Tuesday, October 17, 2017

You cannot have a war economy if there is no war. My 4th presentation of "The Seneca Effect" in Paris

Above, at the Momentum Institute in Paris on Friday 13th, 2017. Ugo Bardi is on the left of the photo, Yves Cochet (president of the institute) is at the center, with the white shirt. 

The presentation at the Institut Momentum on Oct 13th was the fourth of a series of presentation related to my book "The Seneca Effect" that I gave in Paris last week. This one was probably the least formal one of the series. I gave some explanation of how system dynamics models can produce the asymmetric "Seneca Curve," but I concentrated on a section of the book, the one dealing with the extermination of whales during the 19th century. It is a theme related to the concept of Anthropocene: the human relation with the ecosystem.

The point that I try to stress in these presentations is that most people, including decision-makers, just don't have the concept of "overshoot", that is the tendency of consuming more resources than the system can produce, forcing it to crash down after some time. It is something that I described also in a previous talk.

The problem, here, is that not having the concept of overshoot, people happy go along the Seneca trajectory, thinking that the more resources they can extract from the system, the better things are for them. They don't realize that the more they go up, the faster they'll have to crash down. I surmised that we have a cultural problem: it is a relatively new concept that will have to penetrate culture. That will take time and it is not obvious that it will ever happen.

The comments that I received were varied and interesting. One point that found myself in agreement is that the concept of "Anthropocene" is really too narrow when it is intended as something that started with nuclear energy or with fossil fuels. The Anthropocene, really, started with the late Pleistocene, more than 10,000 years ago, when humans started having a major impact on the ecosystem causing, among many other effects, the extinction of the megafauna of those times.

From here, the discussion moved on how (and if) these concepts could move into the general consciousness of humankind. Here, Yves Cochet made a series of interesting observations. The one I think best summarizes the whole discussion is that "you cannot have a war economy if there is no war". As a former politician, Cochet understands the problem very well.

This is another way to state what I said before: as long as people move along the rising side of the Seneca curve, they enjoy the ride won't care about what's in store for them on the other side, the collapsing one. And that explains why all our efforts to alert people in advance failed, from the times of "The Limits to Growth" to peak oil and climate change. Those people who engaged into the attempt were marginalized as (to use Cochet's definition) "Totemic Circles". And this is the way the human mind works and it seems we have to accept it and enjoy life.

(about enjoying life, here is a picture of me, in Paris, drinking beer in Montmartre with the physicist Jacques Treiner)

Friday, October 13, 2017

A Seneca transition for the human mind? My third presentation in Paris

One more day in Paris, one more presentation. This one was given on Oct 12th, at the "Ecole Centrale d'Electronique" (ECE) for the members of the system dynamics group of the French Association of System Science ((http://www.afscet.asso.fr/)

This one was a rather technical presentation, starting with the concept of "Mind Sized" system dynamics models to describe the "Seneca Effect", all the way to show some recent results of world modeling obtained by the MEDEAS project.

Overall, most (although not all) the people working in system dynamics are perfectly aware of the situation and of the difficulties associated with the transition. Perhaps the most interesting comment was about the Seneca effect applied to the human mind. Would it be possible, someone said, that an abrupt Seneca transition would affect human minds and somehow force them to take reality into account? It is another way to express the concept, common among the concerned, that at some moment some truly big event will force people to accept the reality of climate change (and of other related, occurring disasters).

Indeed, some people recently pushed the connection between hurricanes and climate change trying to move people into recognizing the existence of climate change. But it doesn't seem to have produced a noticeable effect on the public perception of the problem.

Maybe, someday, some really big event - a truly enormous one - will generate the needed mental transition, but it will not be easy. In my answer to the comment, I noted several cases, for instance the American whaling industry in the 19th century, where the operators went through the complete destruction of the system they were exploiting without ever realizing (or at least admitting) what they were doing. According to this example, the human civilization might be very well destroyed by climate change without realizing (or at least admitting) the existence of the problem. But so is the way humans behave.

H/t Didier Cumenal for organizing this seminar

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Education for the Transition? My 2nd Seminar in Paris

There I am, together with Gaell Mainguy, Directeur du développement et des relations internationales du Centre de Recherches Interdisciplinaires in Paris. It was on Wednesday, Oct 11 and we are on the 21 floor of the "Tour de Montparnasse", spectacular view of Paris and of the Eiffel Tower.

We had a good hour or more of discussion about the role of education in shaping our future. I was truly impressed by the competence and the dedication of the people who participated in the debate. Yet, I remain somewhat skeptical about the possibility for education - at any level - to change society.

On this point, I have some personal experience as a teacher, but more than my limited record I tend to trust Jorgen Randers, one of the original authors of "The Limits To Growth" who defined himself as "a depressed man with a smiling face." That was for various reasons, one was that after, maybe, 40 years of teaching his students about sustainability, he observed that when they moved into the real world, outside the university, they behaved exactly in the same way as the people who had not been taught these matters. Dennis Meadows told me something very similar regarding his own experience. And all that fits well with my personal experience.

Basically, people normally tend to go along the path of lowest resistance and in a society that does not reward sustainability-oriented actions, they will rapidly learn how to maximize their utility function, even though that means forgetting what they learned in school.

That doesn't mean it is useless to teach sustainability and, of course, no rule is without exception. Maybe the kind of creativity that people can develop after a certain training remains an asset all over their life. It means, however, that as long as society remains what it is, the lofty principles that we learn from the science of ecosystems will not be put into practice. So, what is the solution? Well, a good Seneca Cliff can do wonders in terms of changing things!

Apart from lofty principles and Seneca cliffs, a good beer in Paris is always a good thing! Here I am, after the seminar, in a bistrot of Montparnasse together with Jean Pierre Dieterlen, a member of the Adrastia association.

H/t Jacques Chartier-Kastler for the organization of this meeting

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

My first presentation on the energy transition in Paris: is it a problem or a change?

My first presentation in Paris, yesterday, one of at least four that I am planning to give here (busy times!!). It was at the Ecole National Superieure (ENS) and it was centered on the Energy Transition, as part of a seminar involving several presentations.

Overall, I'd say that all the presentations were good with some very competent speakers. The problem that I have in these debates/seminar is always the same. People tend to think of the transition in terms of a problem. And if it is a problem, it means it has a solution (or maybe not). But if the transition is a change, then it is not a question of solutions, you cannot solve a change, you can only adapt to a change.

So, many pretended "solutions" are ways to oppose change, one that was proposed at the seminar was to exchange all tungsten filament bulbs with LED lights. Fine, it will allow us to save a lot of energy. But the change is deeper and it goes at the heart of everything we do in this society. We need to think systemic, not problem-specific. It is not just question of changing our light bulbs, it is a complete ecosystemic change.

And so we continue. Change continues to occur, too.

(h/t Daniel Moulin, image courtesy Camille Olinet)

Saturday, October 7, 2017

"The Seneca Effect": Book Presentations in Paris

"The Seneca Effect" has been published both in German and in English. Up until Oct 9th, there is still the possibility of ordering the version in English with a 20% discount. Ask me for a voucher (ugo.bardi(entity)unifi.it)

The first public presentation of "The Seneca Effect" was at the Summer Academy of the Club of Rome, this Septembre; you can read a report here. A new presentation took place this Friday, Oct 6th, at the Chalet Fontana in Florence. (Photo courtesy Enrico Battocchi).

New presentations are programmed for the coming week in Paris. All will be in French and some are not just presentations of the book but general conferences on related subjects; energy, climate change, etc. Here is a list of the main ones.

Tuesday Oct 10, 18h TREVE Public Seminar on the Energy Transition, École normale supérieure de Paris. 29 Rue d'Ulm, 75005 Paris, with Ugo Bardi and Gérard Weisbuch.
Wednesday, Oct 11, 17h-20h. Center for Research and Interdisciplinarity, Tour Montparnasse 21st floor, 33 avenue du Maine, 75015 Paris. Discussion on how to catalyze an ecological shift through education, followed by a presentation of the Seneca Cliff by Ugo. Inscriptions on https://events.cri-paris.org/e/114/education-environnement-comment-catalyser-la-transition-ecologique
Thursday, Oct 12, 14h30. Ecole Centrale d'Electronique, (ECE), 37 Quai de Grenelle, 75015 Paris. Seminar by Ugo Bardi for the Groupe Dynamique Des Systemes. If interested to attend, please contact Mr. Didier Cumenal (cumenald(entity)wanadoo.fr) in advance.
Friday, Oct 13. Presentation of "The Seneca Effect" at the Institut Momentum, from 15h00 to 18h00, 33 rue de la Colonie, 75013 Paris. If interested to attend, please contact Yves Cochet (yves.cochet(entity)wanadoo.fr) or Agnes Sinai (asinai(entity)orange.fr) in advance. 

In addition, in Paris I'll be engaged in several book-related informal meetings and presentations with old and new friends. It looks like this week will be a very busy one for me and I can only hope to find some time for a little tourism! But if you like to contact me to organize something, please do so at ugo.bardi(mysterything)unifi.it and maybe we can find a way. I'll be in Paris up to Monday, Oct 16th. 

Thursday, October 5, 2017

The First Summer Academy of the Club of Rome, a Comment by Tatiana Yugay

Tatiana Yugay is professor at the Plekhanov University in Moscow. She is an expert in issues related to the world market of oil and gas. A post of her on this subject can be found here. Above, you can see her in a tree-hugging moment at the Botanical Garden of the University of Florence.

Now that Ugo Bardi has finished presenting on his blog the main speakers at the 1st Club of Rome Summer Academy 2017, at the Florence University, I'd like to share my impressions about this great event. Of course, the speakers were rather prominent, all of them - authors of solid books and\or founders of innovative movements but it was no less interesting to watch reaction and feedback from the audience. Being a university professor, I'm very curious to observe differences between my students and those from other universities.

I was really delighted to meet so many competent and enthusiastic young intellectuals who were ready to save the world today! They were great listeners; very supportive and pro-active at the same time. They put very thoughtful and intelligent questions, sometimes not easy to answer. They were ready to laugh at a good joke or cheer at a statement that met their opinion.

While exchanging opinions with some participants during coffee breaks, I understood that they appreciated most of all those speakers who explored new fields of knowledge, used novel approaches or presented results of their own research illustrated by concrete data.

They wouldn't let go Anders Wijkman, Co-President of the Club of Rome, after his presentation of the Club's concepts. They asked plenty of questions to Kate Pickett from the University of York, who during many years studied problems of inequality. I was glad that contemporary young people are so much concerned about this social problem. They applauded to Ugo Bardi's visual demonstration of the Seneca Cliff.

They were deeply impressed by a groundbreaking discourse by Chandran Nair, Founder of the Global Institute for Tomorrow. In all other respects, they were quite normal modern people. They enjoyed the cultural program in fabulous Florence, dinners in sustainable gardens and each other's company. In sum, this very special young audience is a dream of every university professor and I wish all of them to realize their ambitious plans and desires!

Sunday, October 1, 2017

The Dirty Secret of Catastrophism Exposed

If you are a reader of this blog, you may have been wondering what fun is there in writing every day about catastrophes to come: peak oil, abrupt climate change, mega financial collapses, etc.  Why would anyone want to engage in that? Isn't that a lot of stress?

Good questions; and I think I can confess to you our (the catastrophists') dirty secret. First of all, you surely noticed that most catastrophists, though not all of them, are male. So, being one of them, I can tell you that it is all a trick to seduce women. It works like this: first, we convince our female target that the world is going to end soon. Then, why should she oppose having a little fun with us before it is too late? Simple, isn't it? But, before you think ill of me, let me also tell you that, a) I never tried that, b) it never works, and c) the lady is normally so stressed by the news of the impending doom that she fails to provide her best performance. (*)

That's a joke (of course!!). It came to my mind while reading some recent news about Guy McPherson, the main proponent of the idea of the "Near Term Human Extinction" (NTE), who has been accused of being a sex predator for having abused of a follower of his, a woman. About this story, let me say first that I stand by the rule that everyone should be assumed to be innocent unless proven guilty. Then, I can tell you that I see the near-term extinction of humankind as not impossible, although unlikely. This said, I think it is interesting to examine this story in some detail.

First of all, the row that erupted among the NTE followers was truly amazing for its verbal violence. Some people turned on Guy McPherson with a glee and a vehemence that I can only understand as the result of deep grudges that existed well before the story became known. McPherson's own defense, then, was weak and probably counterproductive. He didn't deny the accusations against him, rather, he erased his facebook page as if he was ashamed of something. Then, he vaguely spoke of "trolls" and "the deep state" having framed him and that surely didn't strengthen his position.

Clearly, there was a lot of stress to be vented out in the NTE group. Not surprising: if you go around telling people that humankind will go extinct in a few decades at most, it has got to have some effect on your nerves. One of the reactions to such a situation is for people to find some solace in being together with other people who share the same ideas. It is human but, in the case of the NTE group, it seems to have taken a certain "cultic" aspect. At least, I noticed that, in many cases, NTE-oriented people tend to close all arguments with the statement that "Dr. McPherson said so". That doesn't mean that the NTE idea has generated a suicide cult or something like that; it is just that a strong reliance on a charismatic leader it is typical of these cases. And, not rarely, cult leaders tend to misbehave in various ways, even though we have no proof that Guy McPherson did.

Within some limits, all of us, the catastrophists, may fall into the "cultic" trap and form tight groups of like-minded people. I notice it with what I write on this blog. Although I believe that our civilization is going to start declining in the near future (see my work on the "Seneca Effect"), I am far from being a hardcore doomer and sometimes I try to say that things are not so bad as some people say. In that case, I am often heavily criticized, apparently for denying the core ideas of the group (the cult). This effect is especially strong when I argue that renewable energy in the form of PV and wind can help us mitigate the unavoidable future decline. Some people seem to take this position as a personal insult and react consequently.

Again, it is understandable: for some people, it is less stressful to remain inside a group of like-minded people than venturing outside it. Yet, this is not good for one's mental health. We are not necessarily doomed and we can still do something and help others to mitigate the effects of the future decline. For this, we don't need to retreat into a cult (**).

(*) It is a version of the joke of the excuses of the lazy schoolboy for not having done his homework. It was because, a) he lost it, b) his dog ate it; and, b) he didn’t know it was assigned. (h/t Dmitry Orlov)

(**) An earlier version of this post included a video clip of the Beatles singing "A Little Help from My Friends". Some people overinterpreted it as if I was advocating the use of drugs to reduce the stress from catastrophism. Noting that the strongest drug I use is an occasional glass of Chianti wine, I thought it was better to remove the clip, just to avoid misunderstandings

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Seneca Cliff as an Effect of Bureaucracy

The idea of the "Seneca Cliff" is that a certain entity, from a company to an empire, tends to fall rapidly when it is subjected to a dearth of resources and, at the same time, affected by pollution. More than once I noted that there are many forms of pollution; in the model, the term indicated any kind of phenomenon that tends to grow at the expenses of the capital stock of a society. Bureaucracy clearly satisfies the definition and an excess of it may be a major cause of collapse. Here, Miguel Martinez discusses the concept on the basis of his experience in Italy, a country that seems to be especially plagued by overbureaucracy. Martinez notes several interesting phenomena, including the fact that the decline in economic resources reinforces also the problems created by excessive bureaucracy generating a near complete standstill in everything that can be overcome only by acting illegally, which creates other problems as well. So, it seems that the only cure for over bureaucracy is the Seneca Collapse!

Bureaucracy and the Seneca Cliff

by Miguel Martinez

Ugo Bardi's blog is always a great mental stimulant. His Seneca Curve made me think of another parallel curve. Imagine two lines: the first has to do directly with resources. The other has to do with the rules which govern the resources and how they are used.Rules, laws, regulations, contracts, terms, provisions, standards, obligations, whatever...

Whoever issues them, the ultimate enforcement comes from some entity related to the state; and enforcement can be quite painful, implying the end of a career, severe financial damage, heavy expenses for lawyers, gaol or at least the stress of years of worrying about all of this, whatever the outcome.

Let's start with the line of resources. Basically meaning the relationship among available resources, extraction costs and waste.

Not being a mathematician, I tend to seek practical examples nearby, so the first thing that comes to mind is what they call the Piana, an open marshy area, hosting many species of migrant birds, a few miles to the northwest of the centre of Florence, where no tourist has ever set foot.

But Florence has to put the waste produced by 370.000 Florentines and at least 10 million tourists every year somewhere.

Then the airport isn't big enough to fit yet more tourists.

And the main highway in Italy needs to be expanded, to fit more cars.

So they are now going to put a huge incinerator, an enormous new airport and new lanes for the highway in the Piana.

After that, the city will only have itself to eat up.

But I am no expert on environmental issues. I just want to speak here of the resources available to state institutions.

At least in Italy, the state has definitely gone beyond the peak, and is starting to climb down the dark side of the Seneca curve.

Critics of neoliberalism rightly point out the enormous amount of waste and corruption, and how much is spent to nourish private interests of various kinds. Very well, but still, all that money is no longer there.

When resources diminish, cuts start bottom up.

First, a regularly paid employee in some minor museum retires, and is replaced by somebody who only works there three days a week. Then an unpaid student comes there once a week to “get practice”, and finally the museum is closed.

This bottom up aspect resembles what is happening with climate change, where bottom means places on the ecological borderline, such as Darfur some years ago, and Syria recently (see this prophetic 2010 article in Le Monde Diplomatique.

These are the first places where we feel the symptoms of a changing world. Each one so small, yet they are everywhere.

Since resources continue to be poured in at higher levels - big events, big airports, big missiles, big football stadiums - business often seems to be going on as usual.

Thomas Homer-Dixon devoted a fascinating chapter of The Upside of Down to what archaeologists discovered about Roman aqueducts in Provence. A little more lime gathers year after year, because there is a little less cleaning. Then a farmer somewhere takes advantage of the fact that there are a little less controls, and drills a small hole into the aqueduct. And finally, decades later, the whole systems collapses.

Probably most people who deal with these issues come from fields like biology or meteorology. So perhaps they don't think so much about the impact of institutions and rules on these matters.

Rules were designed for times of increasing resources. And now they clash with new problems arising from diminishing resources. And turn what could have been an elegant glide downward into a painful bum crash.

I claim a limited but very intense expertise.

I live in the Oltrarno district of Florence, where the last living human community of the old city has to deal every day with gentrification, pollution, traffic, high prices and invasion by millions of tourists.

Bringing together traditional residents and craftsmen and new immigrants from countries as different as Senegal and the UK, we have turned the last garden area still available to children and families into a community managed Commons.

Commons are one possible solution to diminishing resources – another is when institutions sell off their assets to private investors. A third solution, of course, is always to sit and complain about selloffs without attempting self-management.

A local community managing its own resources for free of course means that things work better and also cost less for the institutions. We recently saved the Municipality many thousands of euros, by tracking down and closing off a leak in the water system they would never have discovered without us.

However, as public recognition of commoning is something quite new in Italy, we find ourselves having to negotiate our place.

Every day, we have to do with administration, rules and regulations, on the lowest level. Which is exactly where the first and most significant changes take place, when we start down the wrong side of the Seneca cliff.

The countless small issues we come across are like a drop of water in which one can see the whole world, which is why our story may be of some interest to you.

Italians love to blame everything on bureaucrats and politicians, and they often wallow in self-denigration about Italian incompetence and corruption.

Of course, every place is unique, but the same laws hold in all of Italy; and I suspect they are not so different from those in most of Europe, or even in most of the world.

Lobbying, vested interests, corruption flourish in Florence as everywhere, but I do not have the feeling that they are decisive, at least on the low level we know.

I consider many Florentine officials to be personal friends, and in their way courageous, intelligent people, with the best intentions. Some are state employees, some elected politicians, some with the majority and some with the opposition (here this has little do with a left-right divide).

A few days ago, I read that a court investigation has been opened against seven employees of various levels of the Environmental Office of the Municipality of Florence. This very local story has a lot to tell us about our times.

There are 74.000 trees in Florence, planted in days when the Municipality could spend much more liberally.

In those days of plenty, rules were laid down demanding strict care for each tree, to prevent the trees from becoming sick and falling on the heads of passers-by.

Then the purse strings got tighter. What money there was had to go to matters considered to be more important than trees.

The Environmental Office received less funds.

Their vehicles and tools began to break down and were not replaced. Some people retired, new employees were not hired. The last expert gardeners retired, and their places were taken by cheap and untrained labour contracted to private companies exclusively on a price basis, in a kind of reverse auction: in 2014, one company won by cutting the starting price by 75%, another by 83%.

The inevitable result was less and less control on the condition of the trees.

One day in 2014, one branch of one of the thousands of trees in Florence's largest park fell, killing two people.

The Environmental Office employees risked criminal charges.

Rules designed to be smoothly applied in times of plenty, forced them to act under emergency conditions.

So they decided to check and fix every tree in Florence. No longer having the means to do so, they employed contracted labour without any experience to do the only thing possible: chop off branches more at less at random, topping countless trees into something resembling used toothpicks.

The officials were able to write on paper that they had followed the rules, so nobody landed in prison.

However, topping, especially if not performed by experts, can seriously damage trees. Instead of one branch, the whole tree can now fall.

Every piece hacked off was thrown into chipping machines which chop everything up and then spit the residue out.

The chipped wood included that from Florence's many plane trees (Platanus orientalis). Now, Florence is considered a hotbed of the so-called “coloured cancer of plane trees”, a deadly fungus invasion (Ceratocystis fimbriata) which is also highly contagious through contact. An early gift of globalization, by the way, since it came to Europe in infected wooden crates after the last war.

This is why there are very strict laws in Italy on how to dispose of plane cuttings, especially in hotbed areas. Chipping machines are certainly beyond the pale.

Three years went by, and last August, a large horse chestnut fell down, luckily without hurting anybody. So the rules forced the mayor to act again.

Something like 300 trees were immediately cut down.

This led to loud complaints by many citizens, and finally a magistrate opened an investigation, since the officials of the Environment Office were basically accused of:

1) not having undertaken all the checks and maintenance demanded by the rules

2) not having applied the rule that sets out that in the historic centre of Florence, under UNESCO protection, the Monuments and Fine Arts Department must approve the cutting of each individual tree

3) having also cut down trees which could have been saved with a much less radical treatment.

What is interesting is that nobody doubts the good intentions of the officials.

They are paid to save both the goats (the citizens) and the cabbages (the trees).

In the past, they had the resources to do so.

Now they don't.

So they end up on trial whatever, because they cannot save both. And they will end up on trial both for what they do and for what they fail to do.

So, when resources diminish and rules stay unchanged, an official can avoid prosecution in one way only.

He must write a text demanding compliance with a very strict list of rules, and then oblige somebody else to apply them.

He passes on the lit match, and if anything happens, the list of strict rules with his signature under them will save him.

What happens when the lit match ends up in the hands of the very last in line?

There are only two solutions in such case.

The first is to do one's activity illegally.

The second is to close down the activity itself.

In Florence, a great many things are done illegally all the time. This does not mean they are also immoral. For example, cutting down a tree which looks wobbly, without waiting for permission which would come too late if ever, may (or may not) be morally justified, but it is just as illegal as cutting down a healthy tree for one's private fireplace.

In our garden, there is a building with a large amount of broken chairs and tables, lamps that don't work and a few twenty-year old computers. In the old “public” days they just piled up, but now the community wants to keep things tidy.

So we asked how we could throw away the stuff.

In Florence, private citizens can ask for the waste disposal company to come by and take bulky waste away for free. However, businesses and institutions have to pay, and the Municipality has no money for that: office after office is overflowing with useless things they don't have the funds to dispose of. Indeed, we were told that one office of the Municipality pays rent on warehouses to store the waste other offices don't have the money to pay for.

Maybe we could just call the waste disposal company and say it is the personal property of one of us? Not exactly. Walking off with a computer belonging to the state is theft, and rightly so.

So? So, I won't tell you how we solved the problem.

Mostly, one can get away with what I might call legitimate illegality. But of course when something goes wrong, the last person in the line will be stuck with a lit match in his hand. And everybody upstream will have a paper in their hands where they say that they passed the match on in the most proper manner.

Which is why the easiest answer in the end to most problems is to simply close whatever one is responsible for down.

One of the most widely used products in Florence is a flimsy white and red plastic tape, which anybody can break through, but which officials use to prove that they sealed the forbidden area off, and whatever happens, it is not their fault.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

We’ll always have the Sun: solar energy and the future of humankind

Above, Rick (Humphrey Bogart) speaks to Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) in the movie “Casablanca” (1942). Here, the sentence has been a little changed. In the film, the phrase refers to “Paris”, not “The Sun”. But in the debate on the future of civilization, there is only one certainty: we’ll always have the sun.

This post was originally published on Aug 15, 2017 by INSURGE INTELLIGENCE, a crowdfunded investigative journalism project for people and planet. Support us to keep digging where others fear to tread.

In this eight contribution to the INSURGE symposium, ‘Pathways to the Post-Carbon Economy’, Ugo Bardi, Professor of Physical Chemistry at the University of Florence, Italy, reflects on the importance of transitioning away from fossil fuels and how it, inevitably, means we should engage with some form of renewable energy. But, he points out, while such a transition requires us to recall the fundamental role of the Sun as the primary energy source for all our activities, it also means we will have to re-think and re-do civilization-as-we-know-it. Whatever happens, much of what we have taken for granted in our consumer-centric societies today will be increasingly meaningless in the post-carbon future. What we do know, concludes Bardi, is that we will always have the Sun: the question remains — what will we, and can we, do with it?

As it becomes clear that we must get rid of fossil fuels before they get rid of us, a question is being asked over and over:
“Can renewables replace fossil fuels?”
Some people have been sufficiently impressed by the rapid decline of the price of renewable energy that their answer is not only, “yes,” but that switching to renewables will be fast and painless. It will come simply as the result of the free market mechanisms, at most aided by a little magic called “carbon tax”. Then, economic growth will continue unabashed in the best of worlds.
Others take the opposite position. Noting that renewables require large investments in the energy infrastructure, that they don’t easily produce liquid fuels, that they can’t support energy “on demand,” and more, they conclude that renewables are useless; an illusion, if not an outright scam.
This viewpoint is further split in two views. One seems to welcome the collapse of an energy-starved economic system and the associated return to the Middle Ages, or even to extinction. The other simply sees fossil fuels as a good thing to be kept and subsidised. After all, CO2 is food for plants, isn’t it?
The debate is raging and, as usual in debates, rational arguments seem to have little weight in them, and we could go on forever debating arcane technological details.
But I would rather point out that maybe all this discussion is based on a wrong question.
Axiom 1: Asking if renewable energy can replace fossil energy implies that the only possible civilization is our civilization as it is nowadays, including SUVs parked on every driveway and vacation trips to Hawaii by plane for everyone.
But keeping these incredibly expensive wastes of energy will obviously be impossible in the future, even imagining that we were able to stay with fossil fuels for another century or even more.
We are hitting so many physical limits on this planet that the question is a completely different one. I could frame it as this:
How can renewable energy help us in getting rid of fossil fuels, while maintaining at least a minimum indispensable supply of energy to society?”
Seen in these terms, are renewables a help or a hindrance? I would say that they are not only a help, but a big help and a great hope. To explain this point, I think we need another little reframing.
Rather than speaking of “renewables”, I would use the term “solar energy.”
This term includes technologies which directly exploit sunlight, such as photovoltaics, and those which do that indirectly, such as wind turbines (this definition doesn’t include geothermal, but it is a detail).
Once we frame the question in this way, we see the following:
Axiom 2: Solar energy has been used by humans for a long, long time. Agriculture is the most ancient technology directly using sunlight, while windmills and watermills are indirect methods of exploiting sunlight, used for millennia in the past. What we have been doing recently consists of developing more efficient ways to do exactly what we have been doing in our remote past.
Photovoltaic energy is a sophisticated way to duplicate in a solid-state devicewhat biological photosynthesis does in the leaves of plants. The modern wind turbines are upgraded versions of the old windmills. The same is true for hydroelectric plants, today more efficient than in the past, but still basically the same.
The real oddball in the panorama is fossil energy; something that has been around in a massive form for just a couple of centuries and that will disappear in a century or less, no matter what dreams of energy dominance may be popular in Washington D.C.
This said, we could examine the arguments against solar energy that pervade the debate. For instance, that modern solar energy technologies are not really renewable because they cannot produce enough energy to replace themselves after their lifetime is over. Or that their energy yield is so low as to make them useless. Or that they need rare minerals that will soon run out. Or that an industrial civilization can’t survive without having energy “on demand”, that is available 100% of the time, always at the same price. And many others.
Here, in part we are dealing with people who can’t conceive a world different than the one they are used to. In part, we are dealing with objective difficulties which, however, may have some technological solutions.
As an example, consider the common objection of the low energy yield of solar energy. It is often expressed in terms of “EROI”( (energy return on investment) a concept made popular by professor Charles Hall.
It is said that the EROI of solar energy is very low in comparison to that of fossil fuels and that for this reason solar energy is useless. But this is just wrong.
Let me ask you a question: what was the EROI of fossil fuels at the time of the Apollo program that sent men to the moon? Was it an order of magnitude larger than that of solar energy, as it is sometimes said? No, it was around 20–30, about the same EROI that we have today for wind turbines and not much larger than that of photovoltaics.
Surely, then, these values are not so small as to make solar energy useless.
As another example, it is easy to find on the web that solar cells need expensive and rare elements. Once again, this is not the whole truth, as solar cells can be made using only materials that are common in the earth’s crust, mainly silicon, aluminum and oxygen.
We could spend a lot of time in this discussion, but the point that I would like to make here is this:
Insight: All these objections have been unable to disprove that solar energy today is a set of robust and economically viable technologies.
The most advanced ones (solar and wind) account for a significant, although still small, fraction of the world’s energy mix, about 6% of the global electric power production and around 1.6% of the total energy consumption.
Can they grow to 100% without the world’s economy collapsing and without climate going over the “tipping point”? They could, according to a study carried out by Sgouridis, Csala, and myself.
We used the term “Sower’s Strategy” for a concept analogous to what ancient farmers did, saving some of their current harvest for the future harvest.
Insight 2: We found that it is possible to move to a fully solar-powered society without collapsing and without wrecking the climate system, if we are willing to use the same strategy: that is, investing in solar energy a sufficiently large fraction of the energy produced today.
Will we follow the wisdom of our ancestors and save enough of our current energy harvest for our future?
Or will we waste our remaining resources in the desperate attempt to keep using fossil fuels, even putting our trust in untested and potentially counterproductive technologies such as carbon capture and sequestration? To say nothing about the risks and the uncertainties involved with a possible return to nuclear energy.
As usual, it is impossible to say what the future has in store for us, but there remains a certainty: we’ll always have the sun.

Ugo Bardi is Professor of Physical Chemistry at the University of Florence, Italy. His research interests encompass resource depletion, system dynamics modeling, climate science and renewable energy. He is a member of the scientific committee of ASPO (Association for the Study of Peak Oil) and blogs in English on these topics at “Cassandra’s Legacy”. He is the author of the Club of Rome report, Extracted: How the Quest for Global Mining Wealth is Plundering the Planet (Chelsea Green, 2014) and The Limits to Growth Revisited (Springer, 2011) and "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017).

Friday, September 22, 2017

The Hubbert Game - Teaching the Science of Collapse

My students playing the "Hubbert Game." It is a simple operational game illustrating the exploitation of a non-renewable resource and the phenomenon of overshoot and collapse. 

In my presentation at the recent Summer Academy of the Club of Rome, I stressed the point that the major stumbling block we face in managing the ongoing crisis is that most people, and in particular policymakers, lack the concept of "overshoot." As a consequence, they also lack the concepts of peaking and collapsing (also in the form of the "Seneca Cliff"). It is not surprising: the idea of overshoot and collapse is a new development in the science of complex systems. It goes back to a little more than 50 years ago when it was proposed first by Jay Forrester. Earlier on, it simply didn't exist.

So, most people think of the exploitation of natural resources in linear terms, assuming that we can continue extracting oil (a physical thing) as long as we have money (a non-physical thing) to pay for it. When depletion is taken into account, it is done only on the basis of oversimplified and misleading models such as the "resources to production ratio." It is something I have termed "Tiffany's fallacy" (the mineral pie is shrinking and most of what's left is in the sky).

The recent summer academy of the Club of Rome in Florence brought back to my attention the need of exposing people to the basic concepts of the dynamics of real bioeconomic systems. Young people who care about the survival of humankind and of the earth's ecosystem know a lot of things, but I noted that they too often miss the concept of overshoot and collapse. That's something that I had already noted years ago and it had led me to develop an operational game called "The Hubbert Game."

The Hubbert game is a simple boardgame that needs no computers and no special equipment except some black and white counters used to mark oil fields. It is designed to be run in a few hours at most and to provide to players a "hands-on" experience of what means to run a company that exploits non-renewable resources. Players take the role of oil companies which compete in exploiting the gradually dwindling oil resources. The game is competitive and some versions involve strategic choices; the game surely tends to capture the attention of the players. The final result is always the same, the pattern of oil production, in the game as in the real world, tend to look like the "bell shaped" Hubbert curve.  You can see the curve below, hand drawn from the results of a game session

The Hubbert game is described in detail in a paper that I presented at the 2016 conference of the System Dynamics Society in Delft, Holland. There is also an earlier version which I uploaded on the "academia.edu" site. As I keep experimenting, new versions may appear.

In the meantime, the game seems to be enjoying a certain popularity, at least in Italy. It has been used by my colleague Luca Pardi for his class in environmental economics at the University of Florence. It was played in a high school and it is planned for the "night of the researchers" to be held this Sep 29 in Trento. You see here a snapshot of the flyer of the game for that occasion (h/t Luciano Celi and Luca Pardi).

Will this game have some positive effects? Well, in an earlier post I said that we need something like "a new axial age" to develop the tools we need to manage the earth's ecosystem (which includes humankind as an element). So, it is hard to think that a boardgame will save the world. But it is a step in the right direction and, after all, it is fun!

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Young activists: are they enough to save the world? Notes from the 1st Summer School of the Club of Rome

Above, an image that I think summarizes the spirit of the 1st Summer School of the Club of Rome, held this September in Florence. A lot of good will, enthusiastic young (and not so young) people, a stellar cast of speakers, in-depth discussions, and state of the art world modeling. But is it enough?

A week of full immersion in the First Summer School of the Club of Rome. Truly an experience for many reasons. One was the sheer physical fatigue of keeping track of everything. If you are one of the organizers of an event like this one, you can't even think that something could go wrong while many sessions are taking place together and people move from one place to another. I don't think that in my life it ever happened to me that I went to bed and I couldn't sleep because I was too tired. But, this time, yes, it happened.

Was it worth it? As far as I can say, yes. It was something that I would have loved to attend when I was in my 20s; it would have changed my life. Actually, my life changed anyway, as human lives tend to do. But for these young people (some young at heart) it was surely a positive experience. I was only marginally involved in assembling the school's program, but the staff of the Club of Rome did a great job in putting together a number of high level speakers and also organizing plenty of space for seminars and informal discussion. It was also a good idea to break the school in two halves, with the Sunday in between left free for the social program and for participants to relax and enjoy their time together. We offered them a chance to visit places that the ordinary tourist has no time to see. From the "Skeleton Room" of the "La Specola" science museum to the Roman Theater on the Hill of Fiesole and much more, including an "archeological dinner" where they were served the food that the ancient Etruscans ate (or that we believe they ate; the archaeology of cuisine is an iffy matter). Maybe these people won't change the world by themselves alone, but I think they will at least try. For sure, they will have a hard time; much harder than we had at their age. At least, they have been warned on what to expect.

In a series of posts on the Cassandra blog (just scroll down), you'll find descriptions and impressions of some of the talks. In this post, here are a few pictures to give you some idea of the friendly atmosphere of the Academy.

The Rector of the University of Florence, Luigi Dei, inaugurates the academy.

Ice-breaking games with the Secretary General of the Club of Rome, Graeme Maxton 

The discussion was always lively, with plenty of questions and comments during and after the talks. Here, the participants are crowding to ask question to Chandran Nair.

Testing state of the art world models in an interactive session. With Ilaria Perissi (red shirt) and Jordi Solé (standing with gray shirt)

Some participants Trying a "lampredotto" (organ meat) sandwich, a traditional Florentine food.

The skeleton room of the La Specola Museum, with curator Gianna Innocenti.

Visiting the Wax Room of the Specola museum. These ancient wax pieces had an important role in the progress of anatomy a few centuries ago. Now they are mainly a curiosity, but they have historical value and they are surely impressive. 

Some of the participants explore the ruins of the ancient Roman Theater of Fiesole

The Etruscan dinner: it included some plain food such as eggs, that seem to have been an Etruscan favorite dish, to reconstructions of the ancient "garum" fish sauce and something called "scottiglia", which is a curious mix of meat and strange sauces that (maybe) the Etruscans would eat.

And, finally, the traditional group photo in front of the university building of Via Capponi, in Florence

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Do we need a new "Axial Age" to find our place in nature? Peter Brown speaks at the 1st Summer Academy of the Club of Rome in Florence

Peter Brown of McGill University speaking at the Summer School of the Club of Rome in Florence, september 2017.

We might summarize our present human situation by the simple statement: In the 20th century, the glory of the human has become the desolation of the Earth. And now, the desolation of the Earth is becoming the destiny of the human. From here on, the primary judgment of all human institutions, professions, programs and activities will be determined by the extent to which they inhibit, ignore or foster a mutually enhancing human-Earth relationship. —Thomas Berry (Cited by Peter Brown in "Ethics for Economics in the Anthropocene")

We are deeply stuck in a wrong paradigm. Nature - or the ecosystem, if you prefer - is not, and never was, a "resource" for humankind to grab for free. We are part of Nature and if we don't respect Nature, then everything we do will be wrong and will damage ourselves as well as all living beings.

This was the basic point of Peter Brown's talk at the Summer School of the Club of Rome in Florence. I don't know if I can call it the best talk of the whole school, although I am tempted to do so. Surely, in any case, it was the one that went more in-depth into the core of the challenges we are facing. Eventually, it is all a question of ethics. And ethics means first of all respect. If we don't respect the Earth, we are not worthy of respect ourselves.

This is a fundamental point that underlies most of the current struggle. And to overcome the present impasse what we need, I think, can be summarized in the goals of the American Teilhard Association:

  1. A future worthy of the planet Earth in the full splendor of its evolutionary emergence.
  2. A future worthy of the human community as a high expression and a mode of fulfillment of the earth’s evolutionary process.
  3. A future worthy of the generations that will succeed us.

Clearly, these goals cannot come out of the postulates of current economics, nor from the optimization of an agent's utility function. It is something that goes beyond mere mechanical considerations. It is a new vision of the universe, something that I could call "A New Axial Age", a term that Peter Brown didn't use in his talk but that came to my mind while I was listening.

As you know, the term "axial age" encompasses the great changes that took place during the 1st millennium BC. Maybe the term has been overused with time, but it true that those centuries were a time of spiritual awakening, of a new vision of humanity that took place simultaneously and independently all over Eurasia, from China to Greece. And many of our current religious beliefs were laid down during that age.

It may be time for a new leap in human consciousness. A step to a higher level of understanding that would take us to include in our religious view not just our fellow human beings but all the fellow creatures inhabiting this planet. It might be a new religion if we were to follow a path similar to the ancient axial age. Or it might be a revisitation of our existing religions. After all, it is what Pope Francis is doing with Christianity, emphasizing the brotherhood (or, better, sisterhood) of all beings in an intuition that Francis of Assisi had already seen several centuries ago. 

At this point, I am sure that I have overinterpreted Peter Brown's talk, but I think this is the gist of the line of reasoning he was following. In any case, to make sure you understand Brown's ideas, here is a video of him that seems to me to be very similar to his presentation in Florence.

You may also be interested in Brown's paper "Ethics for Economics in the Anthropocene"


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