Monday, March 29, 2021

Running out of Ice on the Moon. How we Forgot the Problem of Resource Depletion


"The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" by Robert A. Heinlein, (1966), translated into Italian as "La Luna è una Severa Maestra." It was probably the first science fiction book for adults I ever read in my life, I still remember buying it and taking it home in awe, as if I had in my hands a religious relic. It was also, possibly, the first time that I read about resource depletion. It was mentioned in the novel as a problem for the inhabitants of the Moon but, clearly, also as a metaphor of the limits to growth of Earth.

Thomas Huxley said that "it is the customary fate of new truths, to begin as heresies, and to end as superstitions." It is a sentence that describes the cycle of ideas, you can call them memes, which tend to have a life-cycle similar to that of living creatures. They are born, grow, and disappear. 

The popularity of ideas is not necessarily linked to reality. The virtual world of ideas (the memesphere) may well be completely disconnected from the real world. So, the fact that an idea is forgotten or rejected doesn't mean it is false or wrong. It is just the effect of memes going in cycles, growing and declining.

So, during the past few years, the idea that resource depletion was a serious problem for humankind became thoroughly unmentionable. In parallel, the memesphere got infected with a completely different set of memes. If things don't go as well as they should, that's now supposed to be due to such things as peak demand, the Russians, China, terrorism, capitalism, or anything else, but nothing ever related to mineral depletion. Obviously, eventually, reality will get the upper hand, whether we recognize it or not. But, for the time being, resource depletion is unnameable and incomprehensible. 

At this point, you may ask the question: why did the cycle start? What caused resource depletion to be recognized as a problem?

Ideas are born out of the data available, and the finiteness of our planet was not part of the average worldview (the memesphere) until relatively recent times. That we could run out of some important resource started being discussed only in mid-19th century by William Stanley Jevons, the British economist. He was probably the first who had a clear idea of the depletion process of a mineral resource, coal. But, in this field, Jevons never really had an impact on modern economics. His ideas were too advanced for the times when they were expressed.

The possibility that we would eventually run out of oil or other mineral resources popped up occasionally after Jevons, but it never was part of the mainstream views. Things changed in the 1960s. It was probably the result of the space explorations of the time that produced many impressive pictures of a spherical and limited Earth. Kenneth Boulding was the first to articulate these ideas in a well-organized form with his article of 1966, “The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth,” still worth reading today. Boulding coined the well-known statement "anyone who thinks that economic growth can go on forever is either an idiot or an economist."

An idea needs more than an article written by an economist if it has to make inroads into the memesphere. It needs to become a story. And, in the 1960s, science fiction was a lively form of literature dedicated to exploring the future. In principle, it was there that the concept of resource depletion could have had an impact. 

That never really happened. Think, for instance of Isaac Asimov's famous series "Foundation," published from 1942 to 1953. Asimov dealt with the future history of the collapse of the Galactic Empire, but nowhere in the story, you will find a hint that the Empire had a resource problem. In other publications, Asimov clearly stated that he was worried about human overpopulation, but it doesn't seem that he ever articulated the concept of "resource depletion." You may also think of Robert Silverberg's "The World Inside" (1971) where you can read of a world of some 200 billion inhabitants living in Urban Monads (Urbmons), huge thousand-floor skyscrapers. The world described by Silverberg is resource-constrained, but population continues to grow!

That was typical of science fiction. Not that, as a genre, it would always produce an optimistic view of the future. On the contrary, it widely explored themes such as nuclear wars, famines, pestilences, and overpopulation. Yet, the science fiction of the "golden age" (the 1940s-1970s) was basically technology-oriented. It was hard for authors to include limits to growth in a worldview that saw atomic energy and space travel as an obvious feature of the future. 

True, overpopulation was often seen as a big problem in science fiction, see for instance John Brunner's "Stand on Zanzibar," published in 1968, but not because humans were running out of resources. It was mainly a question of overcrowding leading to all sorts of political and social problems. If humankind were to face a dire destiny, it was because it had failed to properly use the technological tools that were available: nuclear energy being the clearest example.

In the large number of stories that were published during the golden age of science fiction, there must have been some that dealt with resource depletion. Most have been forgotten, but one stands out: Robert Heinlein's "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress," published in1966. 

The novel covered several themes, one being resource scarcity. The story revolves around an interplanetary conflict: the Earth's governments have established a lunar colony to host criminals and undesirables. At the same time, the lunar dwellers, the "Loonies"  are exploited to cultivate and ship grain to Earth to feed a population that would not survive otherwise

Heinlein had very clear the concept of "overshoot" even though he didn't use the term in the novel. The problem of resource depletion was cutting both ways: the lunar colony was not as overpopulated as Earth, but it had limited water resources (in the form of mineral ice). The revolutionaries of the novel who fight for an independent Moon do so because they realize that soon the lunar ice will run out and the Loonies will face death by starvation. 

The story is complex and fascinating, with many twists and unforgettable characters. "Mike" is an artificial intelligence that develops moral views and fights alongside the revolutionaries. Although conceived in the 1960s, Heinlein perfectly understood the role of controlling the communication system for a political force to succeed in changing the status of a society.  

As it happened also for other stories by Heinlein, the story of the Loonies also originated terms that are still in use today. "Tanstaafl" ("there ain't no such a thing as a free lunch") is a refrain that summarizes the message of the novel. It is not clear if Heinlein invented the term but, when it is used today, it is often associated to the novel (see also "to grok"). 

Yet, "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" didn't originate a specific line of stories exploring the theme of resource depletion, at least not until the late 1990s and the 2000s. It seems that the same rules that apply to economics apply to science fiction: depletion is a concept so hard to accept that it is normally ignored. It is an effect of our tunnel vision that prevents us from seeing more than one problem at a time. And, unfortunately, that's the way we face the future.   




Friday, March 26, 2021

Phrasing the Question Right is the First Step to Find an Answer. How to Prevent Nuclear War



Professor Bernard Lown died this February at 99. A great man by all means: Physician, cardiologist, professor at Harvard University, and a physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. He was the inventor of the defribrillator, the proposer of many successful ways to help people suffering from heart failure. He was also the recipient of the Nobel prize for peace for his activity against nuclear war.
It was in the 1980s when I attended a seminar in Berkeley given by a member of the group called "International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War." Some decades later, I am not sure the talk was given by the founder of the group, Dr. Bernard Lown, but it may have been him. In any case, I was impressed by the clarity of the talk. The speaker said it very simply: "it is not a question of being left or right: nuclear war is the greatest medical emergency I can imagine." 
It is the way you frame a problem that gives you the tools to solve it! Just like "The Seneca Effect" gives a name to a typical behavior of complex systems, that of collapsing, framing the nuclear confrontation as a medical emergency and not as a political struggle brought it to the realm of concrete problems that people could understand. We might also frame nuclear war as an especially nasty kind of Seneca Cliff affecting humankind and the whole planet. 
Probably because the problem was framed right, the Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War had a remarkable success. At some point, it had some 200,000 members, and Bernard Lown, its Western founder, was invited to Moscow to meet the newly elected secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev (an encounter that the Western Media refused to cover). One of the results was the group was awarded the Nobel prize for peace in 1985. Whether their work was one of the reasons why we remained free from nuclear war up to now, it is hard to say. But efforts in a good cause are never wasted.

The Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War is still active, nowadays. The interest in preventing a nuclear war faded with the collapse of the Soviet Union, but we may be actually closer to war today than we were in the 1980s -- it is just that we haven't been thinking so much about the matter. 
So, I missed the news of the death of Dr. Bernard Lown, less than one month ago.
You can read Lown's thoughts on his blog that he kept until 2012. It is a fascinating read, it was this blog that had made me rediscover him more than 30 years after that (perhaps) I had met him. In the blog, he describes his career and how often he had to fight with the medical establishment to make them accept that some traditional healing methods were not only useless but harming the patients. A case in point was the habit of keeping bedridden people who had suffered a heart attack. It took a remarkable effort to convince physicians that setting patients on a chair was a way to give them the psychological comfort they needed to heal themselves. Lown was a man who always did his best to do what he thought was right.  We would need people like him, now, but where have they gone?
Lown died at 99 this February. Gaia was gentle with this son of hers who did so much for all of us and she gave him a long life that I can imagine was full of satisfactions. May he rest in peace.
Bernard Lown's Blog: worth reading as an unending source of wisdom on the practice of medicine.

Monday, March 22, 2021

The Hydrogen Myth: Technology and Religion in the Decline of Civilizations


I just started a new blog titled "The Hydrogen Skeptics." It is about the hydrogen economy and hydrogen as a fuel and it is a little technical as a subject. So I thought it was not appropriate to discuss it in a somewhat philosophical blog like "The Seneca Effect." Yet, there are points in common, as I am arguing in this post. Above: the nuclear-powered car "Ford Nucleon", unfortunate technological prodigy of the 1950s, that never was turned into anything practical.

The Romans of imperial times found themselves in a situation not unlike ours. Gradually running out of resources, they found themselves more and more in trouble with keeping together a vast empire that was enormously expensive to defend and govern. Already at the time of Lucius Annaeus Seneca (1st century AD), it must have been clear to everyone that something was not running right in the very bowels of the giant organism that was the Empire. But what was wrong, exactly?

All societies are based on a fundamental "founding myth" that forms the justification of everything that was done and is being done. The Romans were not a technology-based civilization, and they would have been puzzled by our fixation on new gadgets. They were a military civilization that built its founding myth on the prowess of their soldiers and the efficiency of their armies. That, in turn, was believed to be the result of the Gods' benevolence who had rewarded the Romans for their virtues. The Romans were supposed to be brave, strong, and pious, and they never failed to perform the sacrifices that were due to please their Gods. 

You can understand this attitude if you read Virgil's "Aeneid," (1st century AD), truly the foundation of the Roman view of the world. The hero and the central protagonist of the story is the Trojan warrior Aeneas, who goes through a series of adventures always careful to follow the advice of the Gods. He is neither dumb nor insensitive, but he never loses track of his mission. And the Gods, in turn, help him to achieve his goal. Being the son of a Goddess (Aphrodite) helps him a lot, too!

So, the Romans saw themselves as still performing Aeneas' mission when they conquered new lands and new peoples. The idea was to bring them civilization, (similar to our slogan "bring them democracy.") The Romans were genuinely convinced to be a superior civilization and that the manifest destiny of  Barbarians was to become Romans. But things started going wrong and many Barbarians stubbornly refused to surrender to the glorious Roman armies. So, what was the problem? Had the Gods abandoned the Romans? Maybe it was because they were not anymore so virtuous as they used to be during the good times. Maybe the Romans had become lazy, maybe they had forgotten the proper sacrifice rituals. 

One reaction was to return to the ancient virtues and to the ancient religion. We see this tendency during the whole period of decadence of the Empire, from the 1st century onward. We see it in the Stoic school of philosophy -- of which Seneca was a prominent member. Just like the mythical hero, Aeneas, Stoics emphasized personal virtue in difficult times. They would find their reward just in being virtuous, independently on whether they had succeeded or not in their task. 

Stoics were not so convinced about the religious practices and the many deities of their times. They tended to replace what they saw as silly beliefs with a loftier vision of a single, all-powerful spiritual entity. But they weren't iconoclasts. They were supporters of the traditional religions for those who didn't have the culture and the intelligence necessary to understand a higher level of spirituality. It is also possible that cultivating one's virtues, as Stoics were doing, was seen as a way to convince the Gods that they should continue to support the Romans, or maybe restart supporting them.

Despite many efforts, the diffusion of Stoicism didn't seem to help very much, and the situation moved from bad to worse. That may have been one of the reasons why the Romans tended to try to fix their founding myth by switching to new religions. So, they tended to deify their emperors, that is, to turn him into a God to be worshiped just like all the other Gods. Surely, being led by one of the members of the divine coterie would surely mean that the Gods won't let their brother in Rome alone to fight those hordes of bad-smelling barbarians. It was not an easy task to turn the man at the top into a God, since he normally was a homicidal psychopath, or a sexual predators, or a pervert -- often all these things together. And the effort didn't seem to help so much, either. 

Another strategy, a little more radical, was to import new religions from abroad. During the first two centuries of the Empire, Rome was truly a supermarket of Oriental religions. In some cases, new deities were incorporated into the existing Pantheon: Cybele, Isis, Mithras, and more. In other cases, entire new cults were transplanted into the Empire: Manichaeists, Zoroastrians, Mithraists, Jews, Christians, and more.

Eventually, one of these Oriental religions, Christianity, managed to get the upper hand over the others and it merged with the Emperor's cult. Constantine "The Great" (272 – 337 AD) saw himself as a divinely appointed emperor, but also a supporter of Christianity. From then on, apart for brief intervals, the Roman Empire was ruled by Christian Emperors. Theodosius "The Great" (347 – 395) officially banned Paganism from the Empire. 

As we all know, these efforts didn't work so well. Despite the new faith and the divine emperors, the founding myth of the Roman Empire was hopelessly obsolete. The Empire faded away. It had to: God's benevolence was not enough to keep it together. The new founding myths were Christianity (without divine emperors) for Europe and Islam for the Middle East and Northern Africa. They ushered new kinds of societies, better adapted to the new times.

In time, Christianity lost its role as the founding myth of the European society. We tend to see the European world dominance as the result not of God's benevolence, but of our technological prowess. Our technological tricks are what keeps the modern Global Empire together and we seem to be convinced that, if we have problems, all we need to do is to invent new tricks -- new founding myths. The consequence is that all the problems we face can be removed by more technology.  

But, in this phase of decline, it is clear that the Global Empire has enormous problems: running out of fossil fuels, pollution, global warming, social unrest, economic crisis, and more. So, we are trying to revamp and keep alive our founding myths. 

Just like in ancient Roman Times, we are in a phase of a plethora of new myths that compete to get the upper hand as the new, improved founding myth. Our equivalent of Stoicism is the idea that we should be virtuous by saving energy and separating household waste. Another "mythlet" is the idea that our problem with fossil fuels, can be solved by switching to another fuel (hydrogen) supposed to be both more abundant and cleaner. 

The hydrogen myth is on a par with others that try to repair a damaged machine on the run. Some of these ideas are purely mythological, including the various nuclear technologies supposed to create energy out of nothing (the nuclear water boiler, the e-cat, is a good example). But some of these ideas are technically valid, just don't expect them to be the new founding myths for something that has to disappear anyway. Just as Christianity survived the end of the Roman Empire, some technologies that we are developing nowadays will survive the collapse of the Global Empire. Wind, solar, hydro, and others can provide energy, but they'll support a society that will be completely different from the current one. 

So, why couldn't hydrogen be one of these technologies that will survive? It is because of technical reasons: hydrogen as a fuel has many problems that make it unsuitable for uses other than niche applications. Thinking of hydrogen on a grand scale as supporting a society as complex and wasteful as ours is simply a dream. Nevertheless, hydrogen remains popular nowadays just because of this impossible promise -- it is like a politician that gets elected by promising things that he will never be able to deliver. 

For this reason, we need an in-depth discussion to understand what hydrogen can, and cannot, do and avoid that it becomes a stumbling block in the transition away from fossil fuels that we are facing. That's why I created a new blog titled "The Hydrogen Skeptics" In the introduction to the new blog, I write: 

I am not against hydrogen in itself, which is just a natural element among 92 others. And I am open to the possibility that energy technologies based on hydrogen may find applications in the future. I am skeptical about the hype that surrounds hydrogen technologies. Not all technologies turn out to be feasible, no matter how hyped. Just think of the Ford Nucleon, nuclear powered car of the 1950s, shown in the cover image.
So, if you want to take a look at the new blog, click on the image of the unfortunate Ford Nucleon, taken as an example of technological hubris, one more revolutionary idea that never worked.

Right now, there is only one post on the new blog, but I plan new posts soon and the blog is open for discussion. If you are interested to contribute, just write to me. 


Thursday, March 18, 2021

The Tunnel Vision Problem. How Mineral Depletion Became Completely Incomprehensible to the Public and Decision Makers Alike


Image source

A few days ago, I sent a comment to a blog where the author had cited the "abiotic oil" hypothesis by Thomas Gold. He had read Gold's book "The Deep, Hot Biosphere" and, not being an expert in the matter, had believed that Gold's ideas were correct and that the author had been unjustly ignored by the scientific community and by the oil industry. 

In my comment, I briefly discussed the matter and cited an article that I had written together with other authors where we discussed Gold's ideas, showing that they are incompatible with what we know about the geosphere and the processes of formation of fossil hydrocarbons. 

Some of the commenters seemed to be completely clueless about the matter, and that was already worrisome. But the surprising thing was that one of the answers I received was that I should avoid discussing political issues such as "peak oil" in a scientific discussion. 

So, after 20 years of scientific studies on the concept of oil depletion -- in itself a necessary consequence of the fact that oil resources are finite -- the idea of "peak oil" has been transmogrified into a political slogan that has no place in a serious discussion. 

And that's not just the case of peak oil. Try to mention "mineral depletion" in any discussion about the current economic situation, and you'll be treated like a slightly feebleminded person who is completely out of touch with reality. Our problems, right now, are completely different as everyone sane in his/her mind knows.

It seems that we humans can't balance several problems at once. We tend to focus on one, at most two, but then the other problems are forgotten or ignored. An often-cited example is the crash of the United Airlines Flight 173 in 1978, when the crew focused so much on a problem with the landing gear that nobody remembered to check the fuel level. It happens more often in politics, where it is typical that slogans and media campaigns lead the public to concentrate on a single problem and forget all others. A good example is when the Bush administration became focused on invading Iraq, in 2003.

We could call this phenomenon the "tunnel vision problem." Maybe we can find the best description in a novel by Kurt Vonnegut, "Slaughterhouse Five" (1969) where one of the Tralfamadorian aliens describes how Earthlings perceive the world

The guide invited the crowd to imagine that they were looking across a desert at a mountain range on a day that was twinkling bright and clear. They could look at a peak or a bird or cloud, at a stone right in front of them, or even down into a canyon behind them. But among them was this poor Earthling, and his head was encased in a steel sphere which he could never take off. There was only one eyehole through which he could look, and welded to that eyehole were six feet of pipe.

"This was only the beginning of Billy's miseries in the metaphor. He was also strapped to a steel lattice which was bolted to a flatcar on rails, and there was no way he could turn his head or touch the pipe. The far end of the pipe rested on a bi-pod which was also bolted to the flatcar. All Billy could see was the little dot at the end of the pipe. He didn't know he was on a flatcar, didn't even know there was anything peculiar about his situation.
And so it goes (another citation from Slaughterhouse Five). We are condemned to look at the world through a narrow pipe while we are hurled onward on a flatcar on rails and we don't know where we are going. 


About depletion, however, not everybody is strapped to that flatcar. Here is a message I received from Dr. M.L.C.M. Henckens, Senior Research Fellow at the Utrecht University, who has correctly identified the depletion problem. Too bad that the problem is by now completely incomprehensible to the Public and Decision Makers Alike

Dear Madam, Sir,

Hereby I send you, as a senior scientist in the field of the sustainable use of raw materials, a recent publication with my main findings on the scarcity of raw materials. The article was published in Resources, Conservation & Recycling in February 2021 and is entitled “Scarce mineral resources: extraction, consumption and limits of sustainability”.

The main conclusions are:

- That immediate implementation of the most stringent resource-saving measures could extend the estimated exhaustion periods of raw materials by a factor four, even while simultaneously increasing the global service level of these resources by a factor four as well.

- That, without sufficient resource saving measures, it will be difficult or impossible for a substantial part of the future world population to attain the servicelevel of mineral resources prevailing in developed countries at this moment.

- That the period of time that future citizens of rich countries can continue enjoying the current servicelevel of some of the scarcest mineral resources in their countries, will be severely limited, if no stringent saving measures will be taken.

I am also the author of a book entitled “Governance of the world’s mineral resources. Beyond the foreseeable future”. This book will be published later in 2021 by Elsevier (ISBN 9780128238868). In the book, detailed attention will be paid to the following 13 relatively scarce resources: antimony, bismuth, boron, chromium, copper, gold, indium, molybdenum, nickel, silver, tin, tungsten, zinc.

If you have any questions, comments or suggestions, please let me know

Yours sincerely,

Dr. M.L.C.M. Henckens (Theo)

Senior Research Fellow at the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development of Utrecht University, The Netherlands



Monday, March 15, 2021

The Next Stage of Human Evolution: The Revenge of the Aspies


 I had never thought of Spock as a case of Asperger's syndrome (an "aspie"), in turn, a mild version of autism. But it is a concept that others had noted and that perfectly describes the way Spock behaves in the "Star Trek" series. Spock's character was so successful because he may have been perceived as a possible new stage in human evolution, someone who can use logic to resist the onslaught of manipulation and propaganda that's destroying our civilization. Star Trek also illustrated how emotion and rationality can be balanced by respecting and valuing diversity. Live long and prosper, fellow aspies!


I keep discovering new things that completely change my view of the world. The latest one was just a few days ago when I found that I am probably an aspie, a term that describes Asperger's syndrome, in turn, a variant of the broader spectrum of autism.

What brought this revelation for me was the book by Temple Grandin "Thinking in Images." (1995) (1) Grandin was born with a serious case of autism, a condition that made her life very difficult in her youth. I never experienced the same level of difficulties but, as I was reading the book, I started seeing myself in Grandin's shoes. Things like being clumsy in everyday tasks, finding it difficult to follow a group conversation, getting lost in your thoughts while other people speak to you, and more. 

What clinched it was when Grandin said that most autistic people love Star Trek, especially the cold logic of first officer Spock. That's me: a Trekkie if there has ever been one. So, I concluded that I am a probable case of Asperger's, although in a mild form -- the kind familiarly know as "Aspie." (BTW, I have also been a member of ASPO, the association for the study of peak oil. Maybe that was a premonition, but it is another story!)

On the fact of considering myself an aspie, I know that there is such a thing as "confirmation bias," typically operating with horoscopes. You may also remember Jerome K. Jerome's book "Three Men in a Boat" where the protagonist describes how he became convinced to have all kinds of possible ailments (except the housemaid's knee) by reading a book of medical symptoms. Maybe I am just a little eccentric, as university professors often are. But I think there is something real in my self-diagnosis of mild autism. 

It is not just character that makes me behave in a certain way: my mind really clicks a little different. Let me give you just an example: I can't remember street names. It is not a choice. Really, I can't. Call it "toponymic dyslexia" if you like (a term I invented), but it is the way my mind works. With a few exceptions, such as the street where I live, my mental map of my town is purely visual, not verbal -- it contains no street names. As far as I can tell, I have always been like this.

That's not an impairment, I have no difficulties in orienting myself in my city. But people find strange, and sometimes maddening, that I go completely blank when they tell me something that has to do with a specific street name that they think everyone should know. I didn't find this symptom described exactly in this way as typical of autism, but it agrees with Grandin's description of how she doesn't think verbally, but by images.

There is more that I could tell you, but let me just add that my wife confirms my interpretation. When I told her, a few days ago, about having discovered I am an aspie, she was a little surprised at the idea of having lived with a neuropath for more than 40 years, without realizing it! But then she thought about that for a while and she said that, yes, that's what I am. She agrees that the term "aspie" describes me very well. 


Empathy and Autism

Autism is strongly related to the concept of "empathy" and autistic people are often supposed to be unable to feel empathy toward other people. But is it true? And what is empathy, exactly? It is often defined as the capability of "stepping into someone else's shoes." That's a necessary social skill: if we can't do that, we are bound to make people angry at us. Even worse, if we don't understand how Earth's ecosystem (aka Gaia) works, we are bound to make the Goddess angry at us. And that could be much worse. But what are we doing wrong, exactly? And what would it mean to do it right?

It is a subject that I have been discussing a lot with the "Empathy Guru," Chuck Pezeshky. We are even planning to write a book together on it. As you can imagine from the photo, working with Chuck may be a lot of fun, and his blog is a mine of ideas and concepts about empathy (a fundamental one being, "as we relate, so we think." It applies very well to aspies). 
It is a complex matter and, here, I can only summarize my views (not necessarily Chuck's ones) by referring to a rather abused metaphor, that of Zen story of how you can excel in the art of archery by "becoming the arrow." An even better way is to use the term that Robert A. Heinlein invented in one of his novels: "grokking," nowadays becoming common with Earthlings (especially with the one named Chuck Pezeshky).
"To grok" is a verb in the Martian language,  It is impossible to translate it exactly in earthling languages, but it means that you become the person, the animal, or the object you are trying to understand. 

Perhaps the best way to recursively grok grokking is to refer to an extremely ancient kind of earthling lore called "Shape-Shifting," the capability of wizards and deities to take the shape of other humans or animals. Of course, ancient wizards couldn't actually transform themselves into -- say -- stags. But grokking stags meant gaining something of the powers of the stags. Wearing a horned hat surely helped. The image on the left shows an ancient horned wizard from the Gundestrup Cauldron. That style of dressing seems to be still popular, nowadays, as some recent events showed. But let me not go into that. 
So, empathy means grokking and how do aspies fare with that? They are often described as people who can't feel empathy, but I think that is wrong. They are not cold-blooded, reptile-like individuals, unable to feel anything. Not at all! Aspies are potential, and sometimes real, hyper-grokkers.

Think about that: Spock, the prototypical aspie, is not someone who doesn't feel anything. He just uses logic to dominate emotion. The same is true for me, although I am not so glacial as Spock (and I am not even the first officer of a starship!). And it is true also of Temple Grandin who is a compassionate individual who dedicated much of her life to reduce the suffering of livestock. (1) That's true for most Aspies who are not impaired individuals, just people who behave a little differently from those we call "neurotypicals."

But why do aspies give the impression that they are the opposite of what they really are? It is because shape shifting/grokking is associated with the "imprisoning metamorphosis," The risk of turning oneself into something or someone else is to become that person or animal. Worse, the wizard may be unable to change back to his/her original form. In a modern version, this problem was masterfully described by Ursula le Guin in her Earthsea books. 

Grokking another mind is empathy in its purest form. And it is dangerous: mystics try that with God and they risk being burned to ashes by the pure brightness of God's spirit. With other humans, that's not the problem but, if you grok an evil person, you may become evil. If you grok a deranged person, you may become deranged in the same way. And if someone whom you grok wants you to do something bad, he or she may succeed at that.

It is a risk aspies run, so they put up a shield that protects their inside feelings. Sometimes, this shield becomes so heavy to be impenetrable. It is when a person becomes dysfunctional: too much protection shuts them off from the rest of the world. But, without shields, aspies would be an easy target for those predators who exploit empathy for their personal advantage. These people are called "psychopaths." (in short, "psychos").

Psychos are the exact opposite of aspies in terms of personality. Normally, they have little or no emphatic skills and, for them, other people are valuable only as tools. You can say that psychos are vampires of the mind: they will try to devour other people's souls if they have a chance to. 

The strategies of psychos are rarely subtle. Typically, they use intimidation. But they may exploit other weaknesses: greed, lust, pride, and vanity, as much as positive qualities such as kindness and compassion. Often, psychopaths tend to gang together to amplify their powers. National governments are typically colonized by psychopaths of the worst kind.

Now you can see how the counter-strategy of aspies works. Their personality is a defensive/evasive mechanism against psychopathic predators. They can "tune out," at least from the most blatant manipulation methods, for instance by their capability of intensely concentrating on something. It is what makes them poor socialites, but good scientists. It works especially well against government propaganda.

I understand that this is a controversial interpretation and I can't prove that it is correct. You could object, for instance, that autistic people just can't read some non verbal signals that are clear to "normal" people. And how would that be a barrier? It looks like a handicap. Besides, the fact that I can't remember street names, as I noted, is a barrier against exactly what?

True. But, as a rebuttal I could say that there may be several kinds of barriers that aspies build, not all of them are effective and some are counterproductive.  On the whole, I do think that my explanation works best for that fraction of aspies who are on the mild side of the spectrum of the condition, as Temple Grandin is. In that case, you may see autism not as a pathology, but as an ability. 

Of course, it is a delicate balance that these aspies seek for. If their barrier is truly impassable, they become dysfunctional people, useless to themselves and to others. If they can't keep the barrier strong enough, then they can be manipulated just like normal people. But when it works, the mechanism is effective as defense against the many attempts of manipulation that you face every day.


The Arms Race in the Social Holobiont

Why is it that there are psychopaths and aspies in the world? I think it is the result of an evolutionary mechanism. The human society can be described in terms of a "social holobiont" that changes and evolves all the time. A holobiont is an entity composed of various elements normally in symbiosis with each other. But, at times an unbalance develops, some elements of the holobiont become parasites of others, and the system must change and adapt to regain some balance.

In small social groups, as in the tribal societies where our ancestors lived, psychos may have played a useful role for the group. Their aggressive tendencies may have helped the tribe in war or in other occasions when the tribe needed to act fast and with all the members had to agree on some plan: migration, for instance. 

But, with larger societies, the role of psychos changed from symbionts to parasites. No more just the local big men, they became god-kings, then absolute rulers who pretended not just obedience, but uniformity of thought. With the development of mass media, the psychos in charge found that they could get whatever they wanted by hurling at the rest of the people the monster of the year to hate, just like, in the old days, the Detroit automakers would convince people to buy a new car using the trick of the "model of the year." It is the way our society works, nowadays. Psychos are social super-parasites that force all the other to follow a continuous emotional roller-coaster generated by the media. 

Of course, the dominance of psychopaths on society is generating tremendous damage to everybody and everything. It is pushing us toward disastrous choices in all fields, from developing nuclear weapons to polluting everything, and overexploiting all resources. 

Is it possible that the growing number of aspies is a manifestation of society moving toward a certain degree of resistance to this kind of manipulation? For sure, the growth has been unbelievably fast. Autism was nearly unknown 50 years ago, today about one person in 30 is born autistic in the US, an increase of nearly a factor of 300. In part, it is also the result of better detection techniques, but it is also true that there are many unrecognized mild cases, so aspies are not anymore a tiny minority of handicapped people.

This is, again, a controversial proposal. Assuming that autism is a genetic trait, as it seems to be, according to the standard interpretation of evolution by natural selection, you might well object that it is hard to see how genetic evolution could lead to such a rapid change in just 50 years. And you would have to assume that the aspies have more children than the non aspie -- hard to maintain, to say the least. 

What I can say on this point is that the modern views on evolution allow for much faster change than the traditional Neo-Darwinian version. Concepts such as horizontal gene transfer and epigenetics have completely changed our views (if you want a hint of the complexity of the evolution of the human brain, just take a look at this review!) Once you note how the human mind is affected by the microbiome of the human holobiont, you understand how the human mind is plastic. It can change, and change a lot as the result of changes in the chemical and physical environment. Besides, the behavior of a human being is a complex mix of cultural and genetic factors. In mild cases of autism, cultural factors may be important and we know that they can change very fast.

In the human societal holobiont, we can see aspies and psychos as two levels of a trophic chain where psychos are the predator and aspies are the prey. As in biological ecosystems, say, rabbits and foxes, in the social holobiont predators and prey are locked together in an arms race where they keep trying to improve their survival chances. So, the increasing number of aspies might be the result of society rebalancing itself to counteract the excessive power of psychos. A society where most people are aspies would be much less sensitive to propaganda and could be managed according to reason for the advantage of everyone. 

Is it possible? As usual, complex systems have always ways to surprise you, and the human society is one of the most complex systems known. So, it may well surprise us for its adaptive capabilities. Think of the command deck of the Enterprise in Star Trek. The rational approach of Spock (the aspie) was balanced, complemented, and enhanced by the approach of Captain Kirk. He was not a psychopath, but a person who could be driven by emotions and who needed some rational complement. The Enterprise was an example of a well-balanced holobiont. It perfectly illustrated the awesome power of diversity and reciprocal respect that's the strength of all holobionts, including the societal one. And don't forget that Greta Thunberg is an aspie, too!

And so, live long and prosper, fellow aspies!



image source



(1) Temple Grandin's book "Thinking in Images" is a remarkable book, even for those who are not aspies. It is, clearly, something different from the average self-help book. The first chapters are hard to describe: they are "strange" -- the author wanders among many different subjects, giving the impression that you are really reading something written by someone whose mind works differently from yours. But, as you progress, you start understanding what Grandin wants to say. The first chapters are a sort of test. As it is typical for aspies/autistic people, she is not opening herself to you right away. You have to read through more than half of the book before she really starts opening up herself and her inner thoughts to the reader. If you arrive to that point, you start understanding that she respects the reader and that she asks respect from the reader. She never opens up herself completely, but enough for the reader to appreciate her as a human being, a little different from the average, but worth of respect for her caring attitude for humankind and all living beings. 

(2). World leaders are typical examples of psychopaths, with a few exceptions. One may be Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, who has been described as suffering of the Asperger's disease in the Western media. That was intended as an insult, but perhaps it is not so wrong as a description of Putin's personality. If you examine Putin's speeches, you will note that he never uses the kind of aggressive demonizing of enemies that Western leaders use all the time. He looks cold and rational, but occasionally he may show his feelings, as when he was shown to weep at a military parade. In the West, this behavior was understood as an especially devious trick. That would have been the case if Putin were a psychopath (imagine Donald Trump weeping at a parade!). But if Putin is an aspie, then an occasional puncturing of his defensive barrier might generate this behavior. Incidentally, have you noticed how all Russians seem to have some aspects of aspies? Try to ask for directions in the streets of Moscow, and you'll understand what I mean! In any case, that's not meant to disparage the Russians -- not at all! Once you pass the barrier, the Russians are the best people in the world. In fact, all the people in the world are the best people in the world once you come to know them well.

Friday, March 12, 2021

The Seneca Cliff of Rhetoric: Just say no to Powerpoint

"The orator" (l'arringatore), an Etruscan statue probably made during the 1st century BC, presently at the Archaeological Museum in Florence, Italy. Surely, he had no idea that his descendants would have used PowerPoint slides!

At the time of Lucius Annaeus Seneca, not only PowerPoint didn't exist, but not even such things as books or paper. For Seneca, a "book" was something written on parchment scrolls and when he took notes he probably used waxed wood tablets. Presenting one's ideas in public was part of the art of rhetoric, nearly completely based on words and gestures. 

Rhetoric is a term that has acquired a negative ring in our times, but that was originally understood as a skill that a learned person should study and practice. Unfortunately, today rhetoric has been gradually replaced by the barbaric method of droning on while reading written words appearing on a lighted screen. If Seneca is looking at us from the Elysian fields, he can only gravely shake his head at seeing how rhetoric went down what I call a "Seneca Cliff."

That had been clear to me for a long time, but it appeared painfully evident with the diffusion of on-line seminars. The latest on-line lecture I gave, a few days ago, was attended mainly by ghosts. Theoretically, 21 students were listening to me, but only three or four of them were gracious enough to show their faces on the screen. The others simply refused to appear, even when I explicitly invited them to do so. I don't think this behavior is understood to be bad manners. Apparently, it is believed that it is perfectly legitimate for a student to lurk in the shadows while a teacher speaks. That wouldn't be so nice in a real classroom: imagine that your students were to appear wearing hoods hiding their faces! 

But I can understand the defensive reaction of students. They are used to the well-known phenomenon of the "death by PowerPoint" -- your consciousness slowly drifting away while someone speaks reading from a nearly infinite series of slides.


But too much is too much. Enough with death by PowerPoint, now it is the time of the death of PowerPoint. With the advent of virtual lectures and virtual classes, there is no reason to continue to use a tool that's by now obsolete. I think it is time to say NO to PowerPoint. 

And that's what I did for that lecture: I had a PowerPoint presentation ready, but I didn't show it. I just spoke, and when I needed an image or a movie clip, I opened up the browser, I searched for it on the spot, and I showed it on screen. Easy, flexible, and interactive.

Did it work? I think so. Not that it revived all the ghost-students (maybe they weren't even there!), but at least a few more showed up and engaged in a discussion with me. I am planning to move away completely from PowerPoint, even though I still have to use it because a lot of my data and images are in there. I don't think I will ever become an orator as good as Seneca must have been in his times, but I am exploring this new way of presenting. And maybe old Seneca himself would approve!

 A brief history of how rhetoric fell down the Seneca Cliff.  

When I was in college, it was traditional that teachers would use the blackboard as their only classroom tool. Occasionally, some of them would organize demonstrations of chemical reactions in front of the class but, mostly, they were supposed to go on for 1-2 hours writing mathematical and chemical formulas on the board. In the figure, you see Richard Feynman teaching in the 1960s.

When I started teaching, in the 1980s, that was still the standard way you were expected to do your job. You would keep writing formulas on the blackboard without ever resorting to written notes. It took quite some work of memorization and a certain ability of juggling numbers and symbols, but it was the way it was supposed to be done. It was not different from the way professional actors would learn to play their roles on the scene.

An alternative was the slide projector, loaded with 35 mm photographic slides in carousels or straight trays. I remember that I used it for my first presentations. It had the advantage that it could project images, but it was inflexible. Once you had loaded the tray, you could only show the slides in a pre-ordered frequency, just as you would fire the bullets from the clip in your automatic pistol. If you wanted to insert one slide in the middle, you had to unload all of them, and then reload the whole tray. Just like automatic guns, these things would sometimes jam. A couple of times, I saw the tray being spit out of the machine, spewing out the slides all over the room. But you had plenty more problems: slides appearing upside down, slides not belonging to the presentation, missing slides, and more.

Somewhat later, there came the overhead projector. It became standard equipment in the 1980s and was still in use in the 1990s. The projector used transparent sheets to project pre-printed text and images, usually only in black and white because color photocopiers were rare and expensive. It was also possible to project the silhouette of whatever you placed on the projector table and that could be used creatively to perform small on-screen demonstrations. You could even write with a marker on the sheet while presenting. You could draw arrows, symbols, and text.

Unlike slide projectors, the overhead projector was flexible. You would carry with you a folder with a number of transparent sheets and arrange them according to what you needed. Even while presenting, you always knew what the next image was and could decide to skip it or present another one. 

It was practical, yes, but also the harbinger of things to come. Once you had your transparent sheets ready, you didn't have to engage anymore in the mental gymnastic needed to memorize the formulas to write. For a while, I tried to resist and I kept making a point not to use projectors in the classroom. But, eventually, I gave up, just like all my colleagues. So many things to do, and how to resist the temptation of making life a little easier?

And then, there came PowerPoint. You see in the figure (from Google Ngrams) how Powerpoint came to dominate the narrative.


Apparently, the slide projector existed already in the 1940s, then it was slowly overcome by the overhead projector. Then, both were supplanted by the onrush of Powerpoint. In turn, Powerpoint seems to be declining, nowadays, but it is still the most mentioned method.

In many respects, Powerpoint is like the slide projector, but without the risk of jamming or seeing your slides flying in the room. But it was inflexible, too. Once you had your presentation loaded, you couldn't change it anymore on the spot. I remember an occasion when I was the chairman of a session at a conference and I invited one of the speakers to shorten his presentation. He looked at me with a sheepish expression and he said, "how can I do that? I use PowerPoint." Speakers were becoming slaves of their software.I don't know how it became the standard that the speaker (or the teacher) was supposed to do little more than reading whatever she had previously written. It was the triumph of bullet lists. University lectures never were supposed to be fun, but the whole thing became an exercise in futility. The students would just look at you with vitreous eyes and then ask you the PowerPoint file so that they could study it at home. With the advent of online teaching, the students don't even have to look at you with vitreous eyes anymore. They can sleep or just pretend that they are there.


And here we are. It is the curse of living in a decadent period, just like when the last Roman poets, from Ausonius to Claudian, lost the skills of their predecessors and couldn't do anything better than aping them. That's what we are doing with these curious rituals we call "webinars" or "on-line classes" that consist of reading from bright images on a screen. Maybe it is because, really, we don't have anything relevant to tell people anymore. We see it everywhere, especially on social media where the attention span is of the order of a few seconds, the insult is the communication standard, and nothing relevant is ever discussed. 

But never despair, if rhetoric went down a Seneca Cliff, there is always a Seneca Rebound after you hit the bottom. And we can improve. Down with PowerPoint!!

Sunday, March 7, 2021

The Problem of the Shipwrecked Sailor: When Money Becomes Useless


The Covid crisis highlighted an already existing problem: that money is useless if you can't buy anything useful with it. It is the problem of the shipwrecked sailor on a deserted island. (image from Wikimedia): money won't help him survive. So, lockdowns and restrictions gave us a taste of a future where money may be worth nothing simply because there is nothing you can buy with it. It is a problem ultimately connected with the unavoidable depletion of the fossil fuels that form the basis of our economy: with less energy, we cannot keep making the stuff that makes it possible to indulge in conspicuous consumption. So, after the Covid, society will never be the same. Taking into account that history never repeats itself, but it does rhyme, here I examine the situation starting with a parallel with the history of the Roman Empire.

The Roman Crisis: When Money Couldn't buy Anything

Imagine living in Rome at some moment during the 1st century AD (the time of Lucius Annaeus Seneca). At that time, Rome, with perhaps one million inhabitants, was the largest city in the world and probably the largest emporium ever seen in history. Through the Silk Road, one caravan after the other was bringing to Rome all sorts of goods from Asia: pepper, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, sandalwood, pearls, rubies, diamonds, and emeralds. And then ivory, silk, glassware, perfumes, jewels, unguents, and much more: exotic birds, special food, slaves to be used as workers and as sex objects. And there was the entertainment: in Rome, you had theaters, chariot races, gladiator games, fights among exotic animals, and all sorts of performers with their magic tricks, their songs, and their spectacles. 

You could enjoy all that if you had money. And the Romans had money: they minted it. They had control over the richest precious metal mines of the ancient world, in the northern region of Hispania. There, tens of thousands of slaves, perhaps hundreds of thousands, were engaged in a work that Pliny the Elder described as "the ruin of the mountains" (ruina montium), the process of crushing rock into sand to extract the tiny specks of gold and silver it contained. 

With the gold and the silver they mined, the Romans paid their legions. Then, the legions would invade regions outside the Empire and capture slaves that would mine more gold to pay more legions. And, as long as the mines were producing, the Romans had gold aplenty, even though a lot of it was sent to China and to other regions of Asia to pay for the luxury goods they imported and that kept the economic machine of the empire working. For an empire to exist, money is everything.

Of course, then as now, not everyone had the same amount of money. In Rome, the rich took most of it, but some money trickled down to the artisans, the performers, the employees; everyone from cooks to prostitutes would get a share, maybe a small one, but still something. Even the slaves, destitute by definition, could own a little money. It is possible that, occasionally, their masters would give them a few coppers to buy a cup of Falerno wine or admission to the chariot races.

But the rich Romans were truly rich. And their lifestyle was all based on showing off their wealth. Read this excerpt from Cassius Dio about a wealthy Roman patrician, Vedius Pollio.

. . . he kept in reservoirs huge lampreys that had been trained to eat men, and he was accustomed to throw to them such of his slaves as he desired to put to death. Once, when he was entertaining Augustus, his cup-bearer broke a crystal goblet, and without regard for his guest, Pollio ordered the fellow to be thrown to the lampreys. Hereupon the slave fell on his knees before Augustus and supplicated him, and Augustus at first tried to persuade Pollio not to commit so monstrous a deed. Then, when Pollio paid no heed to him, the emperor said, 'Bring all the rest of the drinking vessels which are of like sort or any others of value that you possess, in order that I may use them,' and when they were brought, he ordered them to be broken. (Roman History (LIV.23))

This story must have been well known since is reported also by Seneca, Plinius, and Tertullianus. That makes me suspect that it fabricated, or at least exaggerated. Apart from the "lampreys" that were probably "morays," it may well have been a fabrication by Octavianus, aka Augustus, who was truly an expert in self-promotion. But it doesn't matter whether the story is true or not. The ancient Romans found it believable, so it gives us a hint of their way of thinking. 

Probably, the Romans didn't see the moral of the story in the same way we see it nowadays. For them, it was perfectly normal that slaves could be put to death by their owners at any moment, for any reason. The point of this story is that it shows that the Romans were practicing what we call today "conspicuous consumption." Pollio was filthy rich, and he loved to show off his wealth. Surely, he was not the only one: there are other examples of rich Romans displaying their wealth with sumptuous villas, lavish entertainment, fashionable clothes, jewels, and entourages of slaves and hangers-on. Then, the Emperor was the richest person in Rome. It was traditional that he would show his wealth and power by distributing food for the poor, and entertaining citizens with extravagant games and spectacles. 

In short, Imperial Rome was not unlike our age: the rich were enormously rich, but something of their wealth trickled down to the rest of the people. Surely, on all the steps of the social ladder, people played the consumption game in order to keep up with the Joneses. It was always the same story. Money is a tool for commerce, of course, but also a way to establish the social hierarchy. 

Then, things started going wrong, as they always do. For the Roman Empire, controlling a territory that stretched from Britannia to Cappadocia required an enormously expensive military apparatus and it was becoming more and more difficult to find enough money for the task. We have no records of the output of the precious metal mines in Roman times, but from the archeological data, it seems that depletion was already biting during the early centuries of the Empire. It is typical of mining: you don't run out of anything all of a sudden, but the cost of extraction keeps increasing.

Surely, enormous efforts were made to try to stave off the decline of the mines. But the Seneca Cliff is unavoidable when you deal with non-renewable resources. The cliff started approximately at the beginning of the 2nd century AD. One century later, the imperial mines had ceased producing anything. They would never recover.  (image from McDonnell et al.)

No gold, no empire. The mining collapse nearly brought the empire to its end during the 3rd century. It was a series of reciprocally reinforcing effects. The gold that was sent to China couldn't be replaced by mining. Then, less gold meant fewer troops, which meant fewer slaves, and that, in turn, meant even less gold. The result was a series of civil wars, foreign invasions, general turmoil, and overall economic decline.

The Roman Empire could have disappeared by the end of the 3rd century. In practice, it managed to survive for a couple of centuries more in a much poorer version. For one thing, the Romans couldn't afford anymore the luxuries that they once would pay with the gold they mined. As you would expect, the poor were the first to be hit, while the rich tended to maintain their extravagant lifestyle as long as they could. But the whole society was affected.

For the late Roman Empire, the problem was not just that the system had run out of gold. At some point, the Romans must have stopped, or at least greatly reduced, the flow of luxury goods from China. At that point, the rich Romans still had some gold. See this gold solidus coin minted at the time of emperor Constantine the Great, in mid 4th century AD.

But what could you buy with these beautiful coins? At that time, all the Western Roman Empire could produce were legions and tax collectors and, without imports from abroad, Rome had become a grim military outpost, not anymore the greatest emporium of the world. 

Those who still had gold found themselves in the position of a shipwrecked sailor on a deserted island. Coconuts aplenty, perhaps, but no way to play the game of conspicuous consumption. Already with Augustus, the first emperor, we see a legal trend that aimed at limiting the excesses of wealth that the Romans could display. It was a gradual process that was completed only with the diffusion of Christianity in Europe and Islam in North Africa and the Middle East. It was unavoidable, and it happened.

So, in these late Roman times, gold had lost much of its luster. Those who still had it started burying it underground, with the idea of keeping it for better times. Modern archaeologists are still finding gold buried at that time. That was the probable origins of our legends about dragons living in caves and sitting on hoards of gold. People knew that plenty of gold had been buried but, unfortunately for them, they lacked the metal detectors we have today! In any case, that was the end of the Roman Empire. As I said, no gold, no money, no empire. 

Creative money: the relics of Middle Ages

When the Roman Empire faded, it was replaced in Europe by the era we call the Middle Ages. Then, people found themselves with a big problem: how to keep society together without the precious metals needed to mint money? And, even worse, without much that money could be spent on? The Middle Ages were a period of fragmented petty kingdoms and scattered villages, but there still was a need for a commercial system that would move goods around. But how to create it without metal money?

Our Medieval ancestors creatively solved the problem with a completely new kind of money. It was based on relics. Yes, the bones of holy men, meticulously collected, authenticated, and issued by the authority of the time, the Christian Church. Not only relics were rare and sought after, but they could also provide a service that not even the Roman gold could provide when it was abundant: health in the form of divine interventions. (In the figure, 18th-century relics owned by the author. They look like coins, they feel like coins, they are shaped like coins -- they are coins!)

These relics were a form of virtual money but, after all, all money is virtual. Even a gold coin promises something (wealth) that in itself cannot guarantee unless there is a market where you can spend it. And the fact that money can be spent depends on people believing it to be "real" money, mostly an act of faith. In the same way, a relic is a virtual object that has no value in itself. It promises something (health) that can be delivered if you believe in it. It was, again, an act of faith based on the belief that the little chunks of bone that the relics contained were actually coming from the body of a holy man of the past. 
The beauty of the relic-based monetary system was that relics were not "spent" in markets. You could own relics, but you could grant their health benefits to others and still keep the relics. In other words, you could spend your money (eat your cake) and still have it!. Relic-money was managed mainly by public institutions such as monasteries and churches. They owned the most prized relics and were the places where pilgrims flocked to be healed by the powerful holy aura that these relics emanated.
The commercial system of the Middle Ages evolved in large part around relics. Travel was encouraged in the form of pilgrimages to the holy sites, and that would create an exchange economy based on charity. Conspicuous consumption was simply not possible in the relatively poor economy of the Middle Ages. Consequently, the Christian philosophy de-emphasized consumption and condemned social inequality. The highest virtue for a Medieval person was to get rid of all their material possessions and live an austere life of privation. Of course, that was more theoretical than practical, but some people were putting this idea into practice: just think of St. Francis.
The system worked perfectly until new precious metal mines in Eastern Europe started operating in late Middle Ages and that brought back metal currency to Europe. A new period of expansion followed that eventually led to our times of renewed conspicuous consumption. And that's where we are.


The Romans and us: the same problems. 

We know that history never repeats itself, but it does rhyme. So, where do we stand now? The money that keeps the Global Empire together, today, is not based on precious metals and we don't risk collapse because our mines cease producing gold. Indeed, there is clear evidence that gold production and economic growth decoupled worldwide in the 1950s. So using gold as the basis for a monetary system went out of fashion in the 1970s. 

Our money is not linked to anything, nowadays. It is something that floats free in space, a ghost of what once were heavy gold coins. But we still have it and our rich men are so filthy rich to put to shame the Roman ones (even though our multi-billionaries don't have the right to throw their servants into the pool of the morays, not yet, at least). 

Apparently, we are more clever than the ancient. They didn't have paper, didn't have the printing press, they couldn't print paper money. And they couldn't even imagine what a cryptocurrency is. We can do much better than anything they could invent. So we will never face the same problems, right?

Not so simple. Yes, we do have paper money, cryptocurrencies, and the like. But don't think that the Romans didn't try to replace gold with something else. Even without paper, they could have used earthenware, papyrus, parchment, or whatever. But if they tried that, it didn't work. The problem is always that of the shipwrecked sailor. You may have money in one form or another, but if you can't buy anything with it, it is useless. Even if you have gold, there is not much you can buy in a collapsed economy. 

And there we stand: we are all shipwrecked sailors and that has been shown most clearly by the Covid pandemic. Think about that: you were locked at home, you couldn't go to a restaurant, take a trip, get a drink, go to the beach, go dancing, nothing like that. Not that commerce disappeared: we could still buy anything we wanted from Amazon and have it delivered home. But, as I already noted, money is not just a tool to buy things. It is a tool to establish the social hierarchy by means of the game of conspicuous consumption. That's a game you can't play alone, at home, in front of a mirror. No more than a shipwrecked sailor, alone on his island, can gain a higher social status by eating more coconuts.

In the end, the pandemic simply brought to light something that we should have known already: that we can't indulge in conspicuous consumption for much longer. Running out of gold is not a problem for us. The problem is that we are gradually running out of fossil fuels, and it was those fuels that allowed us to consume so much and waste so much. The pandemic has given us a taste of the things to come. Because it is so functional in pushing the economy in the direction where it must go in any case, it may never end.

So, can we think of a creative solution for the future that awaits our civilization as it runs out of the energy sources that power it? Maybe we can find inspiration from the Middle Ages. As I said, history never repeats itself, but we may be moving toward a historical phase that rhymes with the way the economy of the Middle Ages functioned. So, the Christian Church may be replaced by the entity we call "Science" (with a capital "S"), supposed to be able to dispense physical and spiritual health to its followers. And that may generate trade and movement of people and goods, as well as establishing a new hierarchical order.

We may have already seen hints of this evolution. First, the Covid has heavily damaged the universal health care system of the countries that had it. With the fear of being infected and with hospitals being converted to Covid care centers, now good health care is not for everyone: it is a new form of conspicuous consumption for those who can afford it. The ancient pilgrimages to holy sites could be replaced by trips to the best hospital and health care centers. 

Then, would there be an equivalent of holy relics in the future? So far, nothing like that has emerged, but we may see the coming vaccination certificates as "tokens of virtue" that separate the "haves" (those who are vaccinated) from the "have nots." (those who don't want, or who can't afford, to be vaccinated). But that's hardly a functional hierarchy creating system. Eventually it could be replaced by a "point system" not unlike the shèhuì xìnyòng tǐxì, the social credit system being developed in China. By all definitions, that's a kind of monetary system that establishes a hierarchical system not based on conspicuous consumption. That may well be the future.

And, as always, history keeps rhyming. 



Wednesday, March 3, 2021

The Death of Ahmed Zaki Yamani, the "Oil Sheik" who Understood Everything

Ahmed Zaki Yamani, oil minister of Saudi Arabia until 1986, died in London last week. In memory of the "oil sheik," I reproduce here a comment that appeared on the ASPO-Italia blog in 2006. The interview of Yamani by Oriana Fallaci in 1976 is a good example of how the oil problem is misunderstood in the West and of the many lies told about it. Yamani, despite all the accusations and insults he received, was always a moderate who sought compromise. He managed to prevent his country, Saudi Arabia, from the disasters that befell all oil-producing countries in the Middle East.  

Unfortunately, Yamani's legacy has been somewhat lost over the years, but it is only now that Saudi Arabia is seeing bombs falling on its territory -- a destiny that so far the country had avoided. Now, things are going to become very difficult as Saudi Arabia faces the unavoidable decline of its once abundant oil resources.

Yamani is remembered, among other things, for having said that “The Stone Age did not end because the world ran out of stone, and the Oil Age will end long before the world runs out of oil.” And, with that, he demonstrated that he had perfectly understood the concept of "EROEI" and the consequences of gradual depletion. 

(Fallaci's interview is available in full at this link.)

Fallaci interviews Yamani: thirty years later
Di Ugo Bardi - September 2006 (slightly edited for publication on "The Seneca Effect")

About thirty years ago, at the height of the first "Oil Crisis," the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci interviewed the Minister of Oil of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani. The text of the interview appeared in the newspapers and can be found today in the book "Interview with History" (BUR 2001).  

The interview with Yamani is just one of the many interviews that Oriana Fallaci had obtained from the various powerful men of the 1970s (among them Henri Kissinger). Somehow, being interviewed by her seems to have been fashionable, or perhaps it was something that they could not avoid. According to what Fallaci herself tells us, Ahmed Zaki Yamani hesitated for a long time before agreeing to be interviewed. In the end, however, he invited Fallaci to his home in London, then in Jeddah, and received her with great courtesy, and introduced her to his wife Taman and his daughters. 

Fallaci's interview is interesting because it reproposes the elements that have characterized the debate on oil from then until today. On the one hand, the political interpretation of the crisis, as due to a conspiracy with ideological or religious roots. On the other, the pragmatic interpretation of the crisis, as due to the impossibility of production to satisfy demand and maintain a low price. 

There was also a human side of the interview and, from what she writes, it doesn't seem that Fallaci was particularly grateful to Yamani for his kindness. On the contrary, her antipathy towards him is evident. You see it in all her questions and her comments, but also when she describes his eyes as "Only his eyes alert one to his true self: brilliant, darting, crafty. Eyes that know how to lie, to caress and pierce one with ruthlessness." Fallaci, evidently, thinks she has supernatural telepathic powers. 

She defines Yamani as, "The man who can take us back to the days when we traveled on horseback, who can close our factories, make our banks fail ..." Or consider when she bluntly tells him: "You wanted money and you got it: ruining us." Then, she accuses Yamani of blackmail, of wanting to buy an atomic bomb, of being " diabolical," and things like that. Later on, Fallaci accused Yamani of having attempted to seduce her while she was in his house, although this accusation does not appear in the interview.

It's not so much a question of insults. What is striking about this interview is how Fallaci had not even minimally prepared herself on the subject of crude oil. She was unable to ask questions that were not simply based on the various legends of the time (the same as today). To illustrate how the interview looked most of all as something in the style of a gossip magazine, here are some excerpts.

"Where is the money? I see many gold watches in your shop windows and gold lighters, gold rings, I see big cars in your streets, but I don't see houses, I don't see real cities."  Fallaci apparently believed that the Saudi were still living in tents in the desert

"We know very well that the emirs use the money to buy golden water closets" Again, Fallaci doesn't seem to be bothered by the need of verifying her assertions.

"In Saudi Arabia people dig for water and find oil." If you think that it could be true, note that the oil fields of Saudi Arabia are typically located at depths of a few kilometers, far more than the depth of water wells.

Throughout the interview, Fallaci revolves around the concept that the Arabs were plotting against the West using oil as a weapon. Several times he tries to get Yamani to admit that, yes, there is a plot against the West to ruin us and to establish the world Islamic dictatorship. If possible, she would like to make him admit that it is him, Ahmed Zaki Yamani, who is the leader of the plot. It is as if she saw the interview as part of a Hollywood movie, where the villain usually confesses his crimes out of pure bragging.  

In partial defense of Fallaci, it must be said that, in those years, almost everyone in the West believed that the crisis of the 1970s had purely political origins. Today, we clearly see from the data that the crisis was instead caused by the US peak production, which took place in 1970. But the vehemence with which Fallaci attacks Yamani in the interview does not seem to be based on any data.

Yamani, for his part, always replies without losing his temper. It is clear that he considered Fallacy as a kind of time bomb, to be treated with caution and handled with gloves. It must have really taken a lot of patience for him to answer the series of questions that came to him: many were simply silly, some offensive, and others indiscreet. An example of the last kind is the one about the feelings he had experienced witnessing the execution of the killer of King Feisal. But Yamani is always courteous and answers without ever dodging the question, even though in his heart he must have wondered more than once what was that led him into such a situation. Fallaci, instead of appreciating that, accuses him, saying that "spontaneity was forbidden."

In the end, what makes the interview interesting is not Fallaci, but Yamani. Despite the lack of knowledge evident from the questions he received, Yamani manages to give a complete and organic picture of the oil situation of the time, which already foreshadowed today's world. At the time, Saudi Arabia produced three and a half million barrels a day, but Yamani said it could have produced 11. In fact, Saudi Arabia has managed to produce nearly 11 at certain times.  

Yamani was clear about the strategy that Saudi Arabia would adopt in the years to come: that of "swing producer" or needle of the balance that would have stabilized production and avoided further crises in the future. He had perfectly framed the world oil situation as it would be for at least three decades to come. Fallaci was unable to appreciate the value of what she was told but, reading the interview, one is struck by the clarity with which Yamani had predicted the events of the next thirty years and even more.

Are Yamani's considerations still valid today? Overall, yes, but they won't continue to hold for very long. Today, Saudi Arabia faces a very difficult future. It is said that the country will still be able to increase production, but it is also said that the current fields have reached their limits and that the decline is about to begin. Sooner or later, Saudi Arabia will no longer be the tip of the balance it has been since the time of Yamani. The exhaustion of resources is the real problem and not the "emirs who buy water closets of gold" as Fallaci said, perhaps really believing it.

Oriana Fallaci is gone today. Yamani has no longer been oil minister since 1986, today he is an elderly gentleman who lives in London and deals with Islamic studies (n.d.a. this was written in 2007, Yamani died in 2021). The world goes on, the events of the past always present themselves the same but in always different forms. One thing changes, however: there is less and less oil to extract).