Thursday, April 29, 2021

The Future of the Oceans: The two Souls of the Club of Rome


I was very happy when I finally managed to find a copy of the old report to the Club of Rome, "The Future of the Oceans" by Elizabeth Mann Borgese. A book published in 1986, one of a long series of reports that the Club commissioned to various scientists and researchers. And the only one, so far, that dealt with marine resources. Not so easy to find: I finally managed to dig out a used copy from an obscure bookstore in Michigan. But, eventually, it arrived here.

Of course, my interest in that old book was generated by having written a report on marine resources myself, "The Empty Sea," together with my coworker Ilaria Perissi (you see her with our book in the photo.) So, how do these two books compare, at 35 years of distance from each other?

I must say that I was surprised. Our book can be defined as a little catastrophistic: just the title should tell you what I mean. The one by Elizabeth Mann Borgese, instead, is completely different in tone, approach, and contents: you could define it as cornucopian. The first part of the book is dedicated to describing the abundance of the resources that the oceans contain, the second and third part are dedicated to how the international community was going to develop a "common heritage economics," and about treaties, regulations, and laws needed to manage the exploitation of these riches for the good of all humankind. 

Leaving aside for a moment the question of who is right and who is wrong, you may be just as surprised as I was to discover that the Club of Rome could sponsor two books that took such a different approach on the same subject. Actually, though, it is not so surprising if you know something about the history of the Club. 

The origins of the Club of Rome are in themselves a fascinating subject. Today, everyone associates the Club to their 1972 report "The Limits to Growth." A book that was not so pessimistic as it is often described, but that you surely wouldn't call cornucopian. It was the first study in history that quantified the limits to natural resources at the planetary level. It arrived to the conclusion that the growth of the global economy would come to a halt and start declining at some moment during the first decades of the 21st century (BTW, we are there right now!). 

But how did the Club arrive at the idea of producing such a report? The story is nuanced and it has to do with the personality of Aurelio Peccei, the founder of the Club in 1968. Peccei was a person that you would define as "enlightened" in the sense that he was deeply concerned about the future of humankind. But in the 1960s, not only it was not known what the limits to the natural resources could be; it wasn't even clear that such a limit existed. 

So, as you can read in the books he authored, Peccei was far from being a "catastrophist," and he didn't see depletion as an important point in his vision of the world. His main concern was how to ensure that the world's resources were fairly distributed. The 1972 report was commissioned to a group of MIT researchers with the aim of quantifying the available resources in order to plan for their fair exploitation. Peccei, basically, wanted to know how large the cake was before starting to cut slices out of it. 

Peccei, just as other members of the Club, must have been surprised by the results that "The Limits to Growth" reported. Nevertheless, they understood their importance and adopted them as part of the Club's views. But the earlier idea, the one that saw distribution as more important than exploitation, didn't disappear and it remained part of the way of thinking of many members of the Club, including Peccei himself. And there is a logic in that: abundant resources, even if they existed, would be useless if they were not used for the benefit of everybody. And that is an even more pressing necessity if the results are, instead, scarce. 

Now you can understand the line of thought that led Elisabeth Mann Borgese to write the book "The Future of the Oceans" It was part of the more optimistic section of the way of thinking of the Club of Rome that never was a monolithic think tank (and it is good that it wasn't, and that it isn't). 

So, what made Mann Borgese so optimistic? And are her views still valid, today? Here, unfortunately (and perhaps unavoidably), most of the book didn't stand the test of time. Elisabeth Mann Borgese (1918 - 2002) is a very interesting and multifaceted personality: the daughter of novelist Thomas Mann, she was engaged in many fields: psychology, law, anthropology, and even writing science fiction. Among other things, she was the first female member of the Club of Rome and the only one for several years. But compared to the earlier "Limits to Growth" report, she had a very different approach  to the evaluation of the oceans' potential in producing food and minerals.

So, the first two chapters of "The Future of the Oceans" are, well, as a euphemism, I could say that they are a little outdated. The year before, in 1985, Elisabeth Mann Borgese had written another book titled "The Mines of Neptune," dedicated to mineral resources from the sea. I still have to read that book, but its conclusions are summarized in "The Future of Oceans"in the section titled "Ocean Mining." 

Here, Mann Borgese was clearly influenced by one of the periodic waves of technological optimism that sweep the memesphere about the possibility of extracting minerals from the sea. So optimistic that she even says that these minerals are "renewable" because they are continuously replaced by the volcanic activity at oceanic ridges. Alas, that's really too optimistic. 

I wrote about that subject in a paper that I published in 2010. Basically, it is easy to be led astray by the huge numbers associated to marine resources, but if you do an energy analysis, you see that the costs of extraction are outside the realm of practical possibilities. That's why people have been discussing about that for decades but, today, we are still extracting only those minerals that our ancestors extracted centuries ago, mainly sodium chloride, table salt. Minerals from the sea are like minerals from the Moon or from the asteroids: an incredible abundance that always remains decades in the future.

Something similar in terms of excessive optimism can be said about the chapter dedicated to aquaculture, but here Mann Borgese did identify the remarkable growth potential of a technology that has been, indeed, growing at a bewildering speed: think of a growth of 527% from 1990 to today  (!!) and you will be impressed. A lot. Nowadays, aquaculture produces an amount of food that compares with that produced by conventional fishing. 

So, Mann-Borgese was right on aquaculture, but was that development a good thing? What she missed is that farmed fish is fed mainly from wild fish, so when you sum the production of the two industries you count the same food twice. And the damage done to aquaculture to the environment is gigantic, as we discuss in detail in our book, "The Empty Sea.

The other two sections of "The Future of the Oceans" are a complex story that would need an in-depth discussion. I am not an expert in economics or international law, so I won't attempt to do that. I can just say that I have the impression that much of what was said in the 1980s on this subject was very optimistic. Over the years, the world of fishing became much more competitive, and the various actors engaged in the effort became much less interested in sharing a scarce result and engaged in defending it aggressively, even by military means

So, that's the story of this book. Even though it didn't stand so well the test of time, it is still a remarkable book. Part of the human effort to live in harmony on a planet that's becoming smaller and poorer every day. And, after all, in half a century from now, how many of the books that we are writing today will have passed the test of time?

Monday, April 26, 2021

The Seneca Collapse of Bombing: What Happened to the Mighty Western Military Machine?

 Western bombing campaigns after the collapse of the Soviet Union: actual and threatened.


Have you noticed something strange? The last major bombing campaign carried out by the West (NATO or US alone) was in 2011, the one against Libya that eventually led to the assassination of president Qaddafi for the joy of the queen of darkness, Hillary Clinton. But things have been strangely quiet from then on. 

Not that bombing has stopped, and the US drones are still active in various areas of the world. But, for the past ten years, we haven't seen anymore the kind of spectacular "shock and awe" campaigns that were waged against Libya, Serbia, and Iraq. You could see the abrupt stop of the campaigns as a sort of "Seneca Collapse." What's happening?

I plotted the duration of these campaigns as a function of time for the past 30 years or so, that is, after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Before that date, you might argue that the balance of power between the two world empires had prevented this kind of heavy operations on the part of the Western Empire. Indeed, earlier on, the last major military operation that had directly involved the Western military forces had been Vietnam, ending in 1975.

I know that the plot is somewhat arbitrary in how "major" campaigns are defined. For instance, I didn't include the long-lasting, relatively low level, Afghanistan campaign. But even that war is expected to end this year, at least in terms of direct US involvement, after 17 years from its start. 

Clearly, there is a line that separates the past 10 years from the previous 20. Before the line, the West seemed to have no compunction in unleashing all its might against a foreign country of the kind unable to retaliate. But, after the line, something happened. No more spectacular bombing campaigns. 

Think about how, in 2012, President Obama said that President Assad of Syria had passed the "red line" and that he would face appropriate retribution. Everyone was expecting a repetition of the Libyan campaign of the year before, with the probable result of the assassination of Assad. Pope Francis took the threat seriously enough that he called for a special day of prayer and fasting for peace for Syria. I fasted, too.

But nothing happened . Obama said he had changed his mind because he had realized that the public opinion was against the bombing. As if they had taken that into account when they had decided to invade Iraq in 2003!

Then, there came Donald Trump. Lots of warlike speeches, but very little in terms of substance. In 2017, Trump unleashed a missile strike against Syria. It was a joke: a single strike and almost none of the missiles arrived on target. Then, it was silence. 

In 2020, things seemed to be getting serious with the assassination of the Iranian general Qasem Soleimani by US forces. It could be interpreted only in terms of an attempt to create a "casus belli" to start a major war in the Gulf Region. What happened, instead, was that the US and Iran governments collaborated to avoid that the situation could escalate out of control. The Iranians launched a wave of missiles on the US bases in Iraq, but they gave plenty of warning for the Americans who were able to evacuate the target areas before the strike. There was no further military action. Silence ensued.   

And we are in 2021. President Biden started his presidency by encouraging the Ukrainian government to try to retake by force the separatist region of the Donbass. Ukraine massed troops at the border. Russia responded by lining up troops on the opposite side. The US announced they would send two warships to the Black Sea: sitting ducks for the Russian missiles, but an excellent casus belli if the idea was to start a major war.  Everything seemed to be set for a confrontation that could have rapidly escalated out of control. 

And then, strangely, things quieted down. The US declared they won't send warships to the Caspian sea, the Russians pulled back their troops, and the Ukrainian government continued making warlike noises, but no more than that. We can't say that the crisis is over, but things seem to be quiet, right now. 

So, what's happened? How was it that three major wars that seemed to be unavoidable (Syria, Iran, and Ukraine -- and Afghanistan, too) petered out into a nearly deafening silence?


I can think of a few answers:

1. Nothing special is happening: the ten-year lull is just a statistical fluctuation.

2. God exists, and the Pope can speak to Him. 

3. Putin has rebuilt the Russian military forces to such a degree that he can credibly scare the Western leaders to the point that they are wary of starting major campaigns.

4. Drones have superseded the traditional massive bombing campaigns, ineffective and expensive. 

5. Something else is stirring in the darkness of the things not covered by the media. It may be what Shoshana Zuboff called the "epistemic coup" on the part of the internet controlling companies: Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and the others. If she is right, power is now in the hands of an obscure coalition of Internet barons who have no interest in showering the military-industrial lobby with money, nor in gaining electoral points by bombing foreigners. Therefore, they actively discourage politicians from starting new wars. And it works.

Time will tell us more.

Friday, April 23, 2021

Everything is Illuminated: The New Middle Ages

 The Enlightened Middle Ages: Prepare for a New Way of Running Society

The concept of "back to the Middle Ages" is becoming more and more widespread. Indeed, we must begin to think seriously not so much about a "return" to the Middle Ages but a "New Middle Ages" that takes its best features from the old, in particular the management of society based on justice and not on violence, the decentralization of governance structures, the economy based on local resources, and economic stability (although not of the population). That's why I have renamed my Italian blog "Electric Middle Ages." Here is a translation of a post that Luisella Chiavenuto published first in "Humanism and Science", where she goes to the core of the problems we face nowadays. (boldface highlights are mine).


By Luisella Chiavenuto

Despite its success and power, the credibility and dignity of science are at an all-time low. It is no longer a question of opposing only the management of the covid crisis, but also - and at the same time - opposing a scientistic and dehumanizing technocracy that in the absence of opposition will not step back - regardless of the covid and its variants. In a context of evaporation of jobs, the social order will most likely be based on an extended citizenship income - and subordinated to certain social behaviors. This is to maintain minimum levels of consumption and consensus - and combined with further development and updating of the current economic model - which is destroying the web of life everywhere.


The perspective is therefore long-term: resistance and elaboration of new models of thought and social organization, aimed at rediscovering the cultural roots of the past, and at the same time oriented towards a future with a human face - in which theoretical and practical knowledge intertwine and they evolve freely, without space-time preconceptions.

It is also important to support the political transversality of intent, which to a small or large extent already exists in people, within every organization. This is to slow down systemic collapses, thus giving time to the emergence of organizations that are radically different from the current ones. And remembering that this transversality exists above all outside parties and institutions - in the majority of the "politically desperate".

To allow maximum flexibility - and "ontological" confidence - in responding to the systemic collapses in progress, one can perhaps think of a sort of "enlightened Middle Ages" in which - to quote A. Langer (note: Langer was an Italian ecologist and intellectual) and others before him - all this is sought which is "slow, sweet and profound" - in a context of material poverty that will be for many an obligatory and painful condition, but at the same time an opportunity for a different rebirth.


In summary, one could speak of resistance against a Technoscience devoted to the bioinformatics and bioengineering reprogramming of nature, and of life, in all its forms - a techno-knowledge in the grip of a delirium of omnipotence and exaltation, in its dark and desperate background,

A new Humanism of Complexity can be opposed to this Reductivist Technoscience, which also includes the best of scientific thought - but on a level of equal cultural and political dignity. And with the awareness both of the greatness, and of the dark side, and of the crimes, which are woven into all cultures and all cultural currents - obviously including all contemporary ones. A Humanism of Complexity, therefore, based on a Wisdom that can be defined as non-dual, as it is oriented to the recomposition of the fractures that cross and fragment our life, our psyche, reality in all its interconnected levels.


Therefore, the clash between opposing cultural paradigms must be, at the same time, also a human and intellectual encounter between people where possible - and beyond the impossible - to overcome and recompose the lacerations. This also means supporting both the freedom of movement for everyone in every place, and the freedom to remain in their land and culture of origin. Ultimately, it means striving to radically overcome the friend/enemy dichotomy, and having the courage to speak of empathy and universal fraternity, as an ethical and political ideal - within a horizon of collaborating bio-diversity.

Ethical ideal, but also intellectual acquisition, unifying and not naive - capable of attempting global and local responses to problems that can only be faced on both interconnected sides. Are we up to these tasks? Obviously not, nobody is, it is useless to insist .... and then we can be - and do - what we can and can, accepting our limits.  But also considering that we are a mystery to ourselves and that therefore our individual and collective resources are ultimately unfathomable, like life itself.

Luisella Chiavenuto April 2021

Monday, April 19, 2021

Peak Water: Are we Running out of a Critical Resource?

"Peak Water" is an idea that has been going in parallel with that of "Peak Oil." Both assume that the production of limited resources, fossil fuels and fossil water, will follow a "bell shaped" curve. The production peak of liquid fuels may have been passed during the past few years. About "peak water" the situation is less clear, but the data indicate depletion problems in several areas of the world. Above, you see the historical and predicted water production from the Texas section of the Ogallala Aquifer. The data approximately follow a "Bell Shaped" (Hubbert) curve, typical of the depletion of non-renewable resources. In this case, the peak seems to have arrived in the late 1990. 

Freshwater is a fundamental resource in our world, even more than crude oil. Without freshwater, it would be impossible to maintain the current agricultural production that manages to feed nearly 8 billion human beings. Most of the world's agriculture, nowadays, is based on irrigation. It means that production depends on water that has been stored somewhere, naturally or artificially. And once you start depending on a limited stock of resources, you face a problem. Even though your resource may be renewable, if you exploit it faster than it renews itself, you will eventually run out of it. It is the phenomenon called "overexploitation"

There lies a truly nasty problem that we may be facing in the near future. A lot of water used for irrigation nowadays is "fossil water." It means it has been stored underground by natural processes that may have been active only in the ancient past or that may be very slow, sometimes of the order of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of years. Underground water deposits are called "aquifers." Some are fast replenished by natural phenomena, but in most cases, the rate of water withdrawal is much faster than that of the natural flow into the aquifer. That's a recipe for disaster.

A classic case of an agricultural region that ran out of fossil water is that of Saudi Arabia. Starting with the 1980s, Saudi Arabian farmers started extracting water that had been lying underground for hundreds of thousands of years, from a time when the Arabian peninsula was green. That was true fossil water in the sense that the replenishment rate of the aquifers was practically zero. The result was a boom in agricultural production that quickly peaked in 1990 following an evident bell-shaped curve. The curve had a second cycle during the 2010s, but that changed little to the situation. Right now, Saudi Arabia's agricultural production is reduced to practically zero and all the food must be imported.

Saudi Arabia's freshwater production was a classic case of a "Hubbert cycle." That is, water production followed the same kind of "bell-shaped" curve observed for crude oil and other mineral resources. The "Hubbert Theory" (the one that generated the concept of "Peak Oil") is far from being perfect, but it is true that in most cases oil production cycles generate bell-shaped curves. 

With aquifers, the core of the question is the same: you exploit a limited resource, you make a profit, you invest part of it in more exploitation. And that leads to depletion. The result is expected to be the same kind of curve. 

It doesn't matter that, in most cases, aquifers are partially replenished by natural phenomena. The curve will be the same, although it will not go to zero at the end of the cycle, but will return to the natural groundwater recharge rate. (source)

 But that may be an optimistic estimate: with aquifers, there is always the issue of subsidence. It means that once you remove the water from porous rock, the rock becomes more compact and it won't be filled again with water. It happens also with oil wells, but in that case, you don't care: it is known that oil is a one-time resource. Some aquifers may be in the same category, and may be gone forever after that they have been emptied. As an additional effect of subsidence, your home may sink into a hole in the ground. (image: subsidence in Jakarta).

So, it is perfectly possible to run out of water, even though water is theoretically a renewable resource. During the first millennium CE, an entire civilization, that of the Garamantes of central Sahara, disappeared when their supply of fossil water ran out.

So, how do we stand today? Overall, one would tend to say that the situation is not so good (to say the least). Most of the aquifers in use are being overexploited. The table below, from Wikipedia, is impressive (again, to say the least). 


If we continue in this way, it is unavoidable that sooner or later humans will run out of freshwater. It will be"peak water," but when could it happen, exactly? 

The problem with freshwater is that we don't have the same wealth of data for water resources and consumption that we have for crude oil. There exist a large number of aquifers, most of them are exploited only locally and it is difficult to obtain reliable data on what is being done in all the regions of the world. Nevertheless, we have some rough estimates: the total amount of freshwater accessible to humans is estimated as some 200,000 km3. The total consumption of freshwater worldwide is estimated at around 1,000 km3 per year

That these estimates are such round numbers tells us something about the uncertainty involved. But we can still say that aquifers contain huge amounts of water, about one thousand times more than the estimated volume of the world reserves of crude oil (about 200 km3). Even just the Ogallala aquifer in the central US is larger, estimated to have contained some 3,600 km3 of water before pumping started, in the 1950s. Then, we also consume huge amounts of water. We can compare again with crude oil, and we find that oil consumption (about 4 km3/year) is again dwarfed by water consumption that turns out to be about 250 times larger. 

Unfortunately, these data are not enough for an estimate of when peak water could occur. Not only there are too many uncertainties involved, but the main point is that water is mostly a local resource, unlike oil, which is global. It means that the depletion cycle is spaced differently in different regions, depending on the rate of consumption to reserves. So, the fact that Saudi Arabia mostly ran out of water during the past decade had no significant effect on the world's agricultural production. But if a truly major agricultural region, such as the Central Plains in the US, were to run out of water, then the situation would quickly become dire for all the regions in the world that depend on food imported from the US.

So, what's happening in the US in terms of water production and consumption? The good news, here, is that consumption has been declining. That happened not because of water depletion, but because of the switch from coal to natural gas as the main energy source for electricity production. Natural gas plants are more efficient than coal-fired plants and the result is a reduced need for cooling water. (data below from USGS)

So, it is possible to reduce the consumption of water and that leaves plenty of it available for agriculture, but that doesn't solve the problem. As you see in the figure, the second largest sector of water consumption is irrigation and that sector has been declining, too. Nobody can say for sure if (or when) the wells of the Ogallala aquifer will run dry, bur these data are worrisome

Then, can we find new aquifers? Maybe, but even here the situation is not promising, to say the least. In 2013, the discovery of a new, large aquifer in Kenya was reported with much fanfare in the media. The aquifer was described as containing 250 billion cubic meters of water. Less than one-tenth of the Ogallala aquifer, but still a remarkable discovery.  Too bad that it was soon found that it was brackish water, not freshwater. So is life, you can't have everything, you know?

But we can desalinate brackish water, can't we? We can desalinate seawater, too. And you won't tell us that we will run out of seawater, will you? Sure we can. But that's not a panacea, either.

Agriculture is an economic activity that lives on very small profit margins. You increase the cost of some agricultural inputs and a lot of things change and farmers go in the red. Water for irrigation is often subsidized and farmers can't usually afford to pay it much more than $0.01 per cubic meter. In comparison, desalinated water may cost around one dollar per cubic meter, maybe a little less but not much. It is a factor of 10, at best. How much would an eggplant cultivated using desalinated water cost? More than most people would be able to afford.

As things stand, there is no way to use desalinated water in agriculture: we should go back to the dreams of "energy too cheap to meter" and that doesn't seem to be closer today than it was in the 1950s, when it was proposed. Besides, as long as our energy supply comes mainly from fossil fuels, using a substantial fraction of it to produce the huge amounts of freshwater needed for irrigation would be an environmental disaster.

That doesn't mean that desalinated water is a bad idea. Not at all and, in the future, it may cost much less than it costs right now. Just think of the possibility of producing freshwater using the excess energy that renewable energy plants generate at some moments during the day. It would be a smart way to store energy that otherwise would have to be wasted.  

Smart, yes, but problematic in many ways. One is that at present we are still far away from having excess energy production from renewable plants sufficient to produce the huge amounts of water needed in agriculture. The second - probably worse - is that desalinated water is mostly produced from seawater, near the seashore. But agriculture is mainly performed inland, so you would need a gigantic infrastructure to transport enormous amounts of water where it is needed. Again, not an impossible task, but a steep barrier to overcome, and the costs would be gigantic, too.

In the end, the problem is not so much having sufficient energy to desalinate water. It is that irrigated agriculture is just not a good idea. In most cases, it is a trap that leads to the destruction of the fertile soil, something that the ancient Sumerians already experimented around 2,200 BC. It seems that the Sumerians depleted the aquifers they had been using for about one thousand years and couldn't avoid the soil to become too salty to be cultivated

Are we facing the same destiny? Maybe. But there are many ways open for a kind of agriculture that's more respectful of the soil and that doesn't need so much water as the current methods do. It is to be seen if we can change fast enough to avoid having to adapt the hard way, that is rebuilding after collapse. In this field, as in many others, the Seneca Cliff is awaiting.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Saudi Arabia Goes the way of the Garamantes. Google Earth Confirms the Collapse of the Water Supply


In 2008, I noted the decline in Saudi Arabian water production and I published an article in "The Oil Drum" titled "Peak Water in Saudi Arabia." Using a simple version of the Hubbert model of resource depletion, I noted how the supply of "fossil water" had peaked in 1990 and had been declining ever since. This is the typical behavior of "fossil" resources: they tend to peak and then decline. It had already happened to the ancient Garamantes, inhabitants of central Sahara, who had developed sophisticated technologies of water extraction during the 1st millennium BC. That had allowed them to prosper for about one thousand years, but then depletion had its revenge and they vanished among the sand dunes. Something similar (but probably much faster) is going to happen in the Arabian peninsula. 


The old Hubbert model was developed to describe the cycle of extraction of crude oil. It may be oversimplified if you want to use it for detailed predictions. But, as a quick tool for understanding the situation of the production of a non renewable resource, it tells you a lot of what you need to know. That first stab of mine on water production in Saudi Arabia turned out to be correct. 

It is impressive how, today, you can use Google Earth to look at the situation "from above." You can see the collapse of the agricultural fields as depletion progresses. Here are the images of an irrigated area for a region East of Al Jubail, in Saudi Arabia,  26°48'29.60"N and  49° 8'47.58"E. 

Let's start with an image of the desert in 1984. There is absolutely nothing there:

One year later, 1985. Someone has started extracting water and irrigating the land. There are two active fields there. 

Below, you see an enlargement of the 1985 situation. Someone has built a road and you can see six irrigated areas, of which two are active. Each circle is almost exactly 1 km diameter. It is called "center pivot irrigation" -- there is a long arm that turns around the central pivot and irrigates the area.

Below, the situation in 1986 -- there are now 31 active circular fields. 

And now the area in 2002. There are now 46 active or partially active fields. Note the dark spots among the circular green areas. It is not clear what they are, could they be small ponds of brine? The water they are using probably has a high salinity and they have to dispose of it, somehow. 

 Below, the situation in 2015. The cultivated area is clearly declining. There are now only 17 active fields.


And, finally, the situation in 2020. It is gone. No green fields anymore. They simply ran out of water.

That doesn't mean that agriculture in Saudi Arabia is completely over. Scanning the desert using Google Earth, you can still find irrigated areas. Here is a place called Qariat al Olaya

There are several irrigated circles, but note the number of "ghost" fields, not irrigated anymore. It may be a seasonal effect, but it may well indicate big problems with water supply. 

Finally, some data about wheat production in Saudi Arabia, the most recent I could find (from "actualitix")

As you see, they had two peaks: the first one is the one I had already noted in my article on the "Oil Drum" of 2009. The second one was ca. 2005. As it often happens, when a resource starts declining, people tend to apply more capital to keep things going. It happens also with crude oil, the case of "shale oil" is a classic example. In Saudi Arabia, they succeeded in creating a second peak. But now, it seems to be the final decline. 

Just like the ancient Garamantes, the Saudi Arabians were able to overcome the aridity of their land by using fossil water. But when they ran out of it, it was time over for them. The Saudis still have crude oil and can import food despite not being able anymore to produce it. But oil is a fossil resource, subjected to depletion just like fossil water. And the destiny that befell the Garamantes is going to befall all those who depend on fossil resources. 


Monday, April 12, 2021

The Sixth Law of Stupidity: Why Humankind may be the Stupidest Species in the Whole Ecosystem


 Illustration by James Donnelly for the original 1976 paper by Carlo M. Cipolla "The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity" Recently, Ugo Bardi and Ilaria Perissi reviewed his work on the basis of modern Biophysical Economics arriving to validate and extend the laws. Not only, as Cipolla said, stupidity is common and dangerous among humans, but humans may be the stupidest species in the whole ecosystem!


I remember having met Carlo Maria Cipolla in Berkeley in the 1980s. At that time, I wasn't involved with biophysical studies, but I was already a fan of his work. His treatise on stupidity was truly a masterpiece of intelligence and humor. Then, his description of money forgers in Florence during the Middle Ages included also a mention of some of my remote ancestors, no doubt very enterprising people, actually too much! Cipolla was an incredibly brilliant writer and, in real life, he was charming, generous, and modest.

Cipolla's work on stupidity has been in my mind for a long time. His ideas on the matter were so simple and yet so deep. And he was expressing these deep concepts in a plain language that everyone could understand. The "third law," the basic one, is expressed as "A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons, while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses.

So simple, and it happens all the time. We are surrounded by stupidity, embedded in stupidity, accomplices of stupidity, perpetrators of stupidity. It seems to be a sort of cosmic ether that permeates everything and, unlike the ether of physics, it really exists. But why is it so common?

Recently, we got together with my coworker Ilaria Perissi, and we started thinking about making a model of Cipolla's law. Ilaria has been modeling the production cycles of fisheries using the biophysical model called the "Lotka-Volterra" model and, together, we published an entire book, "The Empty Sea," on that subject starting from those studies. (as you can see in the picture, Ilaria is very proud of that book: her first book in English!).

As you probably know, the Lotka-Volterra model is supposed to describe the interaction of two populations: predators and prey. It is often called the "Foxes and Rabbits" model. But it is much more than that. It is a simple model that goes very deep into the concept of "potential dissipation" that dominates the functioning of complex systems in the real world. 

So, not surprising that the Lotka-Volterra model could give us some deep insight into Cipolla's intuition. According to our interpretation, stupidity occurs when the dissipation of an energy potential goes too fast: the result is what we call "overexploitation" in which people exploit a resource to the point of destroying it, and damage themselves in the process. Fortunately, we also found that these systems can adapt in the long run. In an evolutionary system, stupidity punishes itself, but it takes time. Unfortunately, we are still in the midst of what could be the greatest stupidity wave that the ecosystem ever saw in its nearly four billion years of existence.

Here is the introduction to our paper. You can read it on ArXiv (we are planning to publish it in a scientific journal soon). It is written according to the rules of formal scientific prose, but one of our purposes in writing it was to follow Cipolla's example and demonstrate that a scientific paper need not be incomprehensible and boring!

The 6th Law of Stupidity: A Biophysical Interpretation of Carlo Cipolla’s Stupidity Laws

Ilaria Perissi and Ugo Bardi
Dipartimento di Chimica РUniversità di Firenze.
Polo Scientifico di Sesto Fiorentino, via della Lastruccia 3
50019 Sesto Fiorentino (Fi) - Italy


Carlo Cipolla’s “stupidity quadrant” and his five laws of stupidity were proposed for the first time in 1976 [1]. Exposed in a humorous mood by the author, these concepts nevertheless describe very serious features of the interactions among human beings. Here, we propose a new interpretation of Cipolla’s ideas in a biophysical framework, using the well-known “predator-prey,” Lotka-Volterra model. We find that there is indeed a correspondence between Cipolla’s approach – based on economics – and biophysical economics. Based on this examination, we propose a “6th law of stupidity,” additional to the five proposed by Cipolla. The law states that “humans are the stupidest species in the ecosystem"


In 1976, the economist and historian Carlo M. Cipolla (1922-2000) wrote an essay titled “The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity.” Initially, it was only a pamphlet circulated among friends [1], but later it was published as a book [2]. Written in a tongue-in-cheek style, Cipolla’s text analyzed human behavior using a simple semi-quantitative model in the form of two individuals (“agents”) interacting with each other in performing an economic transaction.

Cipolla reasoned in terms of the payoff of each transaction, arranging the possible outcomes as a quadrant divided into four subsectors. One of the two agents may gain something at the expense of the other, but it may also happen that both profit from the exchange. The worst possible situation is the one in which both lose something. The kind of agents who cause someone else’s loss while damaging also themselves in the process were labeled by Cipolla as “stupid people.”

From there, Cipolla went on defining the five “laws of stupidity” as 1) Always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation. 2) The probability that a certain person will be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person. 3) A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses, 4) Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals, and 5) A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person.

Today, Carlo Cipolla may well be better known for his quadrant and the five laws, that he probably thought of as a joke, than for his academic papers. One of the reasons for this popularity is that these ideas ring true: they make sense according to our everyday experience. Indeed, Cipolla’s ideas have been examined, discussed, and modeled in various ways for instance in terms of game theory [3] and of agent-based modeling [4].

Here, we wish to take a fresh look at Cipolla’s theory using a biophysical approach. That is, we will frame Cipolla’s quadrant in terms of a complex system similar to biological ones. We’ll use the model known as the “Lotka-Volterra” (LV) one, also known as the “predator-prey” or “Foxes and Rabbits” model [5], [6]. Our examination leads us to propose a “6th law of stupidity” that applies to the whole ecosystem and that has that “Humans are the stupidest species on Earth.”


Read the whole Paper on ArXiv