Monday, February 28, 2022

Back to Reality: We are All Children of Oil

 

Colin Campbell, founder of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO), speaks in Pisa in 2006. Officially, the Powers that Be (PTB) ignored the ASPO message, but it could be that they understood it all too well. That would explain many things about the current situation. For two years, we thought that all our problems were caused by a microscopic, peduncled critter. Now, we are back to reality: we are all children of oil, and we cannot survive without it.


A few days ago, I found by chance on my shelves some documents from the 2006 conference of ASPO (the association for the study of peak oil) that I and others organized in Pisa, in Tuscany. The conference had a certain global resonance: it was sponsored by the Tuscan government, hundreds of people from all over the world came to attend, and the international media commented on it. It was part of a wave of interest on peak oil and its consequences. Just as another example, see the leaflet on the right that I also found rummaging among old documents. It announces a meeting to be held in the Tuscan countryside in 2004, titled, "The Party is Over", and subtitled "How to exit from the petroleum-based economy"

Today, it looks as if these things are a hundred years old. How was it that there was an age in which you could express this kind of subversive thoughts in public and be given some space in the media? And how could we delude ourselves into thinking that we could have convinced that nebulous entity called "humanity" that we were running out of our natural resources, crude oil in the first place? Even more subversive, that we should reduce consumption and move to renewable sources before it was too late?

At the time, we didn't know exactly how much time we had before troubles were to start, but our estimates were correct in terms of orders of magnitude. In the early 2000s, Colin Campbell proposed that the peak of "conventional" oil production would come around 2012. It probably did, but the peak was masked by the production of non-conventional resources. "Shale oil" bought us another decade of growth, although at a modest rate and at a high cost. So, we had more than 20 years to prepare from when, in 1998, Colin Campbell and Jean Lahérrere had first flagged the problem with an article published on "Scientific American." But, as we should have expected, nothing serious was done.

On the contrary, the entity called "humanity" showed the maturity and wisdom of someone in the grip of convulsions and possessed by demonic forces. We have seen 20 years of a roller coaster in the desperate search for an enemy to destroy and turn the clock back, to when things were good. The enemy has been singled out as Osama, Saddam, Assad, Qaddafi, and many others, destroyed only to be replaced by the new monster of the year. 

For two years, then, the monster was not a human being, but a microscopic peduncled creature that nicely played its role of bugaboo, until it was officially vaporized by the microscopic equivalent of carpet bombing. Now, it is over, and a new, more conventional monster is advancing: the soulless Vladimir Putin. Chances are that he will not be the last monster in the demonization chain.

Every time we seemed to have destroyed our arch-enemy, it came back in another form, bigger and uglier than before. And each time, in the fight against the monster on duty, we lost something of our wisdom, our freedom, our humanity. 

We never realized that what we were fighting was not a monster, but a reflection of ourselves in the desperate search for a way to continue a way of life that some of our leaders defined as "not up for negotiations." But when you deal with Nature, everything is up for negotiations. And Nature always wins the game. 

Peak oil never reached the level of the official monster of the day, but it was worrisome enough that it deserved the standard demonization treatment. It could not be bombed and there was no vaccine against it. But we marginalized it, ridiculed it, and made it disappear from view as if we had bombed it to smithereens. Yet, it is returning, even though not mentioned, during the current crisis. 

We are 8 billion on this planet, all children of crude oil. Without crude oil and other fossil fuels, most of us simply wouldn't exist. And without crude oil, we cannot continue to exist. As a monster, peak oil is much scarier than any of the bugaboos that the mainstream media have been proposing to us. Gas and coal are in the same group.

We should have known what to expect. It was all written already in 1972 in the study titled "The Limits to Growth." To be sure, the authors never mentioned wars for resources in their discussion. But just by taking a look at the curves for the most likely scenarios, it wasn't difficult to imagine that the global collapse was not going to be a friendly party. 

With the world's economic system expected to crash at some moment during the first decades of the 21st century, we should have expected the race to grab what was left would get uglier and uglier. It is happening. 


Is it the story of a failure? Maybe, but in a strangely twisted way. Thinking about what's happening right now in the world, I have a strong impression that our leaders didn't ignore our message. Not at all. Already in 2001, it was said that George Bush Jr. had decided to invade Iraq because he had read some material produced by ASPO and was worried about peak oil. It is probably just a legend, but the so-called "Carter Doctrine" of 1980 already recognized that the US couldn't survive without the oil resources of the Middle East. Our leaders are not smarter than us, but not stupid, either. 

So, it may well be that the PTBs perfectly understand the situation and that they are maneuvering to place themselves in a position to gain from the coming (actually ongoing) collapse. After all, the game that the elites know best is putting the commoners one against the other. It is the game being played right now. Like the Russian Roulette, it is one of those games you won't necessarily survive. 



Sunday, February 20, 2022

Turning the West into a new Soviet Union -2: the Demise of Restaurants

 

Restaurants were never a feature of the old Soviet Union, discouraged because of their bourgeois nature. Earlier on, though, Russia had restaurants patterned on the West European model. This scene is from the 1965 version of "Doctor Zhivago," taking place during the years of the Russian Revolution. It shows the contrast between the well-dressed middle-class customers and the revolutionaries singing in the street. 

This is the second post of a series dedicated on how the West is turning into an organization very similar to the old Soviet Union. The first post was titled "Becoming what we despised"





I think I was in elementary school when one of my assignments was to read a story that I still remember as one of the cruelest things I ever read in my life. It told of a peasant who went to town and decided to eat at a restaurant, something that he had never done in his life. He sat at a table, anticipating in his mind the good things he would eat. But he stumbled immediately into a problem: he couldn't read the menu. Through a series of mishaps, he managed to order three times the same peasant dish of pasta e fagioli (pasta with beans) that he used to eat every day at home. The image on the right is not directly related to this story, but it may well illustrate it (from "Storia di un Naso" by Vamba, 1953).

I imagine that the story of that poor peasant was supposed to be fun, or perhaps even "educational," although how anyone could think of such a thing escapes my mind. But the author had caught something right. A fundamental feature of restaurants in Europe was the social discrimination aspect. 
 
The first establishments called "restaurants" appeared in France in the late 18th century, before the French Revolution. They were different from the old "taverns" that catered mostly to travelers and non-residents. You see in the figure (from Google "Ngrams") how the term "restaurant" replaced that of "tavern" over the 19th century


In many senses, restaurants followed the evolution of the European society. The nobles of old would never dream of "eating out" -- they had their cooks, their kitchens, their mansions, as in the story told in the recent movie "Delicious." Restaurants, instead, were a typical bourgeois thing: they didn't cater to the nobles, but neither to the working class. The menu was the first barrier that kept the illiterate out (those we call "deplorables" nowadays). Then, different prices selected customers according to their wealth. Being seen to eat at a classy and expensive restaurant was a way to prove one's social status. So, the restaurant experience was patterned according to how the middle class imagined the life of nobles, including the illusion that they could afford an assorted range of servants: stewards, butlers, cooks, and maids. 

Over a couple of centuries of existence, restaurants followed the social evolution of Western society. With the prosperity of the "magic decades" of the mid 20th century, there appeared a market for restaurants for the working class. The "fast food" concept prospered, pushed onward by the new way of life, with women not anymore forced stay home to prepare food. 

If formal restaurants had mirrored the life of the Upper Class, fast food joints mirrored the life of the working class. No question of being served by waiters: customers would simply pick up their food at the counter and carry it to their table, the way they would do it at their company's canteen. The extreme of this category was the "vending machine restaurant" with no human employees at all. It was the equivalent of picking up one's tv dinner from the refrigerator, at home, and eat it in front of the TV. The concept never really caught up in the West, but it seems to be popular in Japan. 

Over the 20th century, with the increasing monetization of society, more and more people could afford to eat out, a fashion that had never existed before. Eateries soon started to fulfill a new role in addition to feeding people: socialization. Busier and busier people didn't have the time and the resources to invite friends for dinner at home, so they started to meet in restaurants. A further role also appeared with the increasing perception of rising crime. Eating out offered safety for the price of a hamburger and a soft drink. Your children could also have a safe birthday party at a fast-food restaurant.  

With time, tourism expanded the demand for eating out: restaurants popped up everywhere. Variety paid: everything that was exotic and innovative was favored and enjoyed. Entire cities, such as Florence in Italy, were turned into giant food courts to serve millions of tourists for whom the culinary experience abroad had mostly replaced the cultural one. 

In parallel, on the other side of the iron curtain, a completely different social situation was developing. During the 19th century, restaurants had been introduced in Russia in the French style, termed ресторан (restoran). But, with the Soviet Union, restaurants were discouraged by the state: they were seen as a waste of resources and their class divisive character was incompatible with the idea that the Soviet society had no social classes -- theoretically. 

Even after the fall of the Soviet Union, up to relatively recent times, you could walk along the streets of former Soviet cities and find no "Restaurant" sign. That doesn't mean, of course, that restaurants didn't exist. They did, of course, but mainly as part of hotels as a service for travelers. There was no tradition of "eating out" among Soviet citizens. But the Soviet elites, the members of the номенклату́ра (nomenklatura) had their perks and could enjoy good food in establishments reserved for them. 

Over the years, the former Soviet Union has been "westernizing" and, today, if you walk in the streets of Moscow or any other large Russian city you'll find the familiar signs of all kinds of restaurants, including ethnical and fast food ones. Curiously, though, the West may be starting a movement in the opposite direction: "sovietizing." Restaurants may be among the first victims of this trend. 

It happened during the past two years. It was unexpected, sudden, even brutal. "Eating out" had been the normal thing for nearly a century in the West. Then, with the pandemic, governments started enacting all sorts of quixotic laws, rules, and restrictions, with many of them seemingly specifically directed to punish restaurants and their customers.

Not only restaurants were forced to close during lockdowns, but when they reopened, their schedule was limited by law, they could not operate at full capacity, in some cases you could eat only outside, not inside, or maybe standing and not sitting (or the reverse). The body temperature of the customer was taken at the entrance and, for a certain period, in Italy, you were supposed to give your name and address to the management. Then, they would communicate it to the authorities as part of a statewide "tracing" mechanism (it never worked). The police could come inside at any moment to check that everyone followed the rules. 

Right now, in Italy, the QR code is replacing all the previous rules (except for face masks, still mandatory). It applies to all restaurants, everywhere: no QR code, no food. And to have a QR code you need an updated status of three vaccination shots (you'll need more in the future -- they already announced that). That leaves out all those (millions of people) who didn't want to be vaccinated and those who decided to avoid restaurants as a form of solidarity for them. In addition, the government as acted with rules that seemed to have the only purpose to stop international tourism, one of the main sources of revenue for Italian restaurants. In the photo, you see a restaurant in Venice. It was taken by the author during the Christmas tourist season at lunchtime: no customers whatsoever. 

In a city like Florence, the result was a disaster. I don't have quantitative data, but you can see the situation by walking around in Florence. The restaurants that were once chock-full of people, now are half-empty -- at best. In many cases, it is clear that the owners can resist for just a little longer, but that then they will soon go bankrupt. Many have already closed. In the picture, you see a restaurant closed and for sale in the suburbs of Florence. 

Officially, it was all part of restrictions designed to fight the pandemic. Yes, but the haphazard nature of the rules and the lack of proof that they had any effect is remarkable. What happened that made restaurants a preferred target for the government's wrath? Were they really spreading the covid around? Or were they guilty of some unspeakable sin? 

I don't think there ever was a concerted effort on the part of the PTB (powers that be) to destroy restaurants. It was just part of the "new normal" or the "Great Reset." In many ways, it involves turning back and walking in reverse the path that has led us to where we are today. 

As I said, restaurants have always been a typical middle-class thing. They appeared together with the European middle class, and they are following its destiny. During the past few decades, the middle class has been gradually pushed back into the fold of the lower class. The restaurant business could not avoid being affected by the trend. 

The tradition of eating out is still alive in the West, but the resources for doing that are not there anymore for a middle class that's struggling to survive, and failing at that. On their side, the rich, like the nobles of old, don't eat at restaurants, at least not at the same kind of restaurants that the deplorables can afford. For the very rich and politically exposed persons (PEPs), appearing at a restaurant without an armed escort would be dangerous. Like the nobles of old, they have their private cooks and exclusive places. And they socialize with each other throwing expensive parties at their homes. A habit that we find in ancient history, even in Roman times and earlier. 

You may have seen the picture of Bill Gates supposedly standing in line waiting for his turn for a burger. It is surprising that many Westerners seem to believe in this kind of cheap PR stunts. In the old Soviet Union, if Leonid Brezhnev had diffused a picture of himself standing in line to buy shoes, people would have laughed themselves to death. But it is known that Westerners are sensitive to propaganda.

In any case, the current Western elites are acting just like the old Soviet elites. They don't care about what the commoners eat, although they are worried that they may revolt if they go hungry. So, they tend to allow a basic supply of food for the deplorables, but they consider restaurants (and the associated tourism) as a waste of resources. The rich much prefer to funnel the surplus produced by the economy into their own pockets rather than having it dissipated by the commoners. Worse, restaurants are a place where the deplorables can socialize and maybe concot evil plans. So, it is better to force them to stay at home.

The Covid pandemic offered plenty of excuses to stop people from eating out. Different factors reinforced each other. One result of the financial strain is that the quality of the food and of the service is going down (I can testify that myself). And I shiver at the thought of what they could do to the food they serve to you in order to save a little money. Finally, the QR code turned out to be the perfect method to keep the deplorables out. It is a more sophisticated and tuneable tool than the old written menu. 

So, Western restaurants are in the crosshair and it is unlikely that they will survive, at least in the form we are used to seeing them. It is not so much because the PTB are evil -- they are no more evil than most categories. It is mostly because the economic contraction coming from the twin impact of depletion and pollution is pushing the Western economy back to what it was a couple of hundred years ago. 

And what is in store for us, the deplorables? We have to adapt, as always people do when things change. Our ancestors would have found our habit of "eating out" weird and incomprehensible. Yet, sharing food remains one of the basic ways for humans to socialize. Even in the old Soviet Union, people did socialize. They would do that mostly at home, cheaply, rather than paying money to multinational restaurant chains. In terms of material goods, they were surely much poorer than the average Western family, and the living quarters were cramped -- no suburban two-story homes for them! They had to adapt and help each other locally. And they surely did. 

Curiously (actually, not so curiously), we are seeing something similar in Italy. People being barred from entering restaurants are organizing informal parties in the street. The photo shows a "free aperitif" in Italy with free food for everyone and no need for QR codes). It looks remarkably similar to the paintings of life in a medieval village that Peter Bruegel left to us. But, of course, the police tend to intervene in force to disperse those subversives!
Things always keep moving. We may need to accept that not everything can be monetized and that there are ways to socialize that don't necessitate paying money for bad food and the pretended "safety" of a restaurant. In my case, like a peasant of old, I haven't eaten at a restaurant for months, and I am discovering that it is perfectly possible to do that and be perfectly happy. And no "espresso" coffee either. Another Italian tradition that's going down the drain. 

Maybe we can retake our lives in our hands and socialize the way our ancestors have been doing for millennia. Maybe we will return to the ancient peasant use of the veglia (vigil) when several families would collect in someone's home to chat and save on the wood for eating. Or maybe we'll get back to something like the Sumerian times when the alewives served beer to everyone with the blessing of the Goddess of Beer Ninkasi. Why not?

Below: a Sumerian QR code to assign rations of beer. Some things never change, some things always return. 


Note added after publication: on the subject of restaurants, you may be interested in this article by Kara Voght describing how mom and pop restaurants lost it big with the pandemic, unlike the large restaurant chains (h/t Christine Eleanor Anderson). You may also be interested in this recent article by Jeffrey Tucker that arrives to conclusions similar to mine. As a general note about PEPs in restaurants, I can cite two cases I know of in Italy. Some years ago, the mayor of Florence was having dinner at a restaurant, when another customer rose up and criticized him for some policies he disapproved. According to the newspapers, the mayor was so distressed to have been addressed by a commoner that he suffered a minor nervous breakdown. More recently, the mayor of Rome had dinner with his wife in a restaurant. Later, he was accused to have paid for the dinner with the city's official credit card. It was all part of a smear campaign orchestrated against him and, in this case, it was only based on the statement of the restaurant owner. It was shown that it was a complete fabrication, but only after that he had been forced to resign.  


Sunday, February 13, 2022

How we Became What we Despised. Turning the West into a New Soviet Union

 


For everything that happens, there is a reason for it to happen. Even for turning the former Free World into something that looks very much like the old "Evil Empire," the Soviet Union. I understand that this series of reflections will be seen as controversial, but I thought that this matter is important and fascinating enough to deserve a discussion.


It all started two years ago when we were asked to stay home for two weeks "to flatten the curve." Two years later, we are looking, bewildered, at the wreckage around us and asking ourselves: 'what the hell has happened?'

In such a short time, we found that our world had turned into something very similar to one that we used to despite. The old Soviet Union, complete with heavy-handed police, censorship of the media, criminalization of dissent, internal passports, and the state intruding on matters that, once, were thought to be part of every citizen's private decision sphere. 

Surprising, perhaps. But it is a rule of the universe that everything that happens has a reason to happen. The Soviet Union was what it was because there were reasons for it to be that. It was not an alien world populated by little green men. It was an empire similar to the Western one, just a little smaller, and it concluded its cycle a few decades before us. We can learn a lot from its story. 

Dmitri Orlov, born in Russia, was among the first who noted the parallel paths that the Western and the Soviet empire were following. His first book was titled "Reinventing Collapse" (2011). Let me propose to you an excerpt where Orlov tells us of an event he experienced in St. Petersburg in the years just after the collapse of the Union. At that time, the people who had dollars, as Orlov did, had a market power that ordinary Russians couldn't even dream of. We see here the consequences of being so rich that you don't worry about carrying small change with you. 

There was also an old woman in front of the store, selling buns from a tray. I offered her a thousand-ruble note. "Don't throw your money around!" she said. I offered to buy her entire tray. "What are the other people going to eat?" she asked. I went and stood in line for the cashier, presented my thousand-ruble note, got a pile of useless change and a receipt, presented the receipt at the counter, collected a glass of warm brown liquid, drank it, returned the glass, paid the old woman, got my sweet bun, and thanked her very much. It was a lesson in civility. 

Looks like a funny story, but it is not just that. It is a deep metaphor of how a market economy works, and also how it may NOT work. The problem is that, unless some specific conditions are met, a market economy is unstable. Money tends to end all in the hands of a few, leaving the rest with nothing. It is the law that says "the rich get richer." It has a corollary that says, "and everyone else gets poorer." 

There is only a way to avoid that a market economy leads to the rich getting everything: it is growth. If the economy grows, then the rich cannot pull money out of the market fast enough to beggar everyone else. The result is the illusion of a fair share. So, you may understand why our leaders are so fixated with growth at all costs. But don't forget that those who believe that an economy can grow forever can only be madmen or economists. 

But how do you make the economy grow? The magic word is "resources." No resources, no growth (actually, no economy, either). And if you exploit a resource faster than it can reform (it is called overexploitation), then, at some moment, the whole system will crash down. It is what happened to the Soviet Union and may well happen to us, too. But let's go in order.  

Let's go back to the story of Dmitry Orlov trying to buy a sweet bun in St. Petersburg. If the old woman had accepted Orlov's offer to buy the whole tray, the price of the buns would have skyrocketed to levels so high that nobody except him could have bought them. So, Orlov could have crashed the whole market of sweet buns of that particular place. The standard Western economic theory has that, at that moment, another old woman with another tray should have magically appeared to sell buns. Supply must always match demand: it is a postulate. But things don't work like that in the real world.

The market mechanism that matches demand and offer, the way you are taught in the Economics 101 course, can work only in conditions of relative abundance. If people have dollars, then someone will make buns for them and profit from the sales. If they only have rubles, then it may well be that nobody will bother to satisfy their demand: no profit can be made from nearly worthless rubles. 

But rubles and dollars are the same thing: pieces of paper with numbers printed on them. What makes the difference is a working -- or not working -- economy. The Russian economy after the fall of the Soviet Union wasn't working anymore: its roubles could buy little more than sweet buns and even that risked being disrupted by a rich foreigner passing by.

The problem was structural. Even before the collapse, the Soviet system couldn't produce an output large enough to sustain a free market economy. In part, it was an ideological choice, but mostly it was because it was because of the need to funnel a large fraction of production to military expenses. The Soviet Union was rich in natural resources, especially mineral ones. That was an advantage, but also a temptation for other countries to invade it. The idea of turning Russia into "the world's gas station" is recent, but it was around already long ago. And that was not just a temptation: over a couple of centuries, Russia, was invaded several times, the last time in 1941. If there ever was an "existential risk" for a country, that was it. The invading Germans had clearly stated that their plan was to exterminate some 20-30 million of Soviet citizens. 

The consequence is obvious: in order to survive, the Soviet Empire had to match the rival Western Empire in military terms. But the Soviet economy was much smaller: we can roughly estimate that it always was no more than about 40% of the US economy, alone. To match the huge Western economic and military machine, the Soviet Union needed to dedicate a large fraction of its economic output into the military system. Measuring this fraction has never been easy, but we can say that in absolute terms the Soviet military expenses nearly matched those of the US, although still remaining well below those of the NATO block. Another rough estimate is that during the cold war the Soviet Union spent about 20% of its gross domestic product on its military. Compare with the US: after WW2, military spending went gradually down from about 10% to the current value of about 2.4%. In relative terms, during the cold war, the USSR would normally spend four times more than the US for its military.

In a free-market economy, these huge military expenses would have drained the market of resources, beggaring a large fraction of the Soviet citizens. To keep the market functioning, the Soviet government had to play the role of the wise old woman in Orlov's story. It used its "five-year plans" to make sure that sweet buns for the Soviet citizens were produced, that is, the fundamental needs for life: food, shelter, clothing, fuel, and vodka.  

The five-year plans also had the purpose to limit the production of items that were considered "luxuries." For instance, the Soviet Union was a producer of caviar and, nominally, the price of caviar was low enough that most Soviet citizens could afford it. But caviar was not normally available in shops. When a batch of caviar tins appeared, people would stand in line hoping that there would remain a few cans left for when their turn came. This feature avoided that the rich could corner the caviar market, driving prices sky-high, just like Dmitry Orlov could have done with the sweet buns. It also had the effect of giving Soviet citizens the illusion that their rubles were worth something. But they understood that the ruble was a form of "funny money," not the same thing as the mighty dollar. Soviet people used to say "they pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work," and they were perfectly right. The ruble was a limited kind of money: it couldn't be always be used to buy what one wanted (just like when the Western government locked their citizens in their homes: they had money, but they couldn't use it). 

Now the pieces of the puzzle go to their places. The need for a tight control of the economy shaped the Soviet society: the media were controlled, censorship enacted, dissent criminalized, and more. Those who publicly disagreed that communism was the best possible government were considered to have psychiatric problems thanks to a subservient medical establishment. Then, they could be hospitalized, sometimes for life. (I know that it looks very much like.... you know what, but let's keep going).

Not only the Soviet system was strained to the limit, but it was also critically dependent on the availability of cheap resources. So, it was vulnerable to depletion, probably the factor that caused its collapse in the late 1980s. It is not that the Soviet Union ran out of anything, but the costs of natural resources simply became incompatible for the Soviet economy. Later on, the core of the Soviet Empire, Russia, could return to being a functioning state only because it didn't have to pay the enormous costs related to keeping an empire together.  

On the other side of the iron curtain, the relatively low military expenses and abundant natural resouces made it possible for the American citizens (most of them, at least) to enjoy an extravagant lifestyle, unthinkable elsewhere in the world. They lived in suburban houses, had two cars in every garage, could go wherever they wanted, had overseas vacations every year, could buy whatever they wanted without standing in line. The US citizens could even afford a certain degree of variety in the information they received. The state control on the media was enacted in subtle ways, giving citizens the illusion that they were not exposed to propaganda.

It was the kind of lifestyle that president Bush said was "not up for negotiation" -- except that when you deal with Nature, everything is up to negotiation.

The current problem is that the resources that made the West so rich and so powerful, mainly crude oil and other fossil fuels, are not infinite. They are being depleted, and production costs increase with depletion. And that's not the only problem: something else is choking the Western economic system: it is the enormous cost of the health care system

In 2018, the US spent $3.6 trillion in health costs, nearly 18% of its GDP. Today, it is probably slightly more than that. Yes, health costs in the US are nearly ten times larger than military costs. It is probably not a coincidence that troubles started to appear when these costs reached the same level, about 20%, of the military expenses for the Soviet Union. 

Someone has to pay for those costs and, as always, the task falls on the middle class which becomes poorer and poorer. On one extreme of the wealth distribution curve, former middle class citizens are losing everything and are being gradually squeezed out of the market. And here is the problem: those who have no money to spend can't buy their sweet buns. They become "non-people," aka, "deplorables." What is to be done with them? A possible solution (that I am sure some elites are contemplating), is just to let them die and cease to be a problem (it is the zombie scenario). But we are not there, yet. The elites themselves don't want the chaos that would result from starving a large fraction of the citizens. How to avoid that?

The solution is well known from ancient times: it is rationing. The Romans had already developed a system called "Annona" that distributed food to the poor. During WW2, the US had ration books, ration stamps and other forms of rationing. Food stamps were introduced at that time, and they still exist. The Soviets used a kind of funny money called "ruble." In the West, rationing seems to be a silly idea but it was done during WW2 and, if there is a serious economic crash -- as it is perfectly possible -- it can return. It must return because, without rationing, we'll have the zombie apocalypse all over simply because there is no mechanism in place to limit those who still have money from hoarding all they can, when they can. 

That explains many of the things we have seen happening: whereas the Soviet Government acted by restricting supply, the Western ones seem to find it easier to restrict demand -- it is the same thing: it means cooling the economy by reducing consumption. The lockdowns of 2020 seem to have had exactly that purpose, as argued convincingly by Fabio Vighi. Their effect was to reduce consumption, and avoid a crash of the REPO market that seemed to be imminent. 

Once you start thinking in these terms, you see how more pieces of the puzzle fall to their places. The West is moving to reorganize its economy in a more centrally controlled manner, as argued, among others, by Shoshana Zuboff. That means chocking private consumption and using the remaining resources to keep the system alive facing the twin threat of depletion and pollution, the latter also in the form of climate change.  

It is happening, we see it happening, Note that it is probable that there is no "command center" somewhere that dictated the various actions that governments took over the last two years. It was just a series of common interests among different lobbies that happened to align with each other. The financial lobby was terrified of a new financial crash, worse than that of 2008, and pushed for the control of the economy. The pharmaceutical lobby saw a chance to obtain huge profits from forcing medical treatments on everyone. And states saw their chance to gain control of their citizens at a level they couldn't have dreamed of before. The epidemic was just a trigger that led these lobbies with similar goals to act in concert. 

Lockdowns were just a temporary test. The final result was the "vaccination QR code." At present, it has been imposed as a sanitary measure, but it can be used to control all economic transactions, that is what individuals can or cannot buy. It is much better than the lines in front of shops of the old Soviet Union, so it may be used to ration essential goods before the zombies start marching. 

Does that mean that the QR code is a good thing? No, but do not forget the basic rule of the universe: for everything that happens there is a reason. Before the current crisis, the Western society had embarked on a free ride of wasteful consumption: it was good as long as it lasted. Now, it is the time of reckoning. In this sense, if the QR code were used for the good of society, it could be a fundamental instrument to avoid waste, reduce pollution, provide at least a basic supply of goods for everyone.  

But the QR can do that only if the citizens trust their government and governments trust their citizens. Here, we see the limits of the Western approach to governance. During the past decades, the Western governments couldn't do anything important without imposing it on their citizens by a shock-and-awe campaign of lies. That was the way in which governments imposed QR codes or, better said, they are trying to impose QR codes. The problem is that, over the years, the Western Governments have managed to lie to their citizens so many times that nowadays they have no credibility anymore.  

So, what's going to happen? Several scenarios are possible. The Western governments may succeed in their "sovietization" of society. That would mean a heavy crackdown on all forms of communication not directly controlled by the government and the criminalization of all dissent. The government may not necessarily need to arrive to concentration camps or to mass exterminations, but it might. In this case, after that the dust settles, we face at least a few decades of Soviet-like life. The government will use QR codes to control everything we do. If you dissent or protest, you'll risk being declared officially insane, and be subjected to mandatory psychiatric treatment in a hospital, or exiled in the Western equivalent of Siberia, or worse. Even if you are not branded as insane, you'll still be forced to submit to whatever medical treatment the pharmaceutical industry will decide is good for you. Bad, but at least you'll have something to eat and a roof under which to sleep. Don't forget that the Soviet Union survived for about 70 years and, in some periods, even prospered. 

That's not the only possible outcome. We might just sidestep the "Soviet" phase and move directly to the "post-Soviet" one. It would mean the collapse of the Western Empire, fragmenting into smaller states. That may imply severe political disturbance and civil wars are perfectly possible. The transition will be tough: it is not obvious that you'll have sweet buns for your breakfast. But after the "hot" phase, the lower governance costs of smaller state could allow them to recover and rebuild a functioning economy, at least in part, just like Russia did (but there is also the example of Ukraine). 

But history never repeats: it just rhymes. So, the Soviet system is just one of the many possible ways that a state can control the supply of goods to society. There may be other ways: after all, there was no Internet at the time of the Soviet Union. There were only the "media" which could be hijacked by the state and controlled from above: a "vertical" communication system. Instead, the Web is naturally a horizontal communication system. Controlling the Web may turn out to be difficult for states, perhaps impossible despite the unleashing of legions of those demonic creatures called "fact-checkers."  Because of the complexity and the versatility of the communication system available today, the Western society might manage to avoid the heavy top-down control that eventually led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Just maybe.

The future is full of surprises and, who knows? It may even surprise us in a pleasant manner. We might perhaps escape the "Great Reset" and move to the "Great Awakening."


Monday, February 7, 2022

Thinking like a Tree. Understanding the Role of Forests in the Ecosystem

The "Seneca Effect" blog deals a lot with collapses and you may find it a little catastrophistic. But I am also exploring other fields in a more positive mood. One is the concept of "holobiont," how living creatures organize themselves to form complex adaptive systems. Here is a post on this subject from my blog "The Proud Holobionts". 


The Greatest Holobiont on Earth: Old-Growth Forests



A "holobiont" is a living creature formed of independent, but cooperating, organisms. It is a wide-ranging concept that can explain many things not just about the ecosystem of our planet, but also about human society, and even more than that. Photo courtesy of Chuck Pezeshky. This post was modified and improved thanks to suggestions received from Anastassia Makarieva.



When was the last time that you walked through an old-growth forest? Do you remember the silence, the stillness of the air, the sensation of awe, the feeling that you are walking in a sacred place? The inside of a forest looks like a cathedral or, perhaps, it is the inside of a cathedral that is built in such a way to look like a forest, with columns as trees and vaults as the canopy.  If you don't have a forest or a cathedral nearby, you can get the same feeling by watching the masterful scene of the forest-God appearing in Miyazaki's movie, "Mononoke no Hime" (The Princess of the Ghosts). 

In a way, when you walk among trees, you feel that you are at home, the home that our remote ancestors left to embark on the mad adventure of becoming human. Yet, for some humans, trees have become enemies to be fought. And, as it is traditional in all wars, they are demonized and despised. It was the English landlord Jonah Barrington who commented about the destruction of Ireland's old forests that "trees are stumps provided by Nature for the repayment of debt." And, as it is traditional in all wars of extermination, not a single enemy was left standing. 

The war metaphor is engrained in our minds of primates, the only mammals that wage war against groups of their own species. So much that sometimes we imagine trees fighting back. In the "Trilogy of the Ring" by Tolkien, we see walking trees, the "ents," standing in arms against humanoid enemies and defeating them. Clearly, we feel guilty for what we have been doing to Earth's forests. A sensation of guilt that goes back to the time when the Sumerian King Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu were cursed by the Goddess for having destroyed the sacred trees and killed their guardian, Humbaba. From that remote time, we have continued to destroy Earth's forests, and we are still doing that. 

Yet, if there is a war between trees and humans, it is not obvious that humans will win it. Trees are complex, structured, adaptable, tough, and resourceful creatures. Despite the human attempts to destroy them, they survive and even thrive. The most recent data indicate a greening trend of the whole planet [3], probably the result of humans pumping carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere (this greening is not necessarily a good thing, neither for trees nor for humans [4], [5]). 

But what are trees, exactly? They have no nervous system, no blood, no muscles, just as we have no capability of doing photosynthesis, nor of extracting minerals from the soil. Trees are truly alien creatures, yet they are made of the same building blocks as we are: their cells contain DNA and RNA molecules, their metabolism is based on the reduction of a molecule called adenosine triphosphate (ATP) created by mitochondria inside their cells, and much more. And, in a certain sense, trees do have a brain. The root system of a forest is a network similar to that of a human brain. It has been termed the “Wood-Wide Web” by Suzanne Simard and others [1]. What trees “think” is a difficult question for us, monkeys but, paraphrasing Sir. Thomas Browne [2], what trees are thinking, just like what song the Sirens sang to Ulysses, though puzzling questions are not beyond all conjecture. 

Whether trees think or not, they have the basic characteristics of all complex living systems: they are holobionts. "Holobiont" is a concept popularized by Lynn Margulis as the basic building block of the ecosphere. Holobionts are groups of creatures that collaborate with each other while maintaining their individual characteristics. If you are reading this text, you are probably a human being and, as such, you are also a holobiont. Your body hosts a wide variety of creatures, mostly bacteria, that help you in various tasks, for instance in digesting food. A forest is another kind of holobiont, vaster but also structured in terms of collaborating creatures. Trees could not exist alone, they need the all-important "mycorrhizal symbiosis." It has to do with the presence of fungi in the soil that collaborate with plant roots to create an entity called the “rhizosphere,” the holobiont that makes it possible for a forest to exist. Fungi process the minerals that exist in the soil and turn them into forms that plants can absorb. The plant, in turn, provides the fungi with energy in the form of sugars obtained from photosynthesis. 

So, even though trees are familiar creatures, it is surprising how many things are scarcely known about them and some are not known at all. So, let’s go through a few questions that disclose whole new worlds in front of us. 

First: wood. Everyone knows that trees are made of wood, of course, but why? Of course, its purpose is the mechanical support of the whole plant. But it is not a trivial question. If wood serves for mechanical support, why aren’t our bones made of wood? And why aren’t trees, instead, made of the stuff our bones are made of, mainly solid phosphate?

As usual, if something exists, there is some reason for it to exist. Within some limits, evolution may take different paths simply because it has started moving in a certain direction and it cannot move back. But, as things stand on Earth, wooden trunks are perfectly optimized for their purpose of support of a creature that doesn't move. Tree trunks (not palms, though) grow in concentric layers: it is well known that you can date a tree by counting the growth rings in its trunk. As a new layer grows, the inside layers die. They become just a support for the external layer called the “cambium” which is the living part of the trunk, containing the all-important “xylem”, the ducts that bring water and nutrients from the roots to the leaves. The cambium also contains the "phloem," another set of ducts that move water loaded with sugars in the opposite direction, toward the roots. The inner part of the trunk is dead, so it has no metabolic cost for the tree. Yet, it keeps providing the static support the tree needs. 

The disadvantage is that, because the internal part of the wood is dead, when a branch or a trunk is broken, it cannot be healed by reconnecting the two parts together. In animals, instead, the bones are alive: there is blood flowing through them. So, they can regrow and rebuild the damaged parts. It is probably a necessary feature for animals. They jump, run, fly, fall, roll, and do more acrobatic feats, often resulting in broken bones. Of course, a broken bone is a major danger, especially for a large animal. We don’t know exactly how many animals suffer broken bones and survive, but it seems that it is not uncommon: live bones are a crucial survival feature [6], [7]. But that's not so important for trees: they do not move and the main stress they face is a heavy gust of wind. But trees tend to protect themselves from wind by shouldering against each other – which is, by the way, another typical holobiont characteristic: trees help each other resisting wind, but not because they are ordered to do so by a master tree. It is just the way they are.

That's not just the only feature that makes wood good for trees but not for animals. Another one is that bones, being alive, can grow with the creature they support. They can even be hollow, as in birds, and so be light and resilient at the same time. If our bones were made of wood, we would have to carry around a large weight of deadwood in the inner part of the bone. That's not a problem for trees which, instead, profit from a heavier weight in terms of better stability. And they do not have to run unless they are the fantasy creatures called "ents."  Spectacular, but Tolkien would need to perform some acrobatic feats of biophysics to explain how some trees of Middle Earth can walk around as fast as humans do.

So, there is plenty of logic in the fact that trees use wood as a structural material. They are not the only creatures doing that. Bamboos (bambusoideae), are also wooden, but they are not trees. They are a form of grass that appeared on Earth just about 30 million years ago, when they developed an evolutionary innovation that makes their "trunk” lighter, being hollow. So, they can take much more stress than trees before breaking and that inspired many Oriental philosophers about the advantages of bending without breaking. Among animals, insects and arthropods use a structural material similar to wood, called "chitin." They didn't solve the problem of how to make it grow with the whole organism, so use it as an exoskeleton that they need to replace as they grow.

Now, let's go to another question about trees. How does their metabolism work? You know that trees create their own food, carbohydrates (sugar), by photosynthesis, a process powered by solar light that works by combining water and carbon dioxide molecules. One problem is that sunlight arrives from above, whereas trees extract water from the ground. So, how do they manage to pump water all the way to the leaves? 

We animals are familiar with the way water (actually, blood) is pumped inside our bodies. It is done by an organ called "heart," basically a "positive displacement pump" powered by muscles. Hearts are wonderful machines, but expensive in terms of the energy they need and, unfortunately, prone to failure as we age. But trees, as we all know, have no muscles and no moving parts. There is no “heart” anywhere inside a tree. It is because only the feverish metabolism of animals can afford to use so much energy as it is used in hearts. Trees are slower and smarter (and they live much longer than primates). They use very little energy to pump water by exploiting capillary forces and small pressure differences in their environment. 

"Capillary forces" means exploiting interface forces that appear when water flows through narrow ducts. You exploit that every time you use a paper towel to soak spilled water. It doesn't happen in human-made ducts, nor in the large blood vessels of an animal body. But it is a fundamental feature in the movement of fluids in heartless (not in the bad sense of the term) plants. But capillary forces are not enough, by far. You need also a pressure difference to pull the water high enough to reach the canopy. That you can attain by evaporating water at the surface of leaves. The water that goes away as water vapor creates a small difference in pressure that can pull more water up from below. This is called a "suction pump." You experience it every time you use a straw to drink from a glass. It is, actually, the atmospheric pressure that pushes the water up the straw. 

Now, there is a big problem with suction pumps. If you studied elementary physics in school, you learned that you cannot use a suction pump to pull water higher than about 10 meters because the weight of the water column cannot exceed the atmospheric push. In other words, you wouldn't be able to drink your coke using a straw longer than 10 meters. You probably never made the experiment, but now you know that it won't work! But trees are far higher than ten meters. You just need to visit your local park to find trees that are far taller than that. 

That trees can grow so tall is a little miracle that even today we are not sure we completely understand. The generally accepted theory for how water can be pumped to such heights is called the “cohesion-tension theory” [8].  In short, water behaves, within some limits, as a solid in the live part of a tree trunk, the “xylem.” The ducts do not contain any air and water is pulled up by a mechanism that involves each molecule pulling all the nearby molecules. The story is complicated and not everything is known about it. The point is that trees do manage to pump water to heights up to about 100 meters and even more. There is a redwood tree (Sequoia sempervirens), in California, that reaches a height of 380 feet, (116 m). It is such an exceptional tree, that it has a specific name “Hyperion.” 

Could trees grow even higher? Apparently not, at least not on this planet. We are not sure of what is the main limiting factor. Possibly, the cohesion-tension pumping mechanism that brings water to the leaves ceases to work over a certain height. Or it could be the opposite problem: the phloem becoming unable to carry sugar all the way down to the roots. Or, perhaps, there are mechanical limits to the trunk size that can support a crown large enough to feed the whole tree. 

Nevertheless, some works of fiction imagined trees so huge that humans could build entire cities inside or around the trunk. The first may have been Edgar Rice Burroughs, known for his "Tarzan" novels. In a series set on the planet Venus, in 1932, he imagined trees so big that an entire civilization had taken refuge in them. Just a couple of years later, Alex Raymond created the character of Prince Barin of Arboria for his "Flash Gordon" series. Arboria, as the name says, is a forested region and, again, trees are so big that people can live in them. More recently, you may remember the gigantic "Hometrees" of the Na'vi people of planet Pandora in the movie "Avatar" (2009).  In the real world, some people do build their homes on trees -- it seems to be popular in California. The living quarters must be cramped, to say nothing about the problems with the static stability of the whole contraption. But, apparently, a section of our fantasy sphere still dreams about the times when our remote ancestors were living on trees. 

But why do trees go to such an effort to become tall? If the idea is to collect solar light, which is the business all plants are engaged in, there is just as much of it at the ground level as there is at 100 meters of height. Richard Dawkins was perplexed about this point in his book “The Greatest Show on Earth” (2009), where he said:
“Look at a single tall tree standing proud in the middle of an open area. Why is it so tall? Not to be closer to the sun! That long trunk could be shortened until the crown of the tree was splayed out over the ground, with no loss in photons and huge savings in cost. So why go to all that expense of pushing the crown of the tree up towards the sky? The answer eludes us until we realize that the natural habitat of such a tree is a forest. Trees are tall to overtop rival trees - of the same and other species. … A familiar example is a suggested agreement to sit, rather than stand, when watching a spectacle such as a horse race. If everybody sat, tall people would still get a better view than short people, just as they would if everybody stood, but with the advantage that sitting is more comfortable for everybody. The problems start when one short person sitting behind a tall person stands, to get a better view. Immediately, the person sitting behind him stands, in order to see anything at all. A wave of standing sweeps around the field, until everybody is standing. In the end, everybody is worse off than they would be if they had all stayed sitting.”
Dawkins is a sharp thinker but sometimes he takes the wrong road. Here, he reasons like a primate, actually a male primate (not surprising, because it is what he is). The idea that trees “compete with rival trees – of the same and other species” just doesn’t work. Trees can be male and female, although in ways that primates would find weird, for instance with both male and female organs on the same plant. But male trees do not fight for female trees the way male primates for female primates. A tree would have no advantage in killing its neighbors by shadowing them -- that wouldn't provide "him" or "her" with more food or more sexual partners. Killing the neighbors would perhaps allow a tree to grow a little larger, but, in exchange, it would be more exposed to the gust of wind that could topple it. In the real world, trees protect each other by staying together and avoiding the full impact of gusts of wind. 

It doesn’t always work and if the wind manages to topple a few trees, then a domino effect may ensue and a whole forest may be brought down. In 2018, some 14 million trees were destroyed in Northern Italy by strong gales. The disaster was probably the result of more than a single cause: global warming has created winds of a strength unknown in earlier times. But it is also true that most of the woods that were destroyed were monocultures of spruce, plantations designed for wood production. In the natural world, forests are not made of identical trees, spaced from each other like soldiers in a parade. They are a mix of different species, some taller, some less tall. The interaction among different tree species depends on a number of different factors and there is evidence of complementarity among different species of trees in a mixed forest [9], [10]. The availability of direct sunlight is not the only parameter that affects tree growth and mixed canopies seem to adapt better to variable conditions. 

As a further advantage of being tall, a thick canopy that stands high up protects the ground from sunlight and avoids the evaporation of moisture from the soil, conserving water for the trees. When the sun makes the canopy hotter than the soil, the result is that the air becomes hotter higher up, technically it is called "negative lapse rate" [11].  Since the cold air is below the hot air, convection is much reduced, the air stays still, and water remains in the soil. If that's not completely clear to you, try this experiment: on a hot day, scorching if possible, stand in the sun while wearing a thick wool winter hat for several minutes. Then wear a sombrero. Compare the effects. 

So, you see that having a canopy well separated from the ground is another collective effect generated by trees forming a forest. It doesn't help single trees so much, but it does help the forest in conserving water by generating something that we could call a "holobiont of shadows." Each tree helps the others by shadowing a fraction of the ground, below. And that creates, incidentally, the "cathedral effect" that we experience when we walk through a forest. Again, we see that this point was missed by Dawkins when he said that "That long trunk could be shortened until the crown of the tree was splayed out over the ground, with no loss in photons and huge savings in cost." Another confirmation of how difficult it is for primates to think like trees. 

That doesn’t mean that trees do not compete with other trees or other kinds of plants. They do, by all means. It is typical for a forest especially after an area has been damaged, for instance by fire. In that area, you see growing first the plants that grow faster, typically herbs. Then, they are replaced by shrubs, and finally by trees. The mechanism is generated by the shadowing of the shorter species created by the taller ones. It is a process called "recolonization" that may take decades, or even centuries before the burned patch becomes indistinguishable from the rest of the forest.

These are dynamic processes: fires are part and parcel of the ecosystem, not disasters. Some trees, such as the Australian eucalypti and the African palms seem to have evolved with the specific purpose of burning as fast as possible and spreading flames and sparks around. Have you noticed how palms are “hairy”? They are engineered in such a way to catch fire easily. So much, that it may be dangerous to prune a palm by using a chainsaw while climbing it. A spark from the engine may set on fire the dry wood filaments and that may be very bad for the person strapped to the trunk. It is not that palms could have evolved this feature to defend themselves from chainsaw-yielding monkeys, but they are fast-growing plants that may benefit from how a fire cleans a swat of ground, letting them re-colonize it faster than other species. Note how palms act like kamikaze: single plants sacrifice themselves for the survival of their seed. It is another feature of holobionts. Some primates do the same, but it is rare. 

Other kinds of trees adopt the opposite approach. They optimize their chances for survival when exposed to fire by means of thick bark. The ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) is an example of a plant adopting this strategy. Then there are more tricks: have you ever wondered why some pinecones are so sticky and resinous? The idea is that the resin glues the cone to a branch or to the bark of the tree and keeps the seeds inside. If a fire burns the tree, the resin melts, and the seeds inside are left free to germinate. More evidence that fires are not a bug but a feature of the system. 

In the end, a forest, as we saw, is a typical holobiont. Holobionts do not evolve by the fight for survival that some interpretations of Darwin’s theory had imagined being the rule in the ecosystem. Holobionts can be ruthless when it is necessary to eliminate the unfit, but they aim at an amicable convivence of the creatures that are fit enough. 

The “holobiontic” characteristic of forests is best evidenced by the concept of “biotic pump,” an example of how organisms benefit the holobiont they are part of without the need for hierarchies and planning.



The concept of biotic pump [11] was proposed by Viktor Gorshkov, Anastassia Makarieva, and others, as part of the wider concept of biotic regulation [12]. It is a profound synthesis of how the ecosphere works: it emphasizes its regulating power that keeps the ecosystem from straying away from the conditions that make it possible for biological life to exist. From this work comes the idea that the ecosystemic imbalance we call "climate change" is caused only in part by CO2 emissions. Another important factor is the ongoing deforestation. 

This is, of course, a controversial position. The general opinion among climatologists in the West is that growing a forest has a cooling effect because it removes some CO2 from the atmosphere. But, once a forest has reached its stable state, it has a warming effect on Earth’s climate because its albedo (the light reflected back into space) is lower than that of the bare ground. But studies exist [13] that show how forests cool the Earth not only by sequestering carbon in the form of biomass but because of a biophysical effect related to evapotranspiration. That is, the water evaporates at low altitudes from the leaves, causing cooling. It returns the heat when it condenses in the form of clouds, but the heat emissions at high altitudes are more easily dispersed towards space because the main greenhouse gas, the water, exists in very small concentrations. It may be a minor effect compared to that of the albedo, but it is a point not very well quantified. 

The concept of biotic pump states that forests act as "planetary pumping systems," carrying water from the atmosphere above the oceans up to thousands of kilometers inland. It is the mechanism that generates the “atmospheric rivers” that supply water to lands that are far away from the seas [14]. The biotic pump mechanism depends on quantitative factors that are still little known. But it seems that the water transpired by trees condenses above the forest canopy and the phase transition from gas to liquid generates a pressure drop. This drop pulls air from the surroundings, all the way from the moist air over the sea. This mechanism is what allows the inner areas of the continents to receive sufficient rain to be forested. It doesn’t work everywhere, in Northern Africa, for instance, there are no forests that bring the water inland, and the result is the desert region we call the Sahara. But the biotic pump operates in Northern Eurasia, central Africa, India, Indonesia, Southern, and Northern America.

The concept of the biotic pump is an especially clear example of how holobionts operate. Single trees don’t evaporate water in the air because they somehow “know” that this evaporation will benefit other trees. They do that because they need to generate the pressure difference they need to pull water and nutrients from their roots. In a certain sense, evapotranspiration is an inefficient process because, from the viewpoint of an individual tree, a lot of water (maybe more than 95%) is "wasted" in the form of water vapor and not used for photosynthesis. But, from the viewpoint of a forest, the inefficiency of single trees is what generates the pull of humidity from the sea that makes it possible for the forest to survive. Without the biotic pump, the forest would quickly run out of water and die. It often happens with the rush to "plant trees to stop global warming" that well-intentioned humans are engaged in, nowadays. It may do more harm than good: to stabilize the climate, we do not need just trees, we need forests. 

Note another holobiontic characteristic of trees in forests: they store very little water, individually. They rely almost totally on the collective effect of biotic pumping for the water they need: that's because they are good holobionts! Not all trees are structured in this way. An example is the African baobab, which has a typical barrel-like trunk, where it stores water more or less in the same way as succulent plants (cacti) do. But baobabs are solitary trees, 

Incidentally, evapotranspiration is one of the few points that trees have in common with the primates called "homo sapiens." The sapiens, too, "evapotranspirate" a lot of water out of their skins -- it is called "sweating." But the metabolism of primates is completely different: trees are heterothermic, that is their temperature follows that of their environment. Primates, instead, are homeotherms and control their temperature by various mechanisms, including sweating. But that doesn't create a biotic pump! 

The concept of "biotic pump" generated by the forest holobiont is crucial the correlated one of "biotic regulation," [12] the idea that the whole ecosystem is tightly regulated by the organisms living in it. Natural selection worked at the holobiont level to favor those forests that operated most efficiently as biotic pumps. Plants other than trees and also animals do benefit from the water rivers generated by the forest even though they may not evotranspirate anything. They are other elements of the forest holobiont, an incredibly complex entity where not necessarily everything is optimized, but where, on the whole things move in concert. 

It is a story that we, monkeys, have difficulties in understanding: with the best of goodwill, it is hard for us to think like trees. Likely, the reverse is also true and the behavior of monkeys must be hard to understand for the brain-like network of the tree root system of the forest. It does not matter, we are all holobionts and part of the same holobiont. Eventually, the great land holobiont that we call “forests” merges into the greater planetary ecosystem that includes all the biomes, from the sea to land. It is the grand holobionts that we call “Gaia.” 



References

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