Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Stereocene: The Future of The Ecosystem



 During the "golden age" of science fiction, a popular theme was that of silicon-based life. Above, you can see a depiction of a silicon creature described by Stanley Weinbaum in his "A Martian Odissey" of 1934. The creature was endowed with a metabolism in which it would "breathe" metallic silicon, oxidizing it to silicon dioxide, hence it would excrete silica bricks: truly a solid-state creature. It is hard to think of an environment where such a creature could evolve, surely not on Mars. But, here on the Earth, some kind of silicon-based metabolism seems to have evolved during the past decades. We call it "photovoltaics." Some reflections of mine on how this metabolism could evolve in the future are reported below, where I argue that this new metabolic system could usher a new geological era which we might call "Stereocene", the era of solid state devices.
 


Abridged version of a paper published in 2016 in "Biophysical Economics and Resource Quality"

Ugo Bardi
Dipartimento di Chimica - Università di Firenze

The history of the earth system is normally described in terms of a series of time subdivisions defined by discrete (or “punctuated”) stratigraphic changes in the geological record, mainly in terms of biotic composition (Aunger 2007ab). The most recent of these subdivisions is the proposed “Anthropocene,” a term related to the strong perturbation of the ecosystem created by human activity. The starting date of the Anthropocene is not yet officially established, but it is normally identified with the start of the large-scale combustion of fossil carbon compounds stored in the earth’s crust (“fossil fuels”) on the part of the human industrial system. In this case, it could be located at some moment during the eighteenth century CE (Crutzen 2002; Lewis and Maslin 2015). So, we may ask the question of what the evolution of the Anthropocene could be as a function of the decreasing availability of fossil carbon compounds. Will the Anthropocene decline and the earth system return to conditions similar to the previous geologic subdivision, the Holocene?

The earth system is a nonequilibrium system whose behavior is determined by the flows of energy it receives. This kind of system tends to act as energy transducer and to dissipate the available energy potentials at the fastest possible rate (Sharma and Annila 2007. Nonequilibrium systems tend to attain the property called “homeostasis” if the potentials they dissipate remain approximately constant (Kleidon 2004). In the case of the earth system, by far, the largest flow of energy comes from the sun. It is approximately constant (Iqbal 1983), except for very long timescales, since it gradually increases by a factor of about 10 % per billion years (Schroeder and Connon Smith 2008). Therefore, the earth’s ecosystem would be expected to reach and maintain homeostatic conditions over timescales of the order of hundreds of millions of years. However, this does not happen because of geological perturbations that generate the punctuated transitions observed in the stratigraphic record.

The transition that generated the Anthropocene is related to a discontinuity in the energy dissipation rate of the ecosystem. This discontinuity appeared when the ecosystem (more exactly, the “homo sapiens” species) learned how to dissipate the energy potential of the carbon compounds stored in the earth’s crust, mainly in the form of crude oil, natural gas, and coal). These compounds had slowly accumulated as the result of the sedimentation of organic matter mainly over the Phanerozoic era, that is over a timescale of the order of hundreds of millions of years (Raupach and Canadell 2010). The rate of energy dissipation of this fossil potential, at present, can be estimated in terms of the “primary energy” use per unit time at the input of the human economic system. In 2013, this amount corresponded to ca. 18 TW (IEA 2015). Of this power, about 86 % (or ca. 15 TW) were produced by the combustion of fossil carbon compounds.

The thermal energy directly produced by combustion is just a trigger for other, more important effects that have created the Anthropocene. Among these, we may list as the dispersion of large amounts of heavy metals and radioactive isotopes in the ecosphere, the extended paving of large surface areas by inorganic compounds (Schneider et al. 2009), the destruction of a large fraction of the continental shelf surface by the practice known as “bottom trawling” (Zalasiewicz et al. 2011), and more. The most important indirect effect on the ecosystem of the combustion of fossil carbon is the emission of greenhouse gases as combustion products, mainly carbon dioxide, CO2, (Stocker et al. 2013). The thermal forcing generated by CO2 alone can be calculated as approximately 900 TW, or about 1 % of the solar radiative effect (Zhang and Caldeira 2015), hence a nonnegligible effect that generates an already detectable greenhouse warming of the atmosphere. This warming, together with other effects such as oceanic acidification, has the potential of deeply changing the ecosystem in the same way as, in ancient times, LIPs have generated mass extinctions (Wignall 2005; Bond and Wignall 2014).

Burning fossil fuels generate the exergy needed to create industrial structures which, in turn, are used to extract more fossil fuels and burn them. In this sense, the human industrial system can be seen as a metabolic system, akin to biological ones (Malhi 2014). The structures of this nonbiological metabolic system can be examined in light of concepts such as “net energy” (Odum 1973) defined as the exergy generated by the transduction of an energy stock into another form of energy stock. A similar concept is the “energy return for energy invested” (EROI or EROEI), first defined in 1986 (Hall et al. 1986) [see also (Hall et al. 2014)]. EROEI is defined as the ratio of the exergy obtained by means of a certain dissipation structure to the amount of exergy necessary to create and maintain the structure. If the EROEI associated with a dissipation process is larger than one, the excess can be used to replicate the process in new structures. On a large scale, this process can create the complex system that we call the “industrial society.” The growth of the human civilization as we know it today, and the whole Anthropocene, can be seen as the effect of the relatively large EROEI, of the order of 20–30 and perhaps more, associated with the combustion of fossil carbon compounds (Lambert et al. 2014).

A peculiarity of the dissipation of potentials associated with fossil hydrocarbons is that the system cannot attain homeostasis. The progressive depletion of the high-EROEI fossil resources leads to a progressive decline of the EROEI associated with fossil potentials. For instance, Hall et al. (2014) show that the EROEI of oil extraction in the USA peaked at around 30 in the 1960s, to decline to values lower than 20 at present. A further factor to be taken into account is called “pollution,” which accelerates the degradation of the accumulated capital stock and hence reduces the EROEI of the system as it requires more exergy for its maintenance (Meadows et al. 1972).

Only a small fraction of the crustal fossil carbon compounds can provide an EROEI >  1, the consequence is that he active phase of the Anthropocene is destined to last only a relatively short time for a geological time subdivision, a few centuries and no more. Assuming that humans will still exist during the post-Anthropocene tail, they would not have access to fossil fuels. As a consequence, their impact on the ecosystem would be mainly related to agricultural activities and, therefore, small in comparison with the present one, although likely not negligible, as it has been in the past (Ruddiman 2013; Mysak 2008).

However, we should also take into account that fossil carbon is not the only energy potential available to the human industrial system. Fissile nuclei (such as uranium and thorium) can also generate potentials that can be dissipated. However, this potential is limited in extent and cannot be reformed by Earth-based processes. Barring radical new developments, depletion of mineral uranium and thorium is expected to prevent this process from playing an important role in the future (Zittel et al. 2013). Nuclear fusion of light nuclei may also be considered but, so far, there is no evidence that the potential associated with the fusion of deuterium nuclei can generate an EROEI sufficient to maintain an industrial civilization, or even to maintain itself. Other potentials exist at the earth’s surface in the form of geothermal energy (Davies and Davies 2010) and tidal energy (Munk and Wunsch 1998); both are, however, limited in extent and unlikely to be able to provide the same flow of exergy generated today by fossil carbon compounds.

There remains the possibility of processing the flow of solar energy at the earth surface that, as mentioned earlier on, is large [89,000 TW (Tsao et al. 2006) or 87,000 TW (Szargut 2003)]. Note also that the atmospheric circulation generated by the sun’s irradiation produces some 1000 TW of kinetic energy (Tsao et al. 2006). These flows are orders of magnitude larger than the flow of primary energy associated with the Anthropocene (ca. 17 TW). Of course, as discussed earlier on, the capability of a transduction system to create complex structures depends on the EROEI of the process. This EROEI is difficult to evaluate with certainty, because of the continuous evolution of the technologies. We can say that all the recent studies on photovoltaic systems report EROEIs larger than one for the production of electric power by means of photovoltaic devices (Rydh and Sandén 2005; Richards and Watt 2007; Weißbach et al. 2013; Bekkelund 2013; Carbajales-Dale et al. 2015; Bhandari et al. 2015) even though some studies report smaller values than the average reported ones (Prieto and Hall 2011). In most cases, the EROEI of PV systems seems to be smaller than that of fossil burning systems, but, in some cases, it is reported to be larger (Raugei et al. 2012), with even larger values being reported for CSP (Montgomery 2009; Chu 2011). Overall, values of the EROEI of the order of 5–10 for direct transduction of solar energy can be considered as reasonable estimates (Green and Emery 2010). Even larger values of the EROEI are reported for wind energy plants (Kubiszewski et al. 2010). These values may increase as the result of technological developments, but also decline facing the progressive occupation of the best sites for the plants and to the increasing energy costs related to the depletion of the minerals needed to build the plants.

The current photovoltaic technology may use, but do not necessarily need, rare elements that could face near-term exhaustion problems (García-Olivares et al. 2012). Photovoltaic cells are manufactured using mainly silicon and aluminum, both common elements in the earth’s crust. So there do not appear to exist fundamental barriers to “close the cycle” and to use the exergy generated by human-made solar-powered devices (in particular PV systems) to recycle the systems for a very long time.

Various estimates exist on the ultimate limits of energy generation from photovoltaic systems. The “technical potential” in terms of solar energy production in the USA alone is estimated as more than 150 TW (Lopez et al. 2012). According to the data reported in (Liu et al. 2009), about 1/5 of the area of the Sahara desert (2 million square km) could generate around 50 TW at an overall PV panel area conversion efficiency of 10 %. Summing up similar fractions of the areas of major deserts, PV plants (or CSP ones) could generate around 500–1000 TW, possibly more than that, without significantly impacting on agricultural land. The contribution of wind energy has been estimated to be no more than 1 TW (de Castro et al. 2011) in some assumptions that have been criticized in (Garcia-Olivares 2016) Other calculations indicate that wind could generate as much as about 80 TW, (Jacobson and Archer 2012), or somewhat smaller values (Miller et al. 2011). Overall, these values are much larger than those associated with the combustion of fossil fuels, with the added advantage that renewables such as PV and wind produce higher quality energy in the form of electric power.

From these data, we can conclude that the transduction of the solar energy flow by means of inorganic devices could represent a future new metabolic “revolution” of the kind described by (Szathmáry and Smith 1995). (Lenton and Watson 2011) that could bootstrap the ecosphere to a new and higher level of transduction. It is too early to say if such a transition is possible, but, if it were to take place at its maximum potential, its effects could lead to transformations larger than those associated with the Anthropocene as it is currently understood. These effects are hard to predict at present, but they may involve changes in the planetary albedo, in the weather patterns, and in the general management of the land surface. Overall, the effect might be considered as a new geological transition.

As these effects would be mainly associated with solid-state devices (PV cells), perhaps we need a different term than “Anthropocene” to describe this new phase of the earth’s history. The term “Stereocene” (the age of solid-state devices) could be suitable to describe a new stage of the earth system in which humans could have access to truly gigantic amounts of useful energy, without necessarily perturbing the ecosystem in the highly destructive ways that have been the consequence of the use of fossil fuels during the past few centuries.

References (see original article)

Monday, July 24, 2017

When Fake News Kill. Mata Hari, the Spy Who Never Was


One century after her death, Mata Hari remains for us the prototypical figure of the female spy. An extreme case of “femme fatale”; she is seen as someone who not only seduced men for her lust of money and power, but also for the greater lust of having them killed by the thousands on the battlefield. But she never was what she was said to be. Rather, she was one of the first victims of what we call today "fake news," also known as "propaganda", a set of techniques of mass manipulation being developed at that time and which today have reached near perfection. 


A hundred years ago, on July 24, 1917, Margaretha Gertruida Zelle, known as Mata Hari, was sentenced to death by a military court in Paris on the accusation of being a spy for the Germans. She was said to have passed to them information that caused the death of “maybe fifty thousand French soldiers.”. She was shot a few months later.

Today, looking back at the acts of the trial, we can easily see the absurdity and the inconsistency of the accusations. If there ever was an example of a court where the judges were Marsupials, that was it. There just was no way that Mata Hari could have done what she was accused to have done. She was, rather, a scapegoat killed in order to distract the public in a moment when the war was going badly for France. Put simply: she was framed. It was one of the first examples of the deadly effects of "fake news" which, at that time, were just starting to become a common feature of our world.

The trial was the endpoint of a career of dancer and performer that Margaretha Zelle had started when she came back to Europe from Indonesia, at that time called the "Dutch Indies". She had spent just a few years there as the wife of a Dutch Officer but that was sufficient for her to pick up something of the local culture that allowed her to claim that she was Buddhist. She also learned enough of the local language to be able to choose  "Mata Hari" as her stage name, meaning (it seems) "The Light of Dawn". As a dancer, Mata Hari drew a lot of criticism at her times and it is likely that her dances were little more than strip teases with an Oriental flavor. Yet, she became very popular in Europe after she gave her first performance in Paris, in 1905.

As years went by, Mata Hari gradually gave up with stripping naked in public and she became a high-rank courtesan, seducing the rich and the famous. During the war, she may have tried her hand at being also a secret agent, but it seems more likely that she was simply framed. In a certain way, the French and the German secret services collaborated in sending her to face the firing squad. The German saw her as a "propaganda point" to show how evil the French were in killing an innocent woman, while the French saw the trial as a way to show how tough they were against traitors (and traitoresses).

The trial and the detention of Mata Hari were a showcase of cruelty and intimidation. The last pictures we have of her show us no more the dancer that she used to be, but a woman physically destroyed by months of life in jail. After the execution, Mata Hari received also the ultimate insult, that of being denied a decent burial, of having her dead body dissected on a hospital table and having the pieces thrown away. They say that her mummified head was kept for some years in the museum of anatomy in Paris, before it was, too, thrown away and lost. She was denied the status of human being and considered rather as a sort of giant insect to be disposed of. The transformation of human beings into insects and their subsequent extermination is something that Kafka had already prophetically described in his story “the metamorphosis”.

In later times the anthropologist Roy Rappaport defined as “diabolical lies” those lies that “tamper with the very fabric of reality”. Today, we call those lies with the more neutral term of "fake news", as if they were just a fad that comes and goes. But fake news can kill and one of their victims was Mata Hari. The deadly mix of nationalism and propaganda that killed her was to continue and to explode in later years with the 2nd world war, leading Europe into the largest exterminations of innocent people that history has (so far) recorded. Mata Hari was among the first to be engulfed by this wave of senseless killing. She was killed in cold blood by people who were, most likely, perfectly aware that she was innocent.

It may well be that Mata Hari’s Oriental stance was not just a veneer to ennoble a little her strip teases, but it may also be that she had seriously studied Buddhism and other oriental ways while in the Dutch Indies. Her behavior at her execution, her calm, her evident belief that death was simply a passage, may tell us that her Buddhism was not just a pose but something that she had taken by heart. A hundred years later, we may still learn something from her story.





These notes are based mainly on the book by Rusell Warren Howe, "Mata-Hari. The true story". Editions de l'Archipel, Paris 2007, and on the near contemporary report by Emile Massard "Espionnes À Paris" (Gallimard, 1922), but there is lot of material on her story. Whereas earlier on there was still some discussion on whether she could really have been a spy, today the prevalent opinion is that she wasn't. 




Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Mining the asteroids: how desperate can we become?



A silly idea that seems to be coming straight from a science fiction story of the 1950s. Mining the asteroids wouldn't just be outrageously expensive; the problem is that there is nothing to mine there. Yet, some people seem to take the idea seriously



It seems that, when we are in trouble, we tend to revert to our childhood memories, seen as happy times that, somehow, could return. That may explain why President Trump is dreaming of an impossible return to coal. He may see the idea through his memories of childhood as a time of happy miners and prosperous families.

Some others, instead, may revert to memories influenced by the science fiction of the 1950s, when the idea of "mining the asteroids" was commonplace. Jerry Pournelle wrote a delightful essay on this genre in 1980 under the title "Those Pesky Belters and Their Torchships". You may also remember the 1981 movie "Outland" starring Sean Connery and taking place in a mine on the moon of Jupiter, Io.

Nice memories, yes, could we ever mine space bodies for real? Well, the science fiction of the 1950s described many innovations that never appeared in the real world and most likely never will. Some because they are too expensive (flying cars) and some because they are contrary to the laws of physics (anti-gravity). Mining the asteroids falls straight into the "impossible" category for two reasons: the first is that it is too expensive and the second that it goes against the laws of geology (if not of physics). It wouldn't be physically impossible to mine the asteroids but there is nothing to mine there.

Let me explain: we can extract minerals on Earth because of the "energy credit" that comes from geological or biological processes (and often both) which have concentrated specific elements in some special regions of the crust. We call these regions "deposits" and we use the term "ores" for those deposits which are concentrated and pure enough that they can generate an economic profit from mining. Only ores are a useful source of minerals. Mining from the undifferentiated crust is simply unthinkable because of the enormous energy it would require (see my book "Extracted").

And there lies the snag with asteroids. The physical processes that created ores on our planet can take place only on planets which are both geologically and biologically active. As far as we know, asteroids never were. So, there are no ores on asteroids; nor there are on the moon or other "dead" space bodies. It is not impossible that there could be ores on Mars, which may have been geo-biologically active in a remote past, or perhaps on the moons of Jupiter, maybe geologically active today. But, for what we know, the best place in the solar system where to find ores is our planet, the good, old Earth (and, incidentally, as science fiction goes, the 2011 movie "Cowboys and Aliens" got the geology of the story perfectly right: the aliens come to Earth for its mineral resources). 

So, no ores, no mining. And no ores on asteroids means no mining on asteroids (*). Of course, many asteroids are mainly iron, but it makes no sense to go there to mine iron if you consider that there is plenty of iron on Earth and you think of the costs involved with the idea of mining space bodies. It is an idea that just makes no sense.

Yet, we are seeing a spate of news that we could take as if someone really wanted to mine the asteroids. Possibly the most idiotic one appeared on "Futurism.com" with the title mentioning an asteroid "worth 10,000 trillion dollars". It seems that the author simply multiplied the mass of the asteroid, supposed to be all iron, by the current cost of iron per kg, arriving at such a meaningless number.

Other people seem to be peddling space mining and they may ask you money to finance their ideas on the basis of cute drawings which, indeed, remind the fictional spaceships of the 1950s. Others, including the Luxembourg government, seem to be willing to do exactly that: spend money on the idea of mining space, really!  (at least, despite their attempt of selecting the worst possible ideas they couldn't imagine, they don't seem to be planning to invade Iraq).

Some people who should know better seem to have lost track a little of what they are saying. So, the French astrophysicist Jean-Pierre Luminet is reported to have declared that "Asteroids are full of pure and precious metals, such as gold, platinum, cobalt, etc, in quantities ten to a hundred times larger than what we can find in terrestrial mines." (let's just say that we can't pretend that astrophysicists know something of geology).  The idea seems to be diffusing and I reported in a previous post how an acquaintance of mine reacted to my statements that we had resource problems with "but we shall colonize other planets!"

So, what to say? Just that when desperation sets in, idiocy often follows.




(*) commenter Ned noted that some meteorites have a platinum concentration higher than that of terrestrial ores. So, there may be an exception to the rule. Whether these asteroids could be actually mined, it is another question. 


Monday, July 17, 2017

When governments operate in "cheating mode": Italy during WWII



Benito Mussolini: Italy's leader for more than 20 years, met an ignominious end in 1945. It is a story that can illustrate what I called the "The Camper's Dilemma", how deception may be an operational strategy for governments and for elites. 



How you react to a threat depends on how serious you consider it. Small or moderate threats don't deserve a strong reaction, while extreme, "existential" threats generate emergency measures. In between, there is an intermediate threat zone where you can think that it is a good idea to save yourself by cheating. It is what I called the "camper's dilemma." Imagine two campers in a forest inhabited by hungry bears. One possible survival strategy for each one of them is to cheat, convincing the other that there are no bears around and then quietly disappear, leaving him to be eaten.

When you have a model that looks good to you, the risk is to consider it as a hammer and see everything else as nails. But I think the "camper's dilemma" can tell us something about what's going on in the world. We all know that we are being cheated by our governments but, perhaps, the extent of the ongoing cheating still escapes most of us. So, as an example, let's revisit what happened in Italy during the second world war; when the military elites abandoned the army and the country in order to save themselves.

We all know how Mussolini's government made a number of truly gigantic strategic mistakes, engaging the country simultaneously against three of the greatest military powers of the time: Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union. How could anyone think that was a good idea is baffling for us, but, evidently, Mussolini underestimated the threat that the country faced. He seems to have been thinking that the superior fighting spirit of the Italian soldiers would take Italy to victory despite its inferiority in terms of resources.

Reality made short work of this illusion when the Red Army defeated and destroyed the Italian expeditionary corps in Russia, some 250,000 men, in a campaign that lasted a few months from late 1942 to early 1943. It was a terrible blow for Italy. It showed that, no matter what was the fighting spirit of Italian soldiers, the Italian army couldn't cope against the larger and better-equipped enemies it faced.

I already discussed the defeat of the Italian forces in Russia in a previous post, noting that Italians were told nothing by their government about the true extent of the disaster. But let's go a little deeper in the matter, here. First of all, the elites of the country had access to all the information they needed to understand that the war was being lost. But there was a not-so-subtle difference between what Mussolini and his followers were thinking and what other people at the top, including the King of Italy, were thinking. Mussolini still hoped for a miracle, maybe coming from the "revenge weapons" that the Germans were developing. The King and his generals, instead, were mainly trying to save themselves by finding an agreement with the allies before it was too late. Both factions, however, needed to keep the country at war, at least for a while.

So, the Italian press kept lying to Italians while secret negotiations were ongoing between the King and the allies. Things come to a head on Sep 8, 1943, when Mussolini was deposed and arrested while an armistice was signed that stipulated the surrender of Italy. Then, the king and his entourage fled from the capital to find protection with the Allies. The Italian army collapsed in a matter of days, left without orders and without support, to be "eaten by the bear", that is by the German troops in Italy. The last ditch defense that Mussolini tried, later on, had no hope to succeed.

These events perfectly illustrate how the elites can deceive the people in order to save their necks. And, in this case, they succeeded beautifully. Up to the last moment, the people of Italy were being told that the fighting spirit of the Italian troops was high, that the enemies were suffering heavy losses, that victory was unavoidable because the decadent Anglo-Saxon plutocracies couldn't keep fighting for long. Then, in a few days, there was no army anymore and Italy had surrendered. Cheating at its best. (*)

It seems to be a general observation that, when facing a serious threat, the elites of a country can reason that the best strategy for them is to cheat the people and save themselves. In the present situation, the threat of global warming seems to be driving some elites to do exactly that. They deny the threat while at the same time maneuvering to save themselves by moving to higher grounds and equipping their mansions with air conditioning. For all they care, the rest of the people can drown or roast.

But, as the threat of climate change becomes clearer, the elites may discover that nobody can survive in an uninhabitable planet. Then, they may finally decide to try to do something to save the ecosystem from which we all depend. Unfortunately, when that time arrives it may well be too late.





(*)There are other similar cases in history. During the war, in Germany there were attempts to kill Hitler, that failed. Even in the Soviet Union, in 1942 Stalin emanated "order 227" ("not one step back") in order to re-establish discipline in the Soviet Army. In older times, we may cite the case of the kingdom of Naples invaded by the Piedmontese in 1860, when several Neapolitan generals defected to the other side. There are many more cases that show that the strategy of deception doesn't always work, but it does exist.












Saturday, July 15, 2017

How about the "sixth extinction?" It is a Seneca Cliff in the making






Image above from the paper by Hull et al. "rarity in mass extinctions and the future of ecosystems" Nature 528, 345–351 (17 December 2015). Notice how the decline in the fossil abundance, takes the shape of a "Seneca Cliff". The article examines the current situation of the Earths's ecosystem and concludes that we are not yet falling down the cliff, but we might be in the future.





Sometimes, my colleagues make me think of the old joke, "I wouldn't want to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members." That happened to me once more when I read an interview to Smithsonian paleontologist Doug Erwin that was published with the title "We are NOT in the sixth mass extinction", ("The Atlantic," June 13, 2017). Here, Erwin states that the idea that we are in the sixth extinction is just "junk science".

If you wanted further proof that scientists are a bunch of unreliable nerds who live in a world of their own, you need to go no further. How can it be that the "sixth extinction" had become accepted science and then, suddenly, another one of those silly scientists comes up and says that it is not true? How can you believe a single word coming from them?

So. let's try to understand what this whole story is about. First, where does the idea of the sixth extinction come from? Perhaps it was popularized for the first time in a 2011 paper by Barnosky et al on Nature that dealt mainly with the megafauna extinction during the Holocene. Of course, the idea is older than that. If you look on "Google Scholar," the term "sixth extinction" produces more than 174,000 hits. If this is junk science, surely plenty of scientists seem to like this kind of junk. 

So, why does Dr. Erwin defines as junk science a subject of study that looks perfectly legitimate and widely explored? The article in "The Atlantic" is just baffling. It starts with an image of the asteroid that's supposed to have killed the dinosaurs; then the title says "we are NOT in a mass extinction," then there follows a long review of all the ongoing extinctions, and then we read that "Erwin says no." 

So, what are you supposed to understand from all this? Twice we are told that, yes, extinctions are ongoing, and twice that they are not. To add to the confusion, later in the article we are treated with paragraphs such as "“If we’re really in a mass extinction—if we’re in the [End- Permian mass extinction 252 million years ago]—go get a case of scotch,” he said." What in the world do you think could that mean?

Oh, boy, that life is complicated. Let's quit the silly article in "The Atlantic" and go see the original article in Nature where Erwin and his coauthors explain what they have in mind. And there, unlike in the Atlantic, we have an understandable text. Here are some excerpts from the article.

To date, the majority of extinction studies have been biased towards terrestrial species and charismatic megafauna and we know relatively little about changes in the abundance and ranges of the shelly marine invertebrates that would provide a direct link to mass extinctions in the fossil record.
From custodians of deep time, we need quantitative assessments of the fossil record of the present and future earth in order to accurately size up current biotic changes with the same filter through which we see the past.
 Although extinctions are rare, the ecological ghosts of oceans past already swim in emptied seas.

You see the point? So far, we have focussed on the extinction of "charismatic" species, from the past one of mammoths, giant sloths, and the like to the ongoing ones of Elephants, tigers, cheetahs, and others. However, a true mass extinction sees the disappearance, or at least the the near disappearance of common species such as marine invertebrates. But that doesn't appear to be happening, yet.

There follows that, if someone in a remote future were to examine the fossil record for our times, he/she/it wouldn't see, not yet at least, the same kind of disastrous "Seneca Collapse" of the most common species that we see for the "big five" mass extinctions. Once a true "End-Permian-like" extinction were to start, it would be so rapid and destructive that nobody would be alive, discussing it.

That's it, folks: the title "We are NOT in the sixth mass extinction" simply means "we are not YET in the sixth mass extinction", but there are plenty of ongoing extinctions that prefigurate a true mass extinction ("emptied seas") for a non-remote future. That's because we know that most of the past mass extinctions (and perhaps all of them) were caused by the same phenomenon that's ongoing nowadays: the release of large amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Said in other words, imagine you are falling from the 10th floor. You are not yet splattered on the sidewalk and, if you really want to be precise, you shouldn't say that you are in the same condition of other people who fell from the same window in the past. Who knows? You might fall on something soft, or maybe learn how to fly while en route. Precision is precision, right?

So, the position taken by Dr. Erwin is scientifically correct, although it doesn't change what we know about the ongoing extinctions (and, as a personal opinion, I normally avoid branding the work of my colleagues as "junk science," even though I may not agree with them). We didn't go through a mass extinction, yet, because it is just beginning. The problem is that the meaning of the article in The Atlantic, and in particular its title, will NOT be generally understood. On the contrary, it will give plenty of ammunition to the throngs of those who claim that "CO2 is plant food," "the Earth is getting greener," "global warming is good for people"; and the like. It is already happening. As usual, when scientists say something that some people judge unpalatable, they are cheaters and liars. When a scientist says the opposite, he is suddenly defined as reliable.

I don't think Erwin is to be faulted in particular for this disaster in scientific communication. It happens all the time and especially when you stumble on journalists who tend to sensationalize what you tell them. Unfortunately, as scientists, we haven't yet learned how to communicate science to the public.




Monday, July 10, 2017

The Three Phases of the Reaction to Existential Threats: Action, Deception, and Desperation




I have been always fascinated by how people's consciousness of collective threats blurs and disappears as the threat gets closer. Look, here, at the concept of "peak oil" as it appears on  "Google Trends." You see how it dwindled to almost zero interest after having been popular at the beginning of the 21st century.


We get similar results for Global Warming:



There are many more examples, a classic one is how the 1972 study "The Limits to Growth" was forgotten as the threat it described became closer in time. So, if you think about this, it is maddening: the earth is becoming more warm and people worry less about that?  The same about oil; the more we use, the less there is; how come that people worry less and less about the problem? Maddening, indeed.

After considerable head-scratching, I came up with a proposed explanation that I described in an earlier post as the "camper's dilemma." It is a simple model consisting in two campers trying to adopt the best strategy to avoid being eaten by bears. Here, let me repropose the camper's dilemma in a more general form that I call, here, "The Three Phases of the Reaction to Existential Threats" (actually four phases, but "phase 0" is not important)

Phase 0 - No perceived danger: no action. The problem is not recognized, so nothing is done about it.
Phase 1 - Low perceived danger: collective action. The threat is perceived to exist, but only minor adjustments are believed to be necessary to avoid damage. The emphasis is on everyone doing his/her part.
Phase 2 - High perceived danger: deception. The threat starts being perceived  (but not by everyone) as serious and involving considerable sacrifices. The objective for those who understand the situation, and for the elites in particular, is to make sure that the burden falls on someone else's shoulders. This may involve denial, obfuscation, and blame-shifting.
Phase 3 - Very high perceived danger. desperate emergency action. The threat becomes so evident that it is obvious to everyone that society is on the edge of the Seneca cliff and that not even the elites will survive the collapse. Deception is abandoned while desperate, last-ditch attempts to avoid the cliff are put in place.

Let's try to apply these considerations to the current threats, for instance global warming. It became a known threat in the 1970s and, at the time, it didn't seem to be the terrible problem it has become today. "Phase one" involved proposals such as double-paned glass windows, low consumption light bulbs, smaller cars, and the like. Much of the world's environmental movement still lives in phase one: they think that it will be sufficient to explain to people what the problem is and to convince everyone to make some small sacrifices. Then, the problem will be solved.

But "phase two" has been around for a long time and it has been gaining strength. The Trump administration is a clear example of the attempt to deceive the public about global warming by silencing the media and by a general effort of obfuscation and deception. The elites, at this stage, seem to believe that survival is possible for those who have air conditioning and own mansions on the hills. The others will roast or drown but, so the elites believe, that will reduce emissions and everything will be well for the survivors.

Some people have already moved to "phase three," with the concept of the climate "tipping point" that pushes the planet to a condition where it is not sure than anyone will be able to survive. This concept hasn't yet made inroads with the elites. But, once they discover that the threat is existential not just for the poor, but for everybody, then they may go kinetic and implement extreme, desperate attempt to fix the climate system. Expect geoengineering to become popular!

As an exercise, we may also apply the concept of the "three phases" to oil depletion. Here, we are more clearly in "phase two." The elites are engaged in gathering the remaining oil resources for themselves, while denying the problem and redirecting the anger of the public against specific ethnic, political, and religious groups. Phase three might take the shape of a desperate rush toward nuclear energy.


I know that all this is a little cynical (a lot), but it seems to me to make sense and to provide us with a working model for what's happening and why. Then, supposing it is a good model, what should we do to avoid the worse? That's something that we should discuss. Anyone has ideas?


Friday, July 7, 2017

What Can Governments Hide From Us? Lessons From WWII


In this post, I examine the historical case of the Russian campaign of the Italian army during WWII to discuss how effective can governments hide important facts from public knowledge. I think that these black-out campaigns can be very effective and it may well be possible that they are being enacted right now. 


Governments are not known to be benevolent organizations. On the contrary, when it is question of ensuring their own survival, they are ruthless. And they are well known to lie to people. The case of the "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq is well known but, at least, eventually it became clear that it was a lie: these weapons didn't exist. But it often easier to hide existing things than to create non-existing ones.

The internet is full of claims that governments or some of their institutions are engaged in this kind of lies. They are hiding from us the spreading of poisons in the sky in the form of chemtrails, the building of hidden concentration camps for political opponents, the fact that aliens landed and were captured, the fact that oil is really a renewable resource constantly recreated underground by abiotic processes, that climate scientists are engaged in a worldwide conspiracy to scare us first and then enslave us. The latest one is about "child slaves on Mars".

These claims are usually described in terms of "conspiracy theories" and most of them are so hopelessly naive and absurd that they raise the legitimate suspicion that they are part of some targeted disinformation campaign. But it seems to be easy to convince people to believe in the weirdest ideas, so maybe these legends are spontaneous evidence of this tendency. Still, it is also true that conspiracies do exist and that governments are often actively engaged in them (I can propose at least one well-documented case). So, we may ask ourselves a very general question: can governments hide important things from us? Let me examine a couple of historical examples.

Perhaps the mother of all government conspiracies was the extermination of the Jews and of other ethnic and social groups during WWII. Did the German know about what was going on, at the time? The question is controversial. On one side, it is argued that the Germans had been exposed to years of aggressive anti-Jews propaganda and that they couldn't miss the fact that the Jews were disappearing from their homes. Besides, so many people were involved with the extermination program that it wasn't just possible that even ordinary citizens wouldn't be able to understand that something monstrous was going on.

On the other side, it is noted that the Germans never could read anything about the extermination in the press, only that the Jews were being "relocated to the East," which would account for their disappearance from German cities. But the main point was that the Germans who understood what was going on couldn't say that publicly. The few who did were arrested and quickly executed. And the message was clear for all the others.

Personally, I can't say much about what the average German could or could not know during WWII. But I can offer an example of a situation that I know much better: that of Italy. The Italian government didn't engage in the mass extermination of the Jews during WWII, but we can find a significant example of "media fog" with the defeat of the Italian forces in Russia, between 1942 and 1943.

Italy engaged some 250,000 men on the Eastern Front, a major effort that ended in disaster when the Italian forces were decisively defeated by the Red Army in a series of campaigns that started in November 1942. By February 1943, the Italian forces on the Eastern Front had ceased to exist. The losses are variously reported, but probably amounted to about half of the expeditionary force. It was probably the greatest defeat suffered by Italy over its history. The disaster was so great that we could consider it as sufficient to charge the commander-in-chief with criminal incompetence and have him hanged upside down. That was, indeed, the destiny of the Italian leader, Benito Mussolini, but only two years later, in April 1945, and this specific criminal act didn't seem to have played a role in the event.

So, what did the Italians know about the Russian disaster while it was happening?  For one thing, the news of the defeat in Russa never appeared in the Italian press during the war. It is instructive to follow the news as they were reported in the Italian press. Up to December 1942, there are daily reports about the Italian expeditionary corps in Russia, the "ARMIR". Then, the reports fade out. The last one that I have been able to find on the Italian newspaper "La Stampa" dates Dec 22, 1942. Afterward, reports continue coming from Russia, describing battles fought between the Germans and the Soviets, but the Italians have disappeared. It was as if the quarter million men of the army had vanished into thin air.

That doesn't mean, of course, that the Italians couldn't know at least something about what was happening on the Russian front. It would have been easy to understand that something had gone terribly wrong just from what the press did not say, that is from the disappearance of all mentions of the Italian forces in Russia. Besides, there were tens of thousands of veterans who were repatriated after the defeat: many were sick, wounded, frostbitten, or in desperate conditions of psychological shock. They were told by the government to say nothing about what they had seen in Russia, but it is unthinkable that all of them obeyed and, in any case, their presence couldn't be ignored. Yet, the "media fog" that the government had enacted was successful. Italians seemed to be unable to discuss or express their outrage at the disaster, at least as long as the Fascist government remained in control of the country. Only years after the war was over, the disaster in Russia became widely known.

A similar situation existed with the war. In the 1940s, Italy and Germany both faced what we call today an "existential threat" in the form of military annihilation. Yet, their citizens were never told, up to the last moment, that the war was being lost. Also in this case, it was not difficult to understand what was going on from what the newspapers did not say, but it seemed impossible to state it in public or to debate it.

Now, it is always difficult to generalize, but I think that these historical examples can tell us something about how governments can hide truth: simply by not mentioning it. In other words, governments cannot make the truth disappear, but they can "blur" it, marginalizing it and making it appear unimportant.

Today, the entity that we call "The West" is facing existential threats in the form of resource depletion and global warming. Yet, the mainstream media are completely silent about resource depletion and, at least in the US, they seem to be aiming at silencing the discussion on global warming. Not that people cannot know what's going on, there are plenty of blogs and discussion groups where you can learn the truth. But it remains an unofficial, marginal truth that plays no role in the general discussion. The main discussion remains dominated by concepts such as "making the country great again" and "restart growth," probably as impossible as it was for Italy to defeat the Soviet Union and the USA together, during WWII.



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Below you can see the last piece of news on the Italian newspaper "La Stampa" that mentions the "ARMIR", the Italian expeditionary force in Russia. It is dated 22 December 1942 and it only states that the defensive measures taken to contain the Soviet attacks are being successful. I was unable to find further mentions of the ARMIR in later issues that appeared during the war. By February 1943, the Italian forces in Russia had ceased to exist.





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