Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Energy Transition: Too Little, Too Late


The idea of the energy transition ("energiewende" in German) originated in the 1980s and gained legislative support in Germany in 2010. The idea is good and also technically feasible. But it requires sacrifices and, at present, sacrifices are politically unthinkable since most people don't realize how critical the situation really is. What we are doing for the transition seems to be is too little and too late. 


So, how are we doing with the energy transition? Can we eliminate fossil fuels from the world's energy system? Can we do it before it is too late to avoid the disasters that climate change and resource depletion will bring to us if we continue with business as usual?

The debate is ongoing and it sometimes it goes out of control as in the case of the controversy between the group of Professor Jacobsen at and that of Professor Clack which even generated a lawsuit for slander. In general, the debate is based on qualitative considerations: on one side we see plenty of naive optimism ("let's go solar, rah, rah!"), on the other, we have pure statements of disbelief ("renewables will never be able to do this or to do that.").

But science is based on quantitative evaluations and we have plenty of data that should permit us to do better than play the game of the clash of absolutes. This is what we did, myself and my coworker Sgouris Sgouridis, in a paper that was recently published on "Biophysical Economics and Resource Quality," titled "In Support of a Physics-Based Energy Transition Planning: Sowing Our Future Energy Needs"

In our paper, we started from the Jacobson/Clack controversy and we tried to use physical considerations (not subjected to the vagaries of markets) to examine how fast we can grow renewable energy. That's constrained by several factors but, as a first consideration by the fact that we need to invest energy now in order to get energy in the future.

This is why we refer to "sowing" in the title of the paper: every farmer knows that one needs to save some of the current harvest as seed for the future one - enough for eating in the future, but not so much that one would starve. In the case of energy, it is the same. We need to invest some fossil energy for the future harvest of renewable energy, but not so much that society would collapse (it is the "Sower's Strategy").

So, we propose an approximate, but physics-based, criterion for the possible speed of growth of renewable energy production. The model provides results similar to a more detailed one that we published earlier on. Let me cite from our recent paper:

These questions can be discussed in terms of the concept of “energy yield” or “energy return” and, in particular, from the “Energy Payback Time” (EPBT), a measurement of the time necessary for a new plant to return an amount of energy equal to the amount invested for its construction. EPBT can be expressed as the ratio of the energy invested in the manufacturing of the plant divided by the yearly energy generated. From this definition, we can derive a measurement of the energy investment necessary in order to obtain a certain yearly production of energy. We perform this calculations in the reasonable assumption of a transition period T that is less than or equal to the lifetime of the renewable energy installations; in this way, we do not need to take into account plant replacement. For equal intervals of time, the energy invested is Einv(t)= Etarget (for t= T) × (EPBT/T). If we set “Etarget” as the current global production per year and we assume that we want to maintain it constant throughout the transition, then EPBT/T is the ratio of the needed yearly investments to the current yearly production. <..>
If, hypothetically, the EPBT were larger than T, the transition would be physically impossible since it would require more energy than the amount that could be produced. Instead, for T=30 years, EPBT values over ca. 5 years would require investing more than 15% of the overall energy production every year, hence making the transition extremely difficult, although not completely impossible. Conversely, values of the EPBT close to or under 1 year would make the transition relatively facile. For instance, an EPBT=1 year implies that about 3% of the world’s energy production would have to be set aside for the transition. Seen in this light, the current values of the EPBT for the most diffuse renewable energy technologies are promising. <...>
These considerations can be compared to the current situation. The nameplate renewable energy capacity that was installed in 2016 was 161 GWp (IRENA 2017). With an average capacity factor that we can assume to be roughly 0.2, it corresponds to an average power generation of 32 GW. In this case, for renewable technologies with EPBT= 3 years, the energy invested is about 100 GW, or about 0.8% of the world’s average primary power consumption, 12 TW (IEA 2016). According to these estimates, the current level of energy investments in new renewable energy is not sufficient to attain the transition within the assumed climatic and energetic constraints. <..>
With these calculations, we show that physical factors provide fundamental insight on the challenge that humankind faces: the energy transition will be neither easy nor impossible, but it will require a substantially larger rate of energy investment than the currently allocated one.  

In short, a transition that could maintain the "BAU" (business as usual) is technically feasible and physically possible if we were willing to increase of a factor of 5 (at the very least) our investments in it. Unfortunately, the trend is going in the opposite direction. The global investments in renewable energy seem to have levelled off and In 2016 were approximately at the same level as they were in 2010. Too little, too late.




Can we hope for some miracle that would increase the efficiency of clean energy technologies by a factor of 5 in a short time? Unlikely, to say the least. That's true also for the often idolized nuclear energy which is not more efficient than renewables in terms of EPBT and even more unlikely to go through rapid and revolutionary technological improvements.

So, basically, we are not making it. We are consciously choosing to go down the Seneca Cliff, even though we wouldn't need to. It is maddening to think that we are failing at the challenge not because the transition is technologically unfeasible or unaffordable, but because the transition is politically inconceivable. Increasing investments in renewable energy requires sacrifices and this is a no-no in our world.

So, what's going to happen? The fact that we won't attain the transition doesn't mean returning to Middle Ages or even to Olduvai, but that in the future not everyone, and not even a majority of people, will have as much energy as we are used to having today. The sacrifices we refuse to make now will have to be made, and much larger, in the future.



Note: our paper on "Biophysical Economics and Resource Quality" will be freely downloadable until Dec 31, 2017. After that date, ask me for a copy (ugo.bardi(geewhiz)unifi.it)


Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The Seneca Cliff Explained: a Three Dimensional Collapse Overview Model


A Three Dimensional Collapse Overview Model

In this post, Geoffrey Chia illustrates one of the fundamental characteristics of the "Seneca Effect", also known as "collapse," the fact that it occurs in networked systems dominated by feedback interactions. This is a qualitative interpretation of collapse that complements the more quantitative models that I report in my book "The Seneca Effect." (U.B.)


A post by Geoffrey Chia

The Limits to Growth was published in 1972 by a group of world class scientists using the best mathematical computer modelling available at the time. It projected the future collapse of global industrial civilisation in the 21st century if humanity did not curb its population, consumption and pollution. It was pilloried by many “infinite growth on a finite planet” economists over the decades. 

However, updated data inputs and modern computer modelling in recent years (particularly by Dr Graham Turner of the CSIRO in 2008 and 2014) showed that we are in reality closely tracking the standard model of the LtG, with industrial collapse and mass die-off due sooner rather than later. The future is now.


The LtG looked only at 5 parameters, with global warming being a mere subset of pollution. Dramatic acceleration of ice melt and unprecedented, increasingly frequent, extreme weather events over the past two decades clearly demonstrate that global warming is progressing far faster and far worse than anyone could possibly have imagined back in the 70s. Global warming certainly deserves a separate category for consideration on its own, quite apart from the other manifestations of pollution.


The LtG did not include a specific category looking at the human dynamics of finance, economics and political manoeuvrings, which was fair enough, because it is impossible to mathematically model such capricious irrationality. Economists may beg to differ, however no economic mathematical model has ever been shown to accurately reflect the real world, nor ever consistently predict anything useful (unlike the LtG and other proven science based models), not least because of their hopelessly incomplete and deeply flawed ideological economic assumptions. Garbage in, garbage out. In 2013, the “Nobel-type” prize for economics (properly termed the Bank of Sweden prize) was jointly awarded to different economists who had mathematically modelled diametrically opposing ideas. That was akin to awarding the physics prize to different scientists who “showed” that the universe is both expanding and contracting at the same time.


Despite that, I do advocate that we should include finance, economics and politics in our subjective conceptual framework of collapse mechanics, because financial and economic troubles are triggers for political upheavals which can lead to conflict and the collapse of nation states. Syria is a prime example. This unquantifiable category, despite being subjective and unpredictable, will nevertheless significantly contribute to population die-off, just as any quantifiable category such as global warming or resource depletion or ecosystem destruction can and will cause human die-off. Economic collapse can lead to loss of healthcare, homelessness and starvation. Political madness can trigger global thermonuclear war at any time, causing our extinction.


All the categories contributing to collapse are deeply inter-related and intertwined. This is the basis of systems thinking, which is essential for making realistic judgements about our future and mitigating against the troubles ahead. How can we confer such complex ideas to the general public in a manner which is clear and understandable, yet does not significantly compromise accuracy or detail?

I first alluded to the idea of a 3D collapse overview model during my Griffith University Ecocentre presentation in March 2017

It is a refinement of my older, less complete, 2D model "the three horsemen and one big fat elephant of the apocalypse", originally conceived as a joke, a play on a hackneyed biblical phrase, albeit with serious intent.


When various pundits try to analyse matters relating to sustainability, their biggest deficiency is often blinkered or tunnel vision. They focus on only one issue while ignoring other issues. Most global warming "solutions" advocated by climate activists fit this description. They assume limitless energy availability to deliver huge renewable energy infrastructures and massive carbon sequestration fantasies to enable an approximation of business as usual to support 10 billion people by mid century. 

In reality we are poised to fall off the cliff of net energy availability very soon 1,2 and not even the most optimistic carbon sequestration fantasies (all of which will require colossal energy inputs and none of which are proven) will be able return us to a stable climate unless the total human footprint is also reduced drastically and immediately 3 (which will not happen short of global nuclear war – which in itself will exponentially release greenhouse gases, devastate remaining ecosystems and destroy industrial civilisation and thus our ability to technologically sequester GHGs).


Blinkered views produce flawed pseudo-solutions, which if attempted often exacerbate other problems, or at the very least are a complete waste of time and energy.


Here is a 10 second video-clip, my first attempt to make this 3D model in real life, "doom explained by confectionery abuse"


In my 3D model I have maintained the central position of the total human footprint as the "big fat elephant", to emphasise that if this is not addressed, then nothing is being addressed. Few commentators advocate voluntary energy descent, reduction of consumption or simplification of lifestyles, however those are essential strategies to reduce our footprint. Even fewer talk about population reduction. This 3D model is a far superior way to visualise the predicaments we face, compared with disparate and disconnected one dimensional views or compared with simple mnemonic headings. For example, the three "Es" of energy, economy and environment represent a simplistic and incomplete text list, with no graphical demonstration of the links between each "E".


Trying to further subdivide, refine or complicate this model is likely to be counter-productive. As it is, this 3D model, a six sided double pyramid with a proliferating tumour at its core, probably represents the limit of complexity which can easily be stored in the average mind as a visual snapshot. It is an easily remembered image which can be conjured up at the dinner table by scribbling on a napkin or by building the actual 3D model with meatballs and skewers, to both entertain and horrify your guests.


Compartmentalising the various intertwined global issues is obviously an artificial approach, but is necessary to help us understand the highly complex dynamics involved. It is necessary in the same way that compartmentalising the study of Medicine into specialties such as Cardiology, Gastroenterology, Neurology, Nephrology etc is an artificial but proven approach to understanding the highly complex mechanisms within the human body. Just as different bodily systems (heart, gut, brain, kidneys etc) directly interact with and influence each and every other system, each component of my 3D model also directly interacts with and influences each and every other component.


Examples:


R affecting F: every major oil disruption eg 1973, 1979, has always resulted in economic recession. Another R affecting F example: diminishing per capita resources leads to economic hardships, shattered expectations and anger in the population, which leads to the rise of megalomaniacal fascist demagogues, multiplying the risk of global conflict.


R affecting F affecting R, affecting E and P: decline of conventional oil production since it peaked in 2005 has led to desperate harvesting of unconventional oils pushed through by means of political deceit, fraudulent market misrepresentations and financial/economic distortions. This Ponzi scheme will lead to an inevitable market crash dwarfing the sub-prime mortgage scam. It has also led to severe exacerbations of E and P.


R causing C: this is obvious


C affecting R affecting C: as heatwaves worsen, airconditioning use and hence fossil fuel consumption escalate, liberating more GHGs and worsening global warming

Unfortunately with today's advanced state of planetary malaise, most of the feedbacks between components are "positive" or bad self-reinforcing feedbacks. Few are "negative" or good semi-correcting feedbacks. The reader will no doubt be able to think of many other examples of bidirectional feedbacks between components, both positive and negative.


I advocate that each article discussing sustainability (or lack thereof) should be slotted into the part or parts of this 3D model where it belongs, in order to appreciate how comprehensive or incomplete that article may be, and to enable other related discourses to be slotted into adjacent positions, so as to build up a more holistic picture.


As visual animals I believe this is a useful tool to educate ourselves. It can even be used in primary schools as part of their science curriculum (but will no doubt be banned amongst global warming denialist groups or neoclassical/neoliberal economic madrases). Children can make these simple 3D models with toy construction kits or plasticine and sticks. They should probably be discouraged from playing with their food, unlike us adults, who are terrible hypocrites anyway.



Geoffrey Chia MBBS, MRCP, FRACP, November 2017


Geoffrey Chia is a Cardiologist in Brisbane, Australia, who has studied and written about issues regarding (un)sustainability for more than 15 years.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

A Religion Called Economy





Published also in Italian in "Effetto Cassandra


A post by Michele Migliorino

The idea that religions are giving way to a more advanced human level of existence is part of common knowledge. Science and technology are emancipating humankind from mythical and religious discourses under the effect of the belief that only rationality should guide us. Reason has replaced the old God.

Nietzsche, more than a century ago, warned that God was dead and that we had killed him. Nowadays a spectre wanders in our societies: it is nihilism, a consequence of God's death. What is it? According to Nietzsche, it consists in the "devaluation of all values," including the sacred ones on which the Western civilization was founded.

"What I relate is the history of the next two centuries. I describe what is coming, what can no longer come differently: the advent of nihilism.  This history can be related even now; for necessity itself is at work here.  This future speaks even now in a hundred signs, this destiny announces itself everywhere; for this music of the future all ears are cocked even now.  For some time now, our whole European culture has been moving as toward a catastrophe, with a tortured tension that is growing from decade to decade: restlessly, violently, headlong, like a river that wants to reach the end, that no longer reflects, that is afraid to reflect". (Nietzsche, Unpublished notes, 1887-1888)

It is not necessary for a God to be transcendent. A consequence of the secularization of society is a new, immanent, God: it is now called "Economy". No longer "intra-world ascesis" (Max Weber) and will of salvation; oikonomos (in greek, "home care") has become the only concern of humans. This necessity had been growing over the centuries, starting already with the Renaissance when the growth of global commerce started the process that would lead, today, to a planetary commercial machine generating billions or even trillions of monetary, computerized transactions every second.

Why is the economy a God? Because it has taken the place of the old values and because we use it to fill the gap left by nihilism. Very simply, nihilism is the result of the outdating of a fundamental value: the afterlife. We are now in the unconscious condition of no longer finding an existential sense because for two millennia (maybe a lot more) we believed that there wasn't a sense in this life. That implied the existence of an "original copy" of our existence somewhere else, in a transcendent world. From Plato to Catholicism, this is the fundamental matrix we have to deal with when we talk about "our culture".

The extraordinary fact of our situation is that we do not want to "see" what we have done! This is why we are so troubled and restless: we can't accept that there is nothing beyond death! Our historical condition rather makes us committed to understanding the meaning of a finite mortal existence. But, today, we are sure that there is no sense in our earthly life and therefore that is better grab every moment of this ephemeral existence; we cannot afford to lose any opportunity because "any chance you don't take is lost forever."

Economy is this "running" in an infernal circle reminding Dante's "Comedy." It is an infinite growth in a finite world free from any limit which could hinder it. Since there is no sense in anything, "everything is allowed" (Dostojevski) and there will never be consequences. No transcendent God is judging us in terms of good and bad deeds.

However, if there is no sense in anything, wouldn't it be better to end it all here and now? Wouldn't it be a better form of forward-thinking?
Never to be born at all is best for mortal men, and if born to pass as soon as may be the gates of Hades. (Hesiod)
Economy acts as a big "repression." It is just like we were producing the meaning itself by means of our everyday activities. Indeed, the busier we are, the more life seems to have sense. When we are moving - just as a kind of merchandise - we forget about that "deep cosmic noise", of that lack that sometimes nags us asking: what is the meaning of all this?


Risultati immagini per città movimento

No matter how bad things become, only a few people will be ready to accept that the Economy it is not a good thing. We believe in Economy, we do not discuss its existence, precisely as a religion does with God. Instead of an afterlife, we have a Money-God allowing us to do everything we want, or at least this is what we believe. Everything consists of believing in something - this is why is difficult to understand the term "religion" in its wider meaning.

But why the Economy is not a good thing? Because it is not possible to create prosperity for all. Wealth is a relative term, it is something that can belong only to a few. I can be rich only if you are poor; wealth is a relation: there has to be poverty in order to have wealth.

You can see this easily when considering the inequality issue. Although the gap between the rich and the poor continues to grow decade after decade, the lifestyle of poor people has not really worsened. A success of Capitalism? Yes, sure. Here, our religion protects us from heresies such as the idea that we should reform the economic system, redistribute wealth, supervise big capital, control corporations! In this way, we save the world. So, we have to promote economic growth in Africa! And this justifies wars for exporting democracy. Only with democracy, the African governments will ensure that the Africans, too, will have access to wealth. 

You can see how the Economy religion destroys everything: forest, seas, living species, ourselves and our infinite cultures existing over the whole planet. By now, realism would tell us that it is time to throw the Economy GOd into the wastebasket history and try to create a society which won't imply such a despicable waste of energy and resources. It seems that it is time to become profane toward this religion. Yet, that doesn't seem to be happening.

The "crowd phenomenon" is hard to overcome because it is the very mechanism itself that generates our cultural evolution (according to Renè Girard). We are afraid of losing our ownership and we are afraid of each other. It is difficult to us to go against the others. It is extremely hard to reject what makes us living: The Economy-God.

But what if what makes us today prosperous is what will make us miserable tomorrow?



Sunday, November 26, 2017

Why do we need jobs if we can have slaves working for us?


We normally assume that anything that creates jobs is a good thing, but is it, really? Is our current prosperity related to having "jobs"? Isn't it, rather, the result of the large number of "energy slaves" working for us in the form of fossil fuels? Today, everyone of us has probably more slaves in terms of available energy output than even the richest in the ancient world could have. But, in the ancient world, the rich Roman patricians knew the source of their wealth and practiced "otium" (a term untranslatable in English) intended as the search of pleasure and knowledge free from the needs of everyday survival - with their human slaves taking care of that. In our times, instead, we tend to neglect, or even actively deny, the role of our fossil slaves. We state, and maybe even believe, that our antics ("jobs") are what makes us live and we engage with gusto in the equivalent of digging holes in the ground and filling them up again: it seems to us a good way to please the deity we call "dʒiːdiːˈpiː" (or "GDP"). And we think that if the GDP God doesn't seem to favor us so much anymore, it is because we didn't dig enough holes, or not deep enough, and so we engage in a frenzy of more hole digging and hole filling which we call "job creation". But, deep down, we know that, sooner or later, our fossil slaves are going to evaporate into thin air and leave us to do the work ourselves. (U.B.)

This is a post by Nate Hagens and DJ White. Rich in ideas and concepts, it is longer than the average post on Cassandra's Legacy but well worth the effort of reading, savoring each sentence in it.  



Working drafts copyright ©2010-2017 - Not to be reproduced in any form without the explicit permission of the authors




by NJ Hagens & DJ White, EarthTrust




First, some review of relevant points:

BASIC

1. Fossil carbon compounds are incredibly energy dense, as their formation and processing was done by geologic forces over deep time. One barrel of oil contains about 1700 kWh of work potential.Compared to an average human work day where 0.6kWh is generated, one barrel of oil, currently costing under than $50 to global citizens, contains about 10.5 years of human labor equivalence (4.5 years after conversion losses).

2. As such, these ‘fossil slaves’ are thousands of times cheaper than human labor. Applying large amounts of these ‘workers’ to tasks humans used to do manually or with animals has generated a gargantuan invisible labor force subsidizing humanity – building the scale and complexity of our industry, complexity, population, wages, profits, etc.

3. GDP - what nations aspire to - is a measure of finished goods and services generated in an economy. It is strongly correlated with energy use, and given that almost 90% of our primary energy use is fossil fuels, with their combustion. 'Burning stuff' (measuring how much primary energy is consumed) is a reasonable first approximation for GDP globally.

4. Regionally and nationally this relationship can decouple if the ‘heavy lifting’ of industrialization is done elsewhere, and the goods (and embodied energy) imported. (e.g. China). The relationship between global energy use (which is ~87% fossil fuel based) and GDP remains tightly linked.

ADVANCED

5. The common political mantra that higher GDP creates social benefits by lifting all boats has become suspect since the 2008 recession and ‘recovery.’ For the first time in the history of the USA, we now have more bartenders and waitresses than manufacturing jobs. In order to
maximize dollar profits, it often makes more sense for corporations to mechanize and hire ‘fossil slaves’ than to hire ‘real workers.’ Real income peaked in the USA around 1970 for the bottom 50% of wage earners.

6. GDP only measures the 'goods' and doesn’t measure the 'bads' (externalities, social malaise, extinctions, pollution). Actually, natural disasters like oil spills and hurricanes are ostensibly great for GDP** because we have to build and burn more stuff to replace the damaged areas. (**Note, only to a point – once a country – e.g. Haiti or the Philippines - cannot afford to replace what was lost, then natural disasters become a sharp negative to GDP as infrastructure underpinning future GDP is lost and can’t be rebuilt)

7. On an ‘empty planet,’ pursuing GDP in order to gainfully employ people (and distribute money so they could buy needs and wants) seemed to make sense. However, on an ecologically full planet pursuing GDP with no other long-term plan is using up precious natural capital stocks just to maintain momentum and provide people brain-pleasing neurotransmitters.

8. There are numerous alternative measures to GDP that incorporate well-being and happiness and subtract environmental ills. But it won’t be easy to switch objectives from GDP to e.g. G.P.I. (Genuine Progress or Happiness) because the present creditors will expect to be paid back in real GDP ($) rather than happiness certificates. Still, over time, strict metrics of success based on consumption alone are likely to change.

9. There will likely be a growing disparity between ‘jobs’ (occupations that provide income and contribute to the global human heat engine) and ‘work’ (those tasks that need to be accomplished by individuals and society to procure and maintain basic needs). However, at 2015 USA wage rates, moving from $20 per barrel (the long-run average cost for oil), to $150 per barrel, the army of energy slaves declines from 22,000 per barrel to under 3,000 – meaning the economy shrinks and therefore much more work needs to be accomplished via efficiency improvements, real humans, or making do with less.

10. Our institutions and financial systems are based on expectations of continued GDP growth perpetually into the future. No serious government or institution entity forecasts the end of growth this century (at least not publicly).

_______________________________________________________________


Okay. Let’s unpack all of this a bit.

Often in the news today, you'll hear people talking about job growth and job creation like it's a good thing. Everybody wants a good job, right? The more jobs we have to do, the better off we are!

Yet if you kick open an anthill or a beehive, the insects will not be grateful for the sudden boost in job creation, and they will effectively utilize the cross-species language of biting and stinging to inform you of this opinion. From this we may infer that insects don't understand economics.

Alternately, it could it be that ants - having honed their behaviors for 130 million years and having attained a total biomass we have only recently (and temporarily) matched - might be in tune with some deep realities about jobs, energy, and the embodied cost of building complexity.

Since this is Reality 101, let’s ask some basic questions. What ARE jobs, really? How do they relate to energy and wealth? How do we keep track of whether we’re richer or poorer? We all kinda feel like we know. And (as a general rule) whenever “we kinda feel that we know” is the case, we should probably take a closer look.

To do so, we’ll first need to add a few things to our story about ants. We need to revisit our invisible energy slaves, discover what “freaks out” capuchin monkeys, and think about what wealth actually is.

Energy Slaves again

As you recall - and as we’ll discuss in greater detail as the course goes on - every American has over 500 invisible energy slaves working 24/7 for them. That is, the labor equivalent of 500 human workers, 24/7, every day of the year, mostly derived from burning fossil carbon and hydrocarbons.

Every American thus has a veritable army of invisible servants, which is why even those below the official poverty line live, for the most part, lives far more comfortable and lavish with respect to energy and stuff than kings and queens of old (but obviously not as high in social status). Being long dead and pulled from the ground - and thus a bit zombie-esque - these energy slaves don’t complain, don’t sleep, and don’t need to be fed. However, as we are increasingly learning, they do inhale, exhale, and leave behind waste. Since they’re invisible, we don’t think about these fossil helpers any more than we think about nitrogen (which happens to be 78% of what we breathe in, but hey, it’s just “there”, so why think about it?) Same with our 500 energy helpers. The extent we think about them is when we fill up at the pump or pay our electric bill – and then only as an outlay of our limited dollars.

We use the “slave” metaphor because it’s really a very good one, despite its pejorative label. Energy slaves do exactly the sort of things that human slaves and domestic animals previously did: things that fulfilled their masters’ needs and whims. And they do them faster. And cheaper. Indeed, it probably wasn’t a big coincidence that the world (and the USA) got around to freeing most of its human slaves only once industrialization started offering cheaper fossil-slave replacements.

The things we value are created with a combination of human and energy-slave work combined with natural capital (minerals and ores, soils and forests, etc.). There are huge amounts of embedded energy in the creation and operation of something like an iPad and the infrastructure which makes it work. When we tap our screen to view a kittycat picture, the image is pulled from a furiously spinning hard drive which may be halfway around the planet, propelled by some fossil slaves, and routed through data centers which are likewise fueled. The internet uses over a tenth of the world’s electricity - that’s a lot of energy slaves. The infrastructure itself has taken decades to build, and requires constantly increasing energy to maintain. But we don’t think much about that either.
So the internet is infrastructure we have invested energy in, just like a built anthill has been invested in with ant labor. If the internet (or an anthill) was destroyed and needed to be rebuilt, that situation would certainly create jobs. But it would also require a lot of energy, raw materials and work. Ants don’t have energy slaves, so they don’t want more work to do. They are dealing with finite energy inputs in their ecosystem. If more energy (ant-labor) is devoted to rebuilding the anthill, less energy is then left to care for the larvae, forage for food, and defend the hive.

Energy slaves don’t care either way about job creation. (Being zombies and all). But why do we?

Everybody wants a good job.

Remember this, because it’ll come up again and again in Reality101: evolution works with what it’s got. It’s a stepwise process, and each step is based on what was available in the step before. This is true both for biological and social evolution. That’s why there are no animals on the Serengeti with wheels: there’s no viable path to evolve wheels from feet, because even if there was a way of designing animals that had wheels, there are no viable intermediate stages. Hold that thought…

Now in times past, a human’s career, their societal function, was largely about their own individual labor and skills. A blacksmith worked with metal. A cooper made barrels. A shoemaker made shoes.

Others made furniture, cloth, or other valuable commodities. Farmers created food. Preachers preached. Others did simpler labor like digging ditches or cutting down trees. The relative value of their labor was roughly set by how much other humans valued the end product of such labor, so a skilled blacksmith might be able to trade his services for more status and better accommodations than a ditch digger. Thus, it became an integral part of human culture that the products of some work were considered more valuable than others. It became a mark of social status and pride to have such a career. Hold that thought too, we’ll be coming right back to it.

Cue the Screaming Monkeys.

“Equal Pay for Equal Work” is currently the slogan for those opposed to sexual discrimination, which is usually characterized by women getting paid less than men. And it’s a sentiment which has deep roots in the ape and even simian mind.

If you give capuchin monkeys the “job” of doing a nonsense task in exchange for a reward, they will happily do it all day long as long as they keep getting a reward - cucumber slices. But if a capuchin sees the monkey in the next cage get a (better tasting so higher value) grape while it still gets a cucumber slice, it’ll go ape, throwing the cucumber slice in the face of the experimenter in a rage. It gets the same cucumber slice it has been happy to work for before, but it no longer wants it, because it no longer feels fair in comparison to its cage mate’s effort and reward. Instead, it wants the experimenter and the other monkey to be punished for this inequity (we watched this video of Frans de Waals experiment in class).

Think for a moment how central this monkey reaction is to the human world around you. We’ll come back to it later in the course, and will refer to the term “capuchin fairness” because a similar mechanism turns out to be behind a great deal of human behavior. We’re outraged at the notion of somebody getting more reward than we do for doing the same thing. Indeed, many large-scale human institutions now stress perceived fairness of process over quality of end results. (A prominent example might be the US Congress). Moreover, this monkey-business also reiterates the concept of relative wealth being more important to a monkey mind (and a human mind, it turns out) than absolute wealth, which is kind of nuts, but that’s monkeys for you.

It turns out that our brains are simultaneously trying to optimize two different, and somewhat incompatible pursuits, both of which have deep evolutionary roots in our social species. One is energy gathering and wealth creation: obtaining food, procuring clothing and shelter – basically optimal foraging theory applied to the human biological organism. The other is equitable social distribution and transparency of process. A tribe of hunter-gatherers needed to cooperate as a mini super-organism to get food and defend territory and stand together against competitors. But within the tribe, an individual’s success depended on it getting a reasonable share of what the tribe had. We’re descended from tribe-members who insisted on at least their fair share, as is every living capuchin, so it’s not surprising it’s such a strong feeling. But when both of these instincts are operating simultaneously, in an era where our species happened upon a buried treasure of fossil pixie dust, some interesting practices emerged…

Ok. Ants. Monkeys. Energy Slaves. So where did “jobs” come from?

A funny thing happened on the way to the Anthropocene. To an ever-increasing degree over the last two centuries, wealth has been created more by fossil slaves than by human labor, significantly more - and it’s at its all-time peak about now. (you’ll have the information to derive this yourself by the end of this course).

If you don’t believe that, try hiring a bunch of people to push you and your SUV around hundreds of miles per week with their own muscles and see what it costs you, and then see how little it costs you to buy the same work in a tank of gasoline. In fact, the vast majority of the tasks and stuff that used to be done by human labor is now done by fossil slaves and the infrastructure they have enabled. The slaves have also made shipping nearly free, so any actual human labor we need can also be hired in the cheapest places on earth (under essentially slave labor conditions), and shipped to us by planes, trains, ships and trucks for next to nothing. So rather than buying furniture from local artisans, we make local firms compete with furniture made halfway across the world which is cheaply shipped to a local store. To a good first approximation, the USA doesn’t make anything anymore (well, movies…).

We have amassed a huge amount of wealth, even if much of it is dumb stuff like plastic toys and salad shooters and things that quickly break. There are so many things we think we want, so we get them. We eat salads with fresh veggies which may be grown 5000 miles away and air-flown to our stores by energy slaves running the planes, refrigerators, trucks, and stores. The average dinner travels over 1400 miles to get to your plate in USA.

We increasingly buy disposable everything - used once and tossed away. Most everything is short-life these days; when your authors were young if you bought a fan, you expected it to last 20+ years. Now if it lasts 2-3 before you toss it, that’s about par for the course. Planned obsolescence exists because it’s “good for GDP.” A new dishwasher now lasts 6-8 years when it used to last 12-16, because they now have integrated cheaper electronics that fail. Our GDP has become tethered to rapid product-replacement cycles keyed to our short attention spans and our enjoyment at buying new things. This creates “jobs” for car salesmen, advertising executives, etc., but has tilted the scales in favor of “useless GDP” rather than real societal utility. We know how to make things with high quality that last, but due to time bias and the financialization of the human experience, such an objective is relatively unimportant in our current culture. Many people get a new phone every 18 months with their cell plan, and perfectly functional ones wind up in the landfills.

But how should we distribute the largesse of the energy slaves? Does everyone get equal shares? Do we take the total number of dollars (which is the way we count such things) created by energy-slave work and divide them equally among the population?

Heavens no. We haven’t even acknowledged that the energy slaves are responsible. Rather, with a bit of help from opportunism, social evolution co-opted the pre-existing “work for pay” concept into an uneven distribution system that “felt” fair.

These days there are a lot of jobs in the USA, which keep us very busy not making much of anything of long term value. We do advertising, hairstyling, consulting, writing, and a lot of supervising of the things our fossil slaves do. We don’t care all that much what we’re doing as long as we feel we’re getting paid at least as well for the same task as the other capuchins – er... people - around us, and that with our compensation we can buy things that give us pleasing brain-reward experiences. These days in this culture, a “good job” is defined by how much it pays, not by what it accomplishes. Many people would consider it an optimum situation, a great job, to sit in a room for 40 hours per week and make $100,000 per year, just pulling a lever the way a capuchin does for a cucumber slice. You know they would (would you? Think about it. Now think about how that compares to the career you’re currently planning).

And that’s where the perceived equality is: the equality of inconvenience. The 40-hour work week is a social threshold of inconvenience endured, which is now what we keep primary social track of rather than the productive output of a person’s activity. In 1930 John Maynard Keynes predicted that wealth would increase 600% in the next century (which is only 15 years away) and because of this wealth, people would only need to work 15 hours per week. He was right about our wealth increase, but paradoxically, we are working longer hours than ever! Because socially, everyone who isn’t a criminal is supposed to have a job and endure roughly equivalent inconvenience. Any segment of society which went to a 15-hour work week would be treated as mooching freeloaders, and be pelted by cucumber slices and worse.

In a society in which we’re all basically idle royalty being catered to by fossil slaves, why do we place such a value on “jobs”? Well, partly because it’s how the allocation mechanism evolved, but there also exists considerable resentment against those who don’t work. Think of the vitriol with which people talk about “freeloaders” on society who don’t work a 40-hour week and who take food stamps. The fact is, that most of us are freeloaders when it comes down to it, but if we endure 40 hours of inconvenience per week, we meet the social criteria of having earned our banana pellets even if what we’re doing is stupid and useless, and realized to be stupid and useless. Indeed, a job that’s stupid and useless but pays a lot is highly prized.

So “jobs” per se aren’t intrinsically useful at all, which is why ants don’t want more of them. They’re mostly a co-opted, socially-evolved mechanism for wealth distribution and are very little about societal wealth creation. And they function to keep us busy and distract us from huge wealth disparity. We’re too busy making sure our co-workers don’t get grapes to do something as radical as call out and lynch the bankers. Keeping a population distracted may well be necessary to hold a modern nation together.

And since most of our wealth comes from invisible, mute slaves we don’t even think about, it isn’t clear to us that what we’re actually doing in current economies is distributing the wealth they create.

That means we can now have wild disparities in pay, as long as it “feels like” others are doing something qualitatively different. The amount paid to a wall street vice president is hugely greater than that paid to a college professor, which in turn is greater than that paid to an environmental campaigner. This has pretty much nothing to do with the relative worth of each function to society, and everything to do with how well-connected such jobs are to the flow of energy-slave-created wealth. Yet if higher pay is received by someone in another “tribe” who we don’t directly interact with, we don’t feel the urge to scream and throw our paycheck. We just wish we had a “better” job.

If we reflect on the possibility that we have en-masse simply accepted the premise that the job is somehow paid what it’s worth, we arrive at some disturbing conclusions. Is a teacher, farmer, or fireman really of less value to society than a real-estate flipper? The amounts paid for jobs have been allowed to float freely, detached from actual societal value as the degree of political connectedness of those with such jobs varies. The vast majority of our wealth comes from primary natural capital in tandem with fossil slaves and from the fruit of empire; jobs are mostly an ad-hoc mechanism for distributing this wealth unequally in a way which effectively conveys the illusion of egalitarian process.

For now, are most of us just idle princes and princesses in a fossil-slave kingdom, none of us really at huge risk, and mostly doing things which have little net value? And what happens when our fossil slaves grow wings and fly away into the atmosphere? What will the princes and princesses do then?

That’s just Gross.

This leads us to the story of how we keep track of our wealth and productivity and success. How DO we keep track of that collective wealth anyways?

Well for real wealth, mostly we don’t. The value of a healthy ecosystem, clean air, seas full of fish, fresh drinkable water… love, joy, happiness and fulfillment… all these things our market system considers to be of essentially zero value. Armadillos, dolphins, hummingbirds, rainforests… you get the idea.

But our economists have a metric called “gross domestic product” GDP which is what our society uses to roughly keep track of our ‘success’. It represents the dollar value of all finished goods and services produced in a time period (typically, a year) within a nation’s borders. Since that other stuff- you know, the natural world- doesn’t consist of finished goods and services, it isn’t counted (now if you kill the hummingbirds and make them into ornaments for hats, or turn armadillos into ashtrays, they then can be added to GDP because they’re now products which are “finished”!).

The fact that parts of the environment which have been “finished” are considered more valuable than parts which are “unfinished” is one way in which GDP sets a fairly screwy default value in our current world. It’s a tacit societal value system: anything without a transacted money value isn’t part of GDP. So a nation which chops down all its trees to sell to another country for firewood has a better GDP than one which leaves its trees standing. It’s a funny way to figure wealth, but it’s what we’ve got. And oh, by the way, we’re betting everything on it.

GDP is based on money transaction (money is, roughly speaking, a claim on future energy), and since most current wealth is created by our fossil energy slaves, GDP is directly tied to the energy burned by society. Indeed, it has recently been shown that GDP is tied to fossil fuel energy, and thus CO2, in a way which may be described very simply by treating human society as essentially a giant heat engine. In other words, a very simple model which treats human civilization as an essentially mindless consumptive system - a thermodynamic amoeba in search of energy - suffices to match the GDP with the quantity of energy burned.

And over the last 100 years, our burning of energy, and thus our world GDP, has gone through the roof. The number of dollars representing the wealth created from the burning has also increased, and exponentially so in the last 50 years, and since the 2008 crisis, even faster.

It may be reasonable to reflect that during this same period, sometimes called The Great Acceleration, the planet has been largely laid to waste, a mass extinction has accelerated, the seas have been depopulated of most fish, and the systems which sustain large complex life on earth have been progressively compromised. Yet we continue to grow the scale of the heat engine to accomplish the primary objective of the modern human economy: to maximize dollars and jobs.

Bear in mind that what we’re doing - if we get right down to it - is converting trillions of watts of fossil-slave energy into a few watts of pleasing stimulation inside our brains. (alternately: tiny amounts of brain-reward chemicals) And the side-effect of this process is all around us. Mountains of waste, acidified oceans, altered climates, pollution, mass extinctions, and mischief. Here we use “mischief” as the general term for things humans do en-route to pleasing themselves, which may include building racetracks, using disposable diapers, making wastebaskets out of elephant feet, overbuilding fishing fleets, throwing out our electronics every two years to replace them with new ones, etc. It doesn’t “feel like” waste at the time. But if you ask someone in 200 years what percent of fossil magic was wasted, they will likely say “all of it,” because not much useful fossil fuel (or anything previously built with it) will likely remain.

The ubiquity of fossil slavery during our lifetimes has caused us to conflate wants and needs. Most of what we “feel like” we need these days is nothing we evolved to need. Consumerism is driven largely by social competitiveness. Most capuchins – er…, people - find it more important to have a bigger house than their neighbors, than to have an even bigger house in a neighborhood where it’s the smallest one. Relative wealth - it’s not just for monkeys (we and the monkeys like fairness, but it feels more fair if we’ve got stuff at least as good as the people we interact with).

And this signaling of status is important socially and sexually. A lot of the things we feel we need are just for show.

And do you remember the “hedonic ratchet” effect from earlier discussions on bias, heuristics, fallacies and delusion? To get the same mental stimulation we got yesterday, we require the expectations of ever-increasing reward. That means more money and more energy slaves. Or at least the expectation of same.

Happiness is not correlated with wealth beyond having the basics of life covered. Most of the things which actually make us happy, joyful, and fulfilled are in our virtual mental worlds, and not in the physical world at all. A Filipino may have only a small percent of the number of energy slaves as an American, but be every bit as happy, and surveys have shown that to be true.57 It’s quite possible to be “poor” and happy. Equally, it’s quite possible to be rich and miserable. Our brains are even primed for it, seemingly.

So where does this leave us?

Well, you already know that our amoeba-like heat-engine of an economy is wrecking the earth, acidifying the seas, melting the polar caps, causing what could become the greatest mass extinction in 65 million years, and throwing our future into doubt.

But at least we have our good ol’ energy slaves to continue creating GDP. Right?

Well…

Thing is, the energy slaves will soon be going away forever. In the last 30 years we’ve burned a third of all fossil energy that has been used since it was discovered thousands of years ago. Since your authors have been alive, humans have used more energy than in the entire 200,000 year history of homo sapiens.

We are just now passing through the all-time peak of liquid hydrocarbon availability, which is the chief driver of our economies due to its special attributes.

Each year, basically from now on, most of us will have fewer fossil energy slaves marching behind us. You’d think this wouldn’t make much difference, right? Since they’re invisible anyhow? But in fact it’ll make a great deal of difference, because we’re heading back into times – either gradually or suddenly, but inexorably - in which human labor makes up an increasing percentage of the total energy we have available. One day human (and perhaps animal) labor will again be the majority of the work done in human societies – just like it is in an anthill.

And this will happen in the context of a more used-up natural world. Rather than being able to catch dinner by throwing a hook in the nearby ocean, the nearest healthy schools of fish may be ten thousand miles away in Antarctica, and hard to get to without dirt-cheap energy slaves to make giant refrigerated ships to pursue and move them around for us. The copper mines will be mostly used up. The inorganic phosphate deposits we used to make fertilizer, mostly gone. And so on.

Or rather than “gone,” let’s use the more accurate term energetically remote. That is, there will still be loads of “stuff” underground, but it won’t be the very pure ores of yesteryear. It’ll be stuff that requires digging up a huge amount of rock for a tiny amount of whatever we’re after. Because (remember the Easter candy story) we always use the best stuff first. Yet we’ll be going after worse and worse ore with fewer and fewer slaves. And the heavy breathing of the fossil slaves will have pulled our seas and climate back towards conditions in which they were born - a hellish primordial world of toxicity.

This all raises the question - or at least should - of whether it might not be a good idea to set the fossil slaves free and let them rest, since they’re going away soon anyhow and when they do we will really need a livable planet. They don’t need jobs, and we don’t need dollars for happiness. Yet this flies in the face of capuchin entitlement and evolved mechanisms for brain reward, which – in effect - take our current societal arrangements for granted. As our fossil slaves eventually retire – childless –we might have to rediscover the difference between jobs and work, just like the ants.

On GDP, Stone Heads and Babies



“Can you think of any problem in any area of human endeavor on any scale, from microscopic to global, whose long-term solution is in any demonstrable way aided, assisted, or advanced by further increases in population, locally, nationally, or globally?” Al Bartlett

So other than using up non-renewable resources and degrading the natural world, what other consequences can there be when maximizing GDP is our plan for the future?

Well, for one thing, it can lead us to really screwy societal choices.

For instance in the infamous Easter island culture, there was an organizing belief in belief that all food, resources, and other good things came from their dead ancestors, and that the way to make your dead ancestors happy was to build giant statues for them. This was actually not that different an organizing concept from GDP, in that both exhibit a near-hallucinatory level of disconnect from physical reality and ecology.

As ecological changes on Easter island worsened due to rats cutting into food supplies, it “made sense” to vastly ramp up the production of giant stone statues, making them ever-bigger (and hence presumably more pleasing to the dead ancestors... “too big to fail”, perhaps...). This was a colossal undertaking for a stone-age people using human muscle power, and required a lot of wood for rollers and leverage. So they cut the trees down, which caused erosion to begin washing away their productive farmland.

The worse things got, the harder they worked making stone giants. The final generation of stone giants never left the quarries - they were too big to move. As a part of this process, eventually the last large tree was cut down, which made sense based on their organizing beliefs, but was in retrospect not a good plan. It not only meant their fertile soil washed away, but meant they could no longer make boats to go fishing. So they starved, fought, and suffered a lot as their populations crashed.

For the Easter Islanders, erecting these stone monuments was an example of “jobs” masquerading as “work” - basically tasks done for social-obligation reasons that did not provide actual biological or group-fitness benefits. (do you think there may be modern-day equivalents?)
Today it’s easy to joke about these islanders and their “giant stone heads” as a high point in the history of human doofus-ness. Yet our adherence to GDP is a similarly skewed metric, equally detached from the realities of ecology, from human happiness, and from the potential for future generations with decent life quality. On a much larger scale, we too are eroding farm land (which these days is largely a dead medium used to hold the seeds in place and receive industrially-produced fertilizer and pesticides), destroying the ability to get fish (by wiping out fisheries), and, because of our numbers, mucking things up to a degree the Easter Islanders never reached.

We’ve already mentioned that - due to being blind to the energy slaves who do nearly everything for us - we now tend to conflate “jobs” with “work”, where “jobs” are just a social distribution mechanism for energy-slave largesse - an entitlement entwined with social status - and “work” is what is necessary to temporarily improves an individual, tribe, nation, or species’ circumstances.

We’ve also noted that we have folded “planned obsolescence” into most built consumer devices, so they break more quickly and require replacement, tuning their life-cycle to human whims and brain rewards rather than to real utility. Mostly we don’t really even want or expect gadgets to last as long as they used to; as long as we can afford it, we want the newer, cooler, stuff. And advertising helps keep our culture primed for it.

The fact is, we have designed a social system that requires growth. Money –really a claim on future energy and resources – comes into existence irrespective of whether such future energy and resources will be available. Each year we need growth in a household/city/state/nation/world to service and pay off monetary loans that were created previously. No serious government or institutional body has plans for anything other than continued growth into the future. Growth requires resource access and affordability but starts first with population.

So, right as our energy slaves are about to start going away forever, leaving 7-10 billion humans without the things they have come to take for granted, our nations have decided the answer is to make more babies! Yep, to raise GDP you need more demand for toys, diapers, teachers, etc… more jobs, because more jobs means more transactions which means more GDP! More GDP means “growth” so growth is good! China has just reversed its 1-child policy, which prevented massive starvations and slowed the horrendous assault on China’s environment. Many other nations, such as Japan, Germany, and Sweden, are now offering bonuses for getting pregnant. In Denmark advertising firms are encouraging couples to have more babies for the good of the economy via sexy commercials.61

Paradoxically, as traditional drivers of GDP growth – development of virgin land, credit expansion, low cost fossil fuels, and groundbreaking innovation- wane in their impact, there may be renewed incentives proposed not to shrink our population as ecology would advise, but instead to grow it! Currently we are having (as a species) over 120 million babies per year. This works out to over 335,000 human babies born every day – compared to a total extant population of all the other Great Apes (bonobos, chimpanzees and gorillas) of about ~200,000! Since ‘demand” is considered a quasi-magical force in current economic theory, babies are considered to be good for business (yet children brought into the world now for GDP reasons will face some real challenges in their lives. Nate and DJ decided not to do that for a host of reasons).




China is building massive empty cities now. No kidding. Cities with nobody in them, ready to be moved into by the bonus babies to grow GDP. That’s edging perilously close to building giant stone heads.

When you get right down to Reality101 and the intermediate human future, this is actually worse than building giant stone heads, because stone heads don’t suffer, reproduce, or require further degradation of the ecology to provide for. In many real ways, the world and human species would be far better off if we immediately moved from GDP to “giant stone heads” as a metric for success (and say, doesn’t that imply to you that we might even do better than giant stone heads, if we put our minds to it?).
GDP sets a money value on everything in the natural world and in human experience, and the most important things are currently valued at or near “zero.” Yet as we’ve seen, GDP is currently tied to the work of fossil slaves, who will be gradually flying away. There’s no way, even in principle, for “growth” such as we’ve recently seen to continue indefinitely, and considerable data points to it ending quite soon. GDP will begin a long decline because it’s tied to finite realities in the physical world.

The good news, of course, is that GDP is an insane metric for success, just as “giant stone heads” was (though to give the Easter islanders their just due, at the time they had no evidence their belief was nuts, while in 2016 we have demonstrable proof that the conclusions of neoclassical economics are refuted by basic science). If we decide that we value happiness, quality of life, and a healthy planet with uncounted thousands of human generations left, we could in principle jettison GDP and do things differently.

It won’t be easy, only necessary. It’ll be easier to fail than succeed, for the societal inertia of a raging amoeba hungry for growth is a hard thing to change. Nothing much depends upon it other than the human destiny and the fate of complex life on the planet.

Learn to see the giant stone heads around you, and think about them.



Sunday, November 19, 2017

The Soft Belly of The Oil Industry: an Upcoming Seneca Collapse?


Ugo Bardi explains his idea of an impending "Seneca Collapse" of the world's oil industry at the session on climate change of the meeting of the Club of Rome in Vienna, on 10 Nov 2017. What follows are not the exact words said, but a text which maintains the gist of this brief comment. It was focused on the concept that the oil industry has a "soft belly" in the fact that it produces mainly fuel for engines used for transportation. If this market were reduced by the introduction of electric vehicles and other transportation innovations, the whole industry could collapse. That would be a good thing for the earth's ecosystem and for humankind in general.



Dear colleagues, we are having an interesting discussion on how to stop climate change and I think I could add some thoughts of mine on the basis of my recent work that I published in the form of the book titled "The Seneca Effect". 

The problem we have been discussing is how to limit emissions and we saw that it needs to be done fast and even drastically if we want to avoid the worse effects of climate change. Obviously, it is not easy. (image from Skeptical Science

Most of what has been said today was based on a "top-down" approach, which I may also describe as supply-limiting. That is, we are speaking of a carbon tax, of emission limits, and the like; measures that governments should take in order to limit the production of fossil fuels. I don't have to tell you that it is an effort that has been ongoing for several years and yet emissions keep growing. It doesn't seem to work

So,  can we take the opposite approach? That is, look at the demand side in a "bottom-up" approach? 

To discuss this point, let me introduce the concept of the "Seneca Effect" or the "Seneca Cliff." Here is the shape of the Seneca curve. 

You know that I use the term of "Seneca Effect" taking inspiration from something that the Roman philosopher Seneca said long ago; "growth is sluggish but ruin is rapid". And you see how the curve looks like the projections for emission reductions we have been seeing here. 

So, the question is, what causes the collapse we see in the Seneca Curve in complex systems? Well, we can use system dynamics to model the collapse and we know it is not a "top-down" effect, nobody from outside forces the system to collapse. It is a very general phenomenon caused by the interactions of the various elements that compose the system which cooperate to bring it down. And that's a trick that can be exploited: as I say in my book, "The Seneca Effect", collapse is not a bug, it is a feature. 

Let me see to explain it using the oil industry as an example: see the figure drawn on the board. 



Now, you see the segmented line I drew, it keeps going up. It is what the oil companies expect for the future. Their projections, by Exxon for instance, say this: given sufficient investments, we can keep growing the oil production for a number of years, maybe a decade or more. 

That's what they have been doing; despite various dire warnings, the oil industry has been able to keep production growing. It is true that conventional oil ("crude") peaked at some moment between 2005 and 2010, but it didn't really decline. Then, the production of "all liquids" kept growing by exploiting other sources such as shale oil. 

Of course, the problem is that if the industry continues to make an all-out effort to increase, or at least maintain, production, all we were saying about the need of reducing emissions goes out of the smokestack. Forget about keeping warming below 2 degrees. It would be a disaster. 

But look at the Seneca curve in the graph. It would generate more or less the kind of rapidly declining production curve we need for our future survival.

The oil industry doesn't predict anything like that, but it is vulnerable, very vulnerable. The industry has a "soft belly:" the collapse of the demand. That is, we don't need governments to enact draconian regulations: if the market for a product disappears, then the industry producing it will disappear. Can it happen? Yes, it can.

The key point of the oil industry's vulnerability is in the need of large investments to keep the whole thing moving. Facing increasing production costs, they have been able to survive by growing and exploiting economies of scale. This has been possible because investors thought they were investing in a growing industry. 

But things have been changing and the market of the oil industry is at risk. Consider that typically a good 50% of the oil industry production is gasoline. To this, you may add about 20% of diesel fuel and the result is that some 70% of the output of the industry is for internal combustion engines used for transportation. 

So far, this has been a growing market, but the electric transportation revolution is coming, and not just that. There is a whole systemic change under the concept of "Transportation as a Service" (TAAS). The combination of the diffusion of electric vehicles and the optimization of the system may rapidly reduce the demand for gasoline and diesel fuel.

We don't need a large reduction in the demand for transportation fuels to generate a spiral of decline for the oil industry. Less demand means less production, less production means the loss of economies of scale, and the loss of the economies of scale means higher costs that translate into higher prices which also depress the demand. And so it goes until it reaches the bottom. 

As Lucius Annaeus Seneca said, long ago, "ruin is rapid". And the ruin of the oil industry is not a bad thing for the earth's ecosystem and for us all. 



__________________________________________________________________

Notes: 

- According to this interpretation, Elon Musk is the most subversive person in the world. Also, the most subversive thing you can do, nowadays, is to buy an electric car. In my case, I drive an electric motorcycle although I must confess that I still have and drive an old hybrid, not yet a fully electric car. I hope to be able to do better in the near future.

- Did you ever ask yourself why Elon Musk and his company, Tesla, are so ferociously and continuously attacked everywhere? Well, read the note above and you'll understand. 

- The "soft belly" phenomenon described here is relative to the oil industry, but it doesn't apply to the other two sectors of the fossil fuel production: coal and gas, which produce mainly electricity, not fuel. At least, it could avoid the true catastrophe that would occur if someone were to decide to move toward technologies such as "coal to liquids" and "gas to liquids."

- A similar concept to the one discussed here, demand management ("bottom-up) as superior to supply management ("top-down") has been described by Carolyn Hansen and Raj Thamotheram in a recent draft article which appeared on linkedin.






Sunday, November 12, 2017

Are you ready for a new round of mass exterminations?

This article is reposted from INSURGE. 

The great “pulse” of mass exterminations that occurred during the 20th century (graph created by Rummel). According to this chart, 262 million people were exterminated during the last century, mainly by governments in a series of actions that Rummel defines as “democides”. The question is, could something similar occur in the future? It turns out that mass exterminations are like earthquakes, their occurrence cannot be predicted exactly; but we can estimate the probability of an event of a certain size to occur. And the more time passes, the more likely a new pulse of mass exterminations becomes.



In this sobering exclusive analysis for INSURGE, Professor Ugo Bardi dissects historical statistics on war to unpick the patterns of violence of the past and uncover what this says about the present — and our coming future. He warns that statistical data suggests we are on the brink of heading into another round of major wars resulting, potentially, in mass deaths on a scale that could rival what we have seen in the early 20th century. Far from mere doom-mongering, Bardi’s warning is based on a careful assessment of statistical patterns in the data.Such a future, however, may not be set in stone — given that for the first time we are able to assess our past to discern these patterns, in a way we could not do before. Perhaps, then, the path to freedom from the patterns of the past remains open. The question is: what are we going to do with this information?


Humans are dangerous creatures; this much is clear. During the 20th century, about one billion humans were killed, directly or indirectly, by other humans.

Not all these murders were intentional, but a good fraction was, including some 262 million people killed in what Rummel calls “democides”, the government-organized extermination of a large number of people for political, racial, or generally sectarian reasons.

If we add the number of people murdered piecemeal (maybe 177 million during the 20th century), the total is nearly half a billion people killed in anger by other people.

Considering that about 5 billion people died during the 20th century, we can say that during that century the probability of dying killed by another person was about 10%. Not bad for creatures who claim to have been created in the image of a benevolent God.

No other vertebrate on Earth can do anything even remotely comparable, even though chimps and other apes may be cruel with their kin and occasionally engage in skirmishes which we could define as small-scale wars.

Today, by comparison with the turbulent mid-20th century, we appear to be living in a relatively quiet period and it has been argued by Steven Pinker that our times are especially quiet in comparison to the past (though exactly how quiet remains a matter of debate). But there is a big question: for how long will the lull last?

It is, of course, a very difficult question, to say the least. Nevertheless, a good way to be prepared for the future is to look at past trends. In the case of mass exterminations, the historical data is scarce and unreliable, but we do have some. The Conflict Catalog (here) is authored by Peter Brecke and contains information on 3,708 conflicts, going back to the 15th century. It is a good place to start.

The “War Fatalities” data in the Conflict Catalog includes both civilian and military victims, even though they don’t seem to include those mass exterminations that didn’t involve military operations — for instance the extermination of the Native Americans in North America. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating set of data. Here is the plot.


You see that the graph is dominated by 20th century wars, with the Second World War marking the historical maximum. It doesn’t mean that earlier times were quieter: let’s zoom into the data by plotting them on a scale that expands the data bars by a factor of 10.




Now, you see better the bursts of war in the past, including the Thirty Years War during the early and mid1600s, as well as the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars during the late 1700s and early 1800s.

Now, let’s zoom in by another factor of 10, and see the result:



Now, the periods that looked quiet don’t seem to be so quiet, after all. War seems to be endemic (and sometimes epidemic) in human history, at least during the past six centuries.

So what can we say about this data?

A first point is the apparent increase in intensity with time. But the data are not corrected for population growth, which seems to be a key factor explaining the increasing trend.

For instance, the worldwide democide pulse of the 20th century generated 260 million victims for a world population of about 2.5 billion people. The Thirty Years War in Europe, during the 17th century, caused some 8 million victims in the European population which, at the time, was 80 million people. The ratio is nearly the same in both cases: about one person in 10 was killed. It seems that the intensity and the rate of major conflict pulses are approximately constant in proportion to population.

Do we see any evidence, then, of a periodicity of the data? Apparently not in the plots above. But we could try to smooth the curve by averaging. Here are the results shown in a plot made by “OurWorldInData.” This data is the same that I plotted before, but on a logarithmic scale. The data has also been smoothed and the result is the red line.






At first glance, this graph seems to indicate a periodicity of about 50 years, but that may not be true. Look carefully: the cycles are not all of the same duration.

So, the oscillations are probably mostly an artifact of the smoothing. In reality, mass exterminations don’t seem to be cyclical. Rather, they seem to follow a “power law” — that is their probability is inversely proportional to their size (Roberts and Turcotte (1998) and Gonzalez-Val Rafael (2014)).

It is a result that we have to take with caution because the data is uncertain and scarcely reliable, especially over long time spans. But it seems reasonable: it puts wars in the same category of forest fires, avalanches, landslides, earthquakes, and more.

All these events have a common characteristic: large events are triggered by small ones. A rolling pebble may generate a landslide while an abandoned lit cigarette may generate a forest fire. It is the same for wars, where the tendency of small wars to generate large ones is called “escalation.”

These events tend to follow “power laws.” It means that large wars are less probable than small ones. But we can’t say when a new war will start, nor how big it will be. It is the same for earthquakes. It is this uncertainty that makes earthquakes (and wars) so destructive and so difficult to manage.

It means that, statistically, a new pulse of exterminations could start at any moment and, the more time passes, the more likely it is that it will start. Indeed, if we study even just a little the events that led to the 20th century democide that we call the Second World War, you can see that we are moving exactly along the same lines.

We are seeing the rise of hate, violence, racism, fascism, dictatorships, rising inequality, sectarian ideologies, ethnic cleansing, oppression, and the demonization of various modern “untermenschen” (sub-humans). All this can be seen as the precursor for a new, large war engagement to come.

We are already seeing an arc of democides that starts in North Africa and continues along the Middle East, all the way to Afghanistan and which may soon extend to Korea. We can’t say if these relatively limited democides will coalesce into a much larger one, but they may become the trigger that generates a new gigantic pulse of mass exterminations.

If the proportionality of democide size with population size holds, we should take into account that, today, there are three times more people in the world than there were at the time of the Second World War. The resulting 21st century democide could therefore involve anything between half a billion and a billion victims, or even more; especially considering that this time nuclear weapons could be used on a large scale.

Can we do something to avoid this outcome? According to Rudolph Rummel (1932–2014), who studied wars all of his life, democracies are much less likely than dictatorships to engage in wars. In this interpretation, promoting democracy could be a good way to avoid wars.

This is debatable: we might question the extent to which Western democracies have really refrained from engagement in wars. Or we might say that a healthy democracy is an emergent property of a sane society just as war is an emergent property of a sick one.

So when a society gets sick, impoverished, divided, and violent, it gets rid of democracy and engages in war. It seems to be exactly what’s happening to us nowadays: we are weakening and jettisoning democracy, and gearing up for a new, large pulse of mass exterminations.

The past 50 years or so of relative calm, at least between Western states, may have deluded us into believing that we have entered a new era of ‘long peace’. But that may have been just an illusion if we look at the continuous eruptions of warfare of the past half millennium. Wars seem to be too inextricably linked to human nature for it to be stoppable with mere slogans and goodwill. Theoretically, everyone is against war, but when flags start waving, reason seems to fly away with the wind.

Yet, there is more to be said on these trends. It is often said that all wars are for resources, but this may not be true. Wars need resources. You could say that resources generate wars, rather than the opposite. So, the great cycle of growing democides of the past half-millennium has taken place against a background of increasing population and wealth accumulation. That made it possible to build and maintain the social and military apparatus needed to make wars.

But now? Clearly, we are seeing the start of a phase of dwindling resource availability. Mineral resources are becoming more expensive, arable land is being rapidly depleted of nutrients, the atmosphere is being poisoned and climate is rapidly changing in ways that are going to harm humankind to levels which, at present, we can’t even imagine. There is less and less surplus to be invested in wars.

Of course, there are still plenty of reasons to go to war against each other; in particular to take control of the remaining resources. And it is also true that democides don’t need to be expensive; some recent democides such as the one which took place in Rwanda in 1994 did not require more sophisticated weapons than machetes. Then, it may be even easier to engineer a democide by denying low-cost medical assistance to the poor.

Yet, there remain great uncertainties as we are rolling over to the other side of the great cycle of what we call the “industrial civilization” that spanned several centuries.

While wars and exterminations were a common feature of the growing phase of the cycle, will they also be in the declining phase? We can’t say. What the future will bring to us, only the future will tell.

But for the first time in human history we are able to look back at the past with a birds-eye view that can inform us of the patterns of behaviour we are bringing into that future — thus, for the first time, perhaps, we can collectively learn from the lessons of our past to create a future with somewhat different patterns.


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), among many other scholarly publications.



Who

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