Welcome to the age of diminishing returns

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Sandeels: another Seneca cliff

Once you start looking for "Seneca Cliffs" in the exploitation of natural resources, you find them all over the scientific literature. This is my latest find of a production curve where decline is much more rapid than growth: the landings of sandeels. If you don't know what a sandeel is, here is one: 

In the report (2007), where I found the curve shown above, the authors discuss the causes for the collapse of the fishery, especially in view of climate change. They don't seem to arrive to any definitive conclusion and they don't use the dreaded term "overfishing". But from the fact that trawlers were used in this fishery, I think it is clear that the fish stock was being destroyed in a process similar to the one that led to the collapse of the whole UK fishing industry. The more resources were aggressively thrown at trying to maintain production, the more the fish stock was depleted. The end result was the rapid collapse observed.

So, as in several other cases, we have a classic example of the "Seneca Collapse", that is a production curve where decline is much more rapid than growth. Below, you can see the Seneca curve as shown in a simulation carried out by system dynamics that takes into account the increased capital expenditure in fishing equipment (the model is described here). 

As Seneca said, "the road to ruin is rapid", indeed.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Lost Dreams

Marcus Kracht alerted me of this recent post of his after he had read my post with a similar title, "Where have our dreams gone?". So, I am publishing it here with his kind permission

The bear went over the mountain,
The bear went over the mountain,
The bear went over the mountain,
To see what he could see.

And all that he could see,
And all that he could see,
Was the other side of the mountain,
The other side of the mountain,
The other side of the mountain,
Was all that he could see.

The Bear Went Over the Mountain (Children's song)

This post was originally published on "Dictionary of Decline" on July 21, 2014


The Other Side of The Mountain

In the song "Susann" by Toni Vescoli (people in Germany might recall the cover version by Reinhard Mey), a young woman, fed up with her boring life in the countryside, decides to move to the city. She gets herself a job and becomes a true and content city dweller. Until, one day, her boyfriend comes home with a triumphant smile and declares that his lifetime dream has finally come true: he has bought a farmhouse and they will move there to escape this dull city life! This sums up nicely the universal pattern of modern life: we want change. It is not so much a question of where we are or whether life is good. After a while, we get bored and want to move on.

Our dissatisfaction is growing and we start to dream of a different and of course better world, where all our problems simply do not exist.Every dream that we have can turn into an obsession — which lasts until the dream comes true. Reinhold Messner in one of his darker moments said that every mountain conquered is a dream gone forever.

The same holds true of societies as a whole. They dream about the future and what it will bring them. A hundred years ago, for example, future was hoped to end diseases, hard labour, poverty, and hunger. Mankind would excel not only in arts, but also in science. And we would travel not only anywhere on earth but eventually also go into space.

And we did.

Only that once these dreams came true, we got to see the other side of them, too. Some hundred years ago, longevity had been a dream. Today we hear about a growing problem of Alzheimer or similar diseases of the ageing body. Or we see people lying in hospital connected to ever more machines. To live on is not always a dream come true. It may for some also be a nightmare.

Or think about the space that we have given to cars so that they can move us where we want to go. When I was a child, there was hardly a car around in our little street, and we roamed the street on roller skates. Today, this same street is filled with cars. So many, that they can't even get past each other on encounter. And there are no children.

The Desire to Learn

When the dreams are no longer there or have turned into nightmares, when the people do not know what to really aspire for the first that happens is that there no longer is a desire by the next generation to learn anything. Because what would be the result of learning? What is the direction they should take if we don't know it ourselves?

Indeed, this is our great dilemma. While we have lost direction ourselves, we wish for the next generation to find out where to go. We see what we have done, and we ask ourselves: was it worth the effort? We see what the world has become and we ask: where is the future? But the next generation cannot be the future if we do not do out part.

I have long thought that today's children have stopped learning because of the affluence. Or because of the long term effects of a libertarian society (as Plato proposed). But now I think that affluence isn't what has stopped them. Young children are still eager to learn. It is not until they reach a certain age when they change their mind about their goals.

One may think: maybe it is just an effect of adolescence. But remember the desire for learning used to return once the problems in our heads got sorted out. Because when we understood our place in society there were signs and directions all around us. They said: study hard, become a scientist, a programmer, a doctor, and life will be very interesting. Not only will you get a job, it will also be interesting, useful, and rewarding. They said: practice an instrument and you can perform music. You can become popular, even famous. They said: if you want and work for it, there will be a place for you.

That is no longer true. Not only are the dreams failing us. There are no true dreams left. We are dropping them one by one.

It happens to all of us. But we don't like to talk about it.

Why become a scientist if all science does is prepare the ground for the destruction of the planet? Name one invention that has not been perverted to make money rather than being used for the benefit of mankind.

It doesn't have to be genetics or nuclear physics. Anything, I repeat: anything, is being turned into money. And nothing besides that is left to dream of.

Who is dreaming of playing music? Who is dreaming of becoming a singer (as opposed to becoming rich and famous)? Who is in it for the beauty?

Or take foreign languages. What is the point of learning any language other than English? When people talk about internationalisation what they really mean is: Anglicization. Because that is what you need to make a living. Give English names to things and you are there. You are international. Foreign languages are no longer important in themselves or as a means to understand other cultures, but as a means of being economically successful. Which leaves more or less one language worth the effort of learning it.

Or take machines. Of course, we need engineers to make them. But where is the attitude that engineering is actually fun? It is gone. And, really, most factories are dead places. Full of robots. Sure, they need designing, but that too is increasingly a sterile job. The engineer hardly gets to touch the thing he is making. Instead, he is assembling them behind a screen, like a programmer.
Not to speak of programming itself. That too has become more of an assembly-line job. The spirit's gone.


And so the students arrive at university without dreams except for a single one: to get a diploma so that they can get a job — and make money. And why shouldn't they want that if this is what society tells them to do?

The belief that society values science is pure hallucination. It values only the money that the science is asked to deliver. Why else are universities under constant threat to get in money regardless of the content of the research? Why do the criteria of success for German universities talk about anything but content?

Think this: the majority of people in Europe (and, as I read somewhere, also in the US) do not want genetically modified food. And yet they are being told that they have to accept it. And they are told that they have to accept it because there is no scientific proof of its adverse effects. As if it were a simple matter to stop this food once we know what these effects are. This is not only hard to accept in a democratic society. My question is: why do all this science, then? Apparently it is not being done so that in the end society gets to choose and say what it really wants to have. It is there for certain institutions to make money from it. Pure and simple.

It means that if you are against the abuse of science your only safe bet is not to become a scientist.
The logic of money is everwhere. Is it not natural that students say: I am doing all this to make money, all I want from my degree is a job? If we want them to change their minds, we should change ours first. But we are not. Instead we are dabbling on about changing the learning habits.

Different recipes have been tried to stem the tide. In the US, rising costs have led to fee hikes, and students are more and more in debt. Which will focus their attention even more on the question of where the money is in their education.

In Europe, one has tried to standardise education. Students get credit points, which supposedly are uniform in value. Universities however are subjected to a quasi-market oriented regime where they get part of their funding according to performance. Performance in turn is measured by some bureaucratic numbers. In Germany they are: number of first degrees, amount of extra mural funding, and progress in equal oportunity hiring. None are about content or quality of teaching.

None of these approaches have worked. It is not because the students are protesting. They in fact are very polite. But typically they are absent minded. The content is not what they are in for. They are asking: what do I have to know to pass the exam?

The politicians and presidents of the universities alike talk about performance but they hardly mean content. They mean money. In other areas of life you call that prostitution. It results in getting a mere substitute for what you really want. Because what you really want you cannot get by paying money.

Motivation is a primadonna. It is not singing when you want it to. It disappears once you start asking too loudly for it.

If I want my students to listen, I need to give them a story of why it makes sense to do what I am doing. Why I am doing it despite everything.

The Road Ahead

But not only the students need dreams to carry on. All of us need them. I need to have a dream as well. I need to know why I am doing what I am doing.

Increasingly however I am getting tired. The administration is turning academic life into a madhouse. We get no time to think, because that is something that can't be measured. No credit points for thinking. And we are losing hope that the next generation will have any chances to get a meaningful job in society let alone at a university. Higher education is at a crossroads, really. It needs money, and the money isn't there. To cover that up, they are making up excuses. That's it.

Increasingly, I see myself doing research not for a future generation (who would that be?) but for the people with whom I went to university. Because there hardly is a next generation. Jobs are being cut, university life is being stripped down to the barest necessities. The propaganda has it that there is less money because people aren't working hard enough, but that's not how the bureaucratic machine functions. Remember that awards are relative: you get more if you are better than the rest. If everyone works more, you have to work more just to stay even with them. And if they start working less, then less work on your part will also do.

Universities will become marginalised. Already the discussion of what its role in society is or should be is nonexistent. Because interference with politics is not desired. Intellectuals do not appear in television for fear that what they will be saying is too difficult. Their role is not any more to come up with a beautiful story but to get money in. So universities turn into private companies for funding.

And the state nods in agreement.

The dream of learning has disappeared from higher education. Yes, more and more students enroll in first tier institutions (high schools, universities), but less and less of them do it because they want to learn. Call that realism. I call it a wasted chance.

At one point the money will be so scarce that they start closing down universities. And we get to see the other side of Big Education.

Marcus Kracht 2014-07-12

Monday, January 19, 2015

A Seneca cliff in the making: African elephants on the brink of extinction

The graph above refers to effects of the illegal hunting of African elephants. It is taken from a recent paper by Wittemyer et al.

Once you have given a name to a phenomenon and understood its causes, you can use it as a guide to understanding many other things. So, the concept of the "Seneca Cliff" tells us that the overexploitation of natural resources often leads to an abrupt decline that, often, takes people by surprise. In the case of biological resources, such as fisheries, the decline may be so fast and uncontrollable that it leads to the extinction or to the near extinction of the species being exploited. It has happened, for instance, for whales in 19th century and for the Atlantic cod.

If you keep in mind these historical examples, you can examine other cases and identify possible Seneca cliffs in the making. One such case is the ivory trade from the hunting of African elephants. If you look at the plots (from a recent paper), above, you see that the seized ivory mass has shown a considerable increase starting around 2008. It peaked in 2011, then declined. We can probably take these numbers as a "proxy" for the number of African elephants being killed - which is also visible as the red line in the upper box. 

This is very worrisome, because if killings decline, it may very well be because there are fewer elephants left to kill - just as the landings of the fishing industry tend to decline when the fish stocks are depleted. Considering how abruptly these things go (the "Seneca effect") then we may well be seeing a similar trend in progress for African elephants: that is, the prelude of an abrupt crash in their numbers. Considering that elephants are big and reproduce slowly, that may very well lead to their extinction.

On this subject, the authors of the paper seem to be very worried, too. The title, by itself, says it all: "Illegal killing for ivory drives global decline in African elephants". In the text, we can read, among other things, that:

The population [of African elephants] was subjected to unsustainable rates of illegal killing between 2009 and 2012, escalating from a mean of 0.6% (SD = 0.4%) between 1998 and 2008 to a high of 8% in 2011 (Fig. 1). Annual illegal killing of elephants in the Samburu population during 2009 to 2012 exceeded those of all previous years of monitoring (1998–2008) with an estimated aggregate of 20.8% of the known elephants illegally killed during that 4-y period. ... Illegal killing rates were strongly correlated with black market ivory prices in the Samburu ecosystem. ... As a result of this illegal killing, the population currently suffers from few prime-aged males, strongly skewed sex ratios, and social disruption in the form of some collapsed families and increased numbers of orphans (immature elephants without a parent)

Are we going to lose the elephants forever? Right now, we can't say for sure; but when it will be clear that it is happening, it will probably be too late to do something about it. Doesn't that sound familiar?

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Peak literature: the decline of the novel

Results of a Google Ngrams search for the term "novel"

In a previous post titled "Where have our dreams gone?", I argued that literature, as well as other forms of art, has declined starting with the 1980s, losing impact and interest in our society. This, of course, can only be a qualitative evaluation and it was challenged in some of the comments. Indeed, terms such as "impact" and "interest" can only be defined in qualitative terms and there is plenty of space for different interpretations.

Nevertheless, I did some experimenting on google's "Ngrams" and I think that my interpretation is shared by many others. You can see in the figure above, showing a clear peak for the term "novel" (*), around 1990 indicating a decline of interest in novels. Also this result is debatable, of course, but I think it does tell us something about the general cultural decline of our civilization.

(*) One problem with this search is that the term "novel" in English may also be an adjective, but the peak is visible also with unambiguous terms such as "novelist" and "novel", although in both cases it appears earlier. Also, in Italian, the term "romanzo" for "novel" is unambiguous, and it shows a similar peak - even clearer - as for "novel" in English. 

Friday, January 16, 2015

Where have our dreams gone? The death of Western literature

The novel by Vladimir Dudintsev "Not by bread alone" was published in 1956 (*). It was a big hit in the Soviet Union with its criticism of the stagnating and inefficient Soviet ways. Together with other Russian authors, such as Vasily Grossman and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Dudintsev was part of a wave of novelists who tried to use literature to change the ways of society. That kind of approach seems to have withered out, both in the countries of the old Soviet Union and in the West.

At some moment, between the second and the third century AD, the Latin literature died out in the Roman Empire. Not that people stopped writing; on the contrary, the late Western Roman Empire saw a minor revival of Latin Literature; it was just that they didn't seem to have anything interesting to say any more.

If we consider the high times of the Empire, around the first century BC, it is likely that most of us would be able to come up with at least some names of literates of that time: poets such as Virgil and Horace, philosophers like Seneca, historians like Tacitus. But move to the late centuries of the Western Empire and chances are that you won't be able to come up with any name, unless you read Gibbon and you remember that he cites the 4th century poet Ausonius to evidence the bad taste of those times. It seems that the Roman Empire had lost its soul much before having disappeared as a political organization.

Often, I have the impression that we are following the same path to collapse that the Roman Empire followed, but faster. Ask yourself this question: can you cite a recent (intended as less than - say - 10-20 years old) piece of literature that you think posterity will remember? (and not as an example of bad taste). Personally, I can't. And I think that it could be said that literature in the Western world declined in the 1970s or so and that today is not a vital form of art any longer.

Of course, perceptions in these matters may be very different, but I can cite plenty of great novels published during the first half of the 20th century; novels that changed the way people looked at the world. Think of the great season of the American writers in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s; think of Hemingway, of Fitzgerald, of Gertrude Stein and many others. And of how American literature continued to produce masterpieces, from John Steinbeck to Jack Kerouac and others. Now, can you cite a later equivalent American writer? Think of a great writer such as John Gardner, who wrote in the 1970s and is today mostly forgotten. Something similar seems to have taken place on the other side of the Iron Curtain; where a number of gifted Soviet writers (Dudintsev, Grossman, Solzhenitsyn, and others) produced a literary corpus in the 1950s and 1960s that strongly challenged the Soviet orthodoxy and played a role in the fall of the Soviet Union. But there doesn't seem to exist anything comparable any more in Eastern European countries that could compare with those novels.

It is not just a question of written literature; visual arts seem to have gone through the same withering process: think of Picasso's Guernica (1937) as an example. Can you think of anything painted during the past few decades with an even remotely comparable impact? About movies, which ones were really original or changed our perception of the world? Maybe with movies we are doing better than with written literature; at least some movies didn't go unnoticed, even though their literary merits are questionable. Think of  "The night of the living dead", by George Romero, which goes back to1968 and has generated a tsunami of imitations. Think of "Star Wars" (1977), which shaped an entire strategic plan of the US military. But during the past decade or so, the film industry doesn't seem to have been able to do better than hurling legions of zombies and assorted monsters to the spectators.

Not that we don't have bestsellers any more, just as we have blockbuster movies. But can we produce anything original and relevant? It seems that we have gone the way the Roman Empire went: we cannot produce a Virgil any more, at best an equivalent of Ausonius.

And there is a reason for that. Literature, the great kind, is all about changing the reader's view of the world. A great novel, a great poem, are not just about an interesting plot or beautiful images. Good literature brings forth a dream: the dream of a different world. And that dream changes the reader, makes her different. But, in order to perform this deed, the reader must be able to dream of a change. He must live in a society where it is possible, theoretically at least, to put dreams into practice. This is not always the case.

In the Roman Empire of the 4th and 5th century AD, the dream was gone. The Romans had retreated behind their fortifications and had sacrificed everything - including their freedom - in the name of their security. Poetry had become merely praising the rulers of the day, philosophy the compilation of previous works, and history a mere chronicle. Something like that is happening to us: where have our dreams gone?

But it is also  true that man doesn't live by bread alone. We need dreams as much as we need food. And dreams are something that Art can bring to us, in the form of literature or other forms; it doesn't matter. It is the power of dreams that can never disappear. If the Roman Literature had disappeared as an original source of dreams, it could still work as a vehicle for dreams coming from outside the empire. From the Eastern Border of the Empire, the cults of Mitrha and of Christ would make deep inroads into the Roman minds. In the early 5th century, in a southern provincial town besieged by barbarians, Augustine, the bishop of Hippo, completed his "The City of God", a book that we still read today and that changed forever the concept of narrative, perhaps the first novel - in the modern sense - ever written. A few centuries later, when the Empire was nothing more than a ghostly memory, an unknown poet composed the Beowulf and, later still, the Nibelungenlied appeared. During this period, tales about a warlord of Britannia started to appear and would later coalesce into the Arthurian cycle, perhaps the core of our modern vision of epic literature.

So, the dream is not dead. Somewhere, at the edges of the empire, or perhaps outside of it, someone is dreaming a beautiful dream (**). Maybe she will write it down in a remote language, or maybe she will use the Imperial Language. Maybe he will use a different medium than the written word; we cannot say. What we can say is that, one day, this new dream will change the world.

(*) A brief comment on Dutintsev's novel, which I bought and read in an English translation as a little exercise in cultural archeology. Read more than half a century after its release, it is difficult to see it as still "sensational" as it was described at that time in the Western press, which had clearly tried to cash an easy propaganda victory against the Soviet Union. As a novel, it is slow and overdrawn, although that may be a result of the Internet-caused attention deficit which affects most of us. In any case, the novel has defects. One is the protagonist, Dmitri Lopatkin, so heavily characterized as a perfect altruist to make him totally unbelievable as a real world person. But the book is still charming in its description of a Moscow, which is no more, but which remains perfectly recognizable, even though so much changed today. To see the characters of the book in action, you can watch the movie made in 2005. I already commented a short story by Dudintsev in this post.

 (**) From a group of remote islands known as Japan, a man has been producing one masterpiece movie after another; Hayao Miyazaki. To understand the decline of the Western forms of narrative, you have just to compare two animation movies which came out together in 2014: the nearly ignored  "The wind rises" by Miyazaki and the blockbuster "Frozen" by Walt Disney Studios. It is like comparing Augustine and Ausonius and the ongoing collapse of the Western Empire is all there. 

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Seneca's pyramids: how fast did the Mayan civilization fall?

Monument building cycle of the Mayan civilization. From "Sylvanus G. Morley and George W. Brainerd, The Ancient Maya, Third Edition (Stanford University Press, 1956), page 66.". Courtesy of Diego Mantilla.

Once you give a name to a phenomenon, you can focus your attention on it and learn more and more about it. So, the "Seneca Cliff" idea turns out to be a fruitful one. It tells us that, in several cases, the cycle of exploitation of a natural resource follows a forward skewed curve, where decline is much faster than growth. This is consistent with what the Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca wrote: "increases are of sluggish growth, but the way to ruin is rapid." With some mathematical tricks, the result is the following curve:

This curve describes the behavior of several complex systems, including entire civilizations which experienced an abrupt collapse after a long period of relatively slow growth. In my first post on the seneca cliff, I already discussed the collapse of the Mayan Civilization (*)

Here, you can see the the Seneca behavior, although the data for the Maya population density seem to be rather qualitative and uncertain. However, the data that I received recently from Diego Mantilla (see at the beginning of this post) are clear: if you take monument building as a proxy for the wealth of the Mayan civilization, then the collapse was abrupt, surely faster than growth.

Something similar can be said for the ancient Egyptians, although the data for pyramid building are more sparse and uncertain than those for the Maya. Finally, also the Roman civilization appears to have collapsed faster than it grew.

So, the Mayans didn't do better than other civilizations in human history. As other civilizations did, they moved toward their demise by dragging their feet, trying to avoid the unavoidable. They didn't succeed and they didn't realize that opposing the collapse in this way is a classic example of "pushing the levers in the wrong direction". It can only postpone collapse, but in the end makes it more rapid.

Will we do any better than the Mayans? One would hope so, but........

(*) Dunning, N., D. Rue, T. Beach, A. Covich, A. Traverse, 1998, "Human - Environment Interactions in a Tropical Watershed: the Paleoecology of Laguna Tamarindito, Guatemala," Journal of Field Archaeology 25 (1998):139-151.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The oil price collapse: did the Saudis make a smart move?

Saudi Arabia's data on oil production (all liquids). Data from EIA

Arthur Berman recently wrote this on the oil price collapse:

As far as Saudi Arabia and its motives, that is very simple also. The Saudis are good at money and arithmetic. Faced with the painful choice of losing money maintaining current production at $60/barrel or taking 2 million barrels per day off the market and losing much more money—it’s an easy choice: take the path that is less painful. If there are secondary reasons like hurting U.S. tight oil producers or hurting Iran and Russia, that’s great, but it’s really just about the money.

I think that Berman may very well be right; the Saudi really reasoned in these terms. They wanted to reduce their losses and keep their market share.

But think about that for a moment: was it really a smart move for the Saudis?

Saudi Arabia produces little in addition to oil; its economy is heavily based on oil. And even for food, Saudi Arabia must rely on revenues from oil in order to import food. And even for the mighty Saudi Arabia, oil resources are not infinite.

So, assume you have the power to regulate oil production in Saudi Arabia, what would you do? Logically, you would think that it is silly to keep pumping oil at full speed when it has become so cheap. You would reason that it is a good idea to keep as much as possible of it underground, to use when it will be really rare and expensive. In addition, your competitors will run out of oil when you still have plenty of it; wouldn't that be nice?

Logic? Sure, but only if you think long term. If you think only of the near term profit, then it makes sense to sell all what you have, when you have it. And the future? Well, that will be someone else's problem.

Unfortunately, it is not just in Saudi Arabia that they think in this way.


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)