside of a dog it is too dark to read – famous Marxist quote (Groucho, not Karl)

Postscript: Financial fraud perpetrated by conventional oil companies:

Here is an honest discussion (unlike most economic discourses which are dishonest) in 2015 between top US economists and ivy league professors Joseph Stiglitz (originally trained in Physics) and Robert Reich (originally trained in Law) who both served in the Clinton administration and who both decried Obama's unconditional bailout of the investment banks during the financial crisis of 2008/9. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e3aJxy9tA-w

They explain that bonus payments to US corporate executives have nothing to do with performance but have everything to do with the share price of their companies. This represents a huge perverse incentive for those executives to prop up the share prices of their companies by any means possible.

To me, this explains much of the behaviour of the conventional oil companies over the past decade or so, which have included:
  1. Exaggerated reporting of their existing reserves and hyped up fabrication of future oil "yet to be found" and oil fields "yet to be developed". http://www.doomsteaddiner.net/blog/2016/12/05/tumbling-down-the-net-hubbert-cliff/ This is easily done by paying prostitute "research institutes" such as CERA to give the oil companies the figures they want, much in the same way that the corrupt bankers paid prostitutes such as Standard and Poor's to give the subprime mortgage bundles AAA ratings.
  2. Mergers of oil companies into ever bigger amalgamations, a swathe of which have been happening in recent years
  3. Quiet buyback of their own shares to create artificial demand for their shares in the stockmarket and hence keep their share price artificially propped up. Robert Reich described this as blatant insider trading. This behaviour has been particularly exhibited by the largest dinosaur of them all, Exxon Mobil. If it was true there is still plenty of conventional oil to be found, they would be using their capital to find and develop those future oil fields instead of buying back their own shares. The reality is that over more than a decade, their massive exploratory expenditures have yielded only a tiny trickle of conventional oil. The fact is that they have now essentially given up the quest for any more conventional oil and are now engaged in monumental economic fraud to deceive the public that their terminally ill companies, now on artificial ventilatory life support, still have some breath in them.
G. Chia, January 2018
 Even Isaac Newton fell victim to stock market fraud


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). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" to be published by Springer in mid 2017