Monday, May 17, 2021

Give a man a fish, and he will eat for a day. Teach a man how to fish, and you'll find that he already knew that better than you

The UN program "The Ocean Decade" is starting this year. It is supposed to be ten years of research, assessment, and development of what the world's oceans can provide to humankind and how that can be managed in a sustainable manner within the concept called "The Blue Economy". It is a good idea, in general, but from what I saw up to now, many of the participants in the program are still anchored to the view that the Oceans contain large, untapped resources that can be exploited within the model of "sustainable development," normally understood in terms of economic growth. 

That may be a remarkable misunderstanding. As we explain in our recent
book "The Empty Sea," the world's oceans do contain enormous resources, but it is also true that -- like all biological resources -- overexploitation is a misunderstood risk that always takes people by surprise. 

It is a mistake done over and over: when the yield of a fishery goes down, governmental agencies think it is a good idea to provide fishermen with more powerful boats and other technological tricks. It works, just until it doesn't. Then, it makes things worse. Overexploited fish stocks collapse, leaving fishermen with plenty of useless hardware and the sea reduced to a desert. 

Below, Paul Jorion tells a story that provides much food for thought in this field: the pretense of Western "experts" to know more than the local African fishermen and to help them by means of more powerful engines and better fishnets. And, as usual, the result was plenty of wasted money, possibly worse than that. The apparent inability of the Fishermen of Benin to produce as much fish as produced in nearby regions was not because they were bad fishermen. It was because of the lack of fish off the coast of Benin.

"Upwelling" is a concept discussed in some detail in our book, it is the oscillating phenomenon that characterizes the "El Nino/La Nina" cycles off the Peruvian coast. Upwelling brings nutrients to the surfaces and generates the growth of the fish stocks. The lack of upwelling has the opposite effect. The sea is a complex environment, you can see it as a giant holobiont that goes on in cycles, as living systems often do. You must understand these cycles, you can't fight them with technology. If you try, you'll destroy the very resources that make you survive. In this case, the fishermen of Benin had perfectly well understood how to deal with the lack of upwelling: you don't fish. 

Jorion doesn't say what happened with the program, but he hints that it was carried out and that it failed, badly -- as it had to. Will we ever be able to understand that growth is not always the solution for all problems?


By Paul Jorion

The FAO project in Benin aimed at developing fisheries in the country. It had been observed that, unlike neighboring countries, coastal fishing was languishing there. Benin was living at that time under a Marxist-Leninist regime and it was considered in high places at the United Nations that the time had come to intervene also in countries whose government was of this type.

Our project was sponsored by Denmark and Japan. Its objective was to discover the reasons for the weakness of fishing and to remedy them. As is often the case with development aid projects, the conclusion we would come to was pre-established: we could read it in the fact that Denmark had offered nets and Japan Yamaha outboard motors.

A preliminary survey on the situation in Benin had been carried out a few weeks before my arrival by a British anthropologist colleague: Jacob Black-Michaud, who had highlighted in a report of about thirty pages the mediocrity of the local fishery. This report established that, for some unknown reason, fishermen in Benin did not manage to fish with the same skill as observed in neighboring countries. The rationale for the United Nations to come to their aid lay there.

I had a real affection for Jacob Black-Michaud, whom I had previously had the opportunity to meet during an evening in Cambridge. His career had been similar to mine: from the university environment to anthropology applied to development projects in the field. But unlike me, who loved to deal with reality, he lived the transition from university life to that of a bush adventurer like a downfall. I would share his sentiment, but at a different time: when, fourteen years later, at the age of fifty-one, I was recruited for my first job in the United States: a programmer in a subprime loan company. I would have the opportunity to ask myself then, like him in Benin: "How did you get there: what happened to you?" 

It is always with real emotion that I think back to him and to our conversations about the deep meaning of our profession and the challenges of what is called "development aid". Black-Michaud had lived in Ceylon an experience that had transformed him on a personal level but also made him cynical on these subjects. I remember our last conversation: I didn't share his belief that anything we did was wasted (and my own experience would convince me that it was indeed not, despite the sheer size of some obstacles to come up against.) and I told him.

He wrote to me shortly before the Christmas holidays. Unfortunately, I was not surprised to learn a few weeks later that during a ski tour he had fallen to his death, having fallen from an overhang.

It was therefore necessary to find out why the performance of coastal fishing in Benin was so disappointing. In Houat, I went to a good school for the fishing profession, and also to a good school in Cambridge, in terms of mastering analytical tools. The first thing I did, with the help of a team of "statisticians" that the project had enabled me to recruit, was a census of the eight fisherman camps in Benin (including Beninese and Ghanaian people) who had been selected for our mission. project.

A census allows, among other things, to build an age pyramid. This is a very simple exercise in graphing the age composition of a population. After having counted the people of each sex of such or such age, this number is represented on a horizontal scale, the men on the left and the women on the right, by convention. The age groups are stacked along a vertical scale graduated according to age: children between zero and one year old are shown at the base, while the highest age group is shown. which belongs to the oldest person still alive.

For each age group, a line is drawn whose length is proportional to the number of people of that age. As with aging and accidents people die, the general shape tapers upwards. In traditional populations ravaged by very high infant mortality, the figure generally had the shape of a pyramid, the steps of which were made up of age groups. 

The pyramid is generally asymmetrical at the top: thicker on the female side for the reason that everyone knows that in all societies, women live longer than men and there are therefore more women than men at the top.

However, the age pyramids of my villages all had the same unexpected shape: asymmetrical, showing a very noticeable dip on the side of men in the age groups of fifteen to forty-five years. The interpretation was unequivocal: men in their prime were missing out. Where could they possibly be?

I went to see the women: "Where are the men I asked?" "In Liberia, Gabon, Congo!" They replied, adding:" Where there is fish. Not like here!" The men followed the fish, often leaving the women behind. Sometimes the women followed their men, in trucks, along the coast. I would discover that the Beninese had the reputation of being outstanding fishermen wherever they went fishing, returning periodically to the country, either seasonally or after stays that lasted several years. The men we saw in Benin, for example practicing the "beach seine" (this long pocket-shaped net that is spun off with the help of a boat after leaving one of its two ropes retained by a team on the beach, and which is then folded down after having brought the second rope back to the beach, the two teams then hauling the pocket by its two ends), were either those occasionally returning, those who came to see their families, or, and essentially, the disabled and the sick ones. I had involuntarily innovated, I had introduced a new style in development projects in West Africa: I had spoken to the people we said we wanted to help!

The explanation for the absence of fish in large quantities in Benin is the absence of "upwelling ", a thermal phenomenon: the upwelling of cold water from the depths near the coast, allowing an algal bloom. diatoms on which the larvae of mollusks and crustaceans feed. The upwelling allows the plankton (phytoplankton and zooplankton), basic food fish, to grow. The upwelling moves along the coast of West Africa but it rarely develops in the Gulf of Guinea, in the area stretching from Benin to the west of Cameroon. In this area, fish are rare.

It was neither laziness nor incompetence that explained the mediocrity of fishing in Benin but the thermodynamics of the oceans. I explained this to my colleagues. It turned out very badly: the remedies available to us were, as I have already said, of two kinds: Danish nets and Japanese engines. The only explanations considered for the poor fishing in Benin were inappropriate equipment and the incompetence of the fishermen. Unfortunately, the real explanation refused to fit into this pre-established mold.

Friday, May 14, 2021

A Concise History of the concept of "Hydrogen Economy"

Reposted from "The Hydrogen Skeptics" blog. 

The concept of "hydrogen economy" has a distinct "1960s" feeling. It is the idea of maintaining the lifestyle of the post-war period, with suburban homes, green lawns around them, two cars in every garage, all that. The only difference would be that this world would be powered with clean hydrogen. It all started with the dream of cheap and abundant energy that nuclear plants were believed to be able to produce. The idea changed shape many times, but it always remained a dream, and probably will continue to remain a dream in the future.


by Ugo Bardi

Before discussing the history of the concept of "hydrogen economy" we should try to define it. As you should expect, there are several variations on the theme but, basically, it is not about a single technology but a combination of three. Hydrogen would be used for: 1) energy storage, 2) energy vectoring, and 3) fuel for vehicles. 

This "hydrogen triad" misses the fundamental point of how hydrogen should be created. Often, that's supposed to be done using electrolysis powered by renewable energy but, alternatively, from natural gas, a process that would be made "green" by carbon sequestration. There are other possibilities, but all have in common being multi-step processes with considerable efficiency losses. And the fact of never having been proven to be economically feasible on a large scale.

Indeed, the immediate problem with replacing fossil fuels is not vectoring or storage, surely not powering individual cars. It is the enormous investments needed to build up the primary production infrastructure that would be needed in terms of solar or wind plants (or nuclear), which don't seem to be materializing fast enough to generate a smooth transition. Surely, not growing fast enough to be compatible with a relatively inefficient infrastructure based on hydrogen. Nevertheless, the "hydrogen economy" seems to be rapidly becoming the center of the debate

Indeed, the Google Ngrams site shows two distinct peaks of interest for the concept, both grew rapidly and rapidly faded away. But it seems clear that a third cycle of interest is starting to appear, and that is confirmed by what we can read in the media.

So, why this focus on a technology that lacks the basic elements that would make it useful in the near term? As it is often the case, ideas do not arrive all of a sudden, out of the blue. If we want to understand what made hydrogen so popular nowadays, we need to examine how the idea developed over at least a couple of centuries of scientific developments.

That hydrogen could be used as fuel was known from the early 19th century. Already in 1804, the first internal combustion engine in history was powered by hydrogen. The first explicit mention of hydrogen as an energy storage medium goes back to John Haldane in 1923, where he even discussed the possibility of using "oxidation cells" that we call today "fuel cells," invented by William Grove in 1838.

But these ideas remained at the margins of the discussion for a long time: no one could find a practical use for a fuel, hydrogen, that was more expensive and more difficult to store and use than conventional fossil fuels. Things started to change with the development of nuclear energy in the 1950s, with its promise of a new era of abundance. But, in the beginning, hydrogen found no role in the nuclear dream. For instance, you wouldn't find any mention of hydrogen as an energy carrier in the "manifesto" of the atomic age: the 1957 TV documentary by Walt Disney, "Our Friend, the Atom.

In the book derived from the movie, there was an entire chapter dedicated to how nuclear energy was going to power homes, ships, submarines, and even planes. But nothing was said about the need for fuels for road transportation. The atomic car was just briefly mentioned as "not a possibility for the near future." The engineers of Ford thought otherwise when, in the same year (1957), they proposed the concept of a nuclear-powered car, the Ford Nucleon. But nobody really believed that such a car could ever be produced. At the beginning of the nuclear age, there was no concern about climate change, and no one foresaw the need or the possibility of entirely replacing fossil fuels from the world's energy infrastructure.

The idea of hydrogen as an element of the new nuclear infrastructure started gaining weight only in the 1960s, in parallel with the problems that the nuclear industry was experiencing. The assessments of the world's uranium ores showed that mineral uranium was not abundant enough to support a large expansion of nuclear energy as envisaged at that time. But the industry had a technological solution: "fast" reactors that could be used to "breed" fissile materials in the form of plutonium. The fast reactor technology could have increased the duration of the uranium reserves of several hundred years, perhaps thousands. 

Fast reactors turned out to be more expensive and complex than expected, but the problem was not technological, it was strategic. The "plutonium-based economy" would have generated a gigantic proliferation problem. It was clear to the Western leaders that diffusing this technology all over the world put them at risk of losing the monopoly of weapons of mass destruction that they shared with the Soviet Union. 

So, if fast breeders were to be built, they needed to be only a few and to be very large to allow tight military control. They also needed to be large to exploit economies of scale. But that led to another problem: how to carry the energy to consumers? Electrical lines have a distance limit of the order of a thousand km, and can hardly cross the sea. The kind of plants envisaged at that time would be spaced much more than that from each other. It was at this point that the idea of hydrogen as an energy carrier crept in. It could have been used to distribute nuclear energy at a long distance without the need to distribute the reactors themselves. 

It was a concept discussed perhaps for the first time in 1969 by the Italian physicist Cesare Marchetti, He was, (now he is in his 90s) a creative scientist who proposed that just 10 gigantic fast reactors of a few TW each would have been enough to power the whole world. The reactors could be built on remote oceanic islands, where the water needed for cooling would have been abundantly available. Then, the energy would have been transformed into liquid hydrogen at low temperature and carried everywhere in the world by hydrogen carrier ships. In the image from one of Marchetti's papers, you see how an existing coral atoll in the South Pacific Ocean, Canton Island, could be converted into a Terawatt power nuclear central.

To paraphrase the theme of Disney's "nuclear manifesto" of 1957, the hydrogen genius was now out of the bottle. In 1970, John Bockris, another creative scientist, coined the term "hydrogen-based economy." In the meantime, NASA had started using hydrogen-powered fuel cells for the Gemini manned spacecraft program. It was only at this point that the "hydrogen car" appeared, replacing in the public's imagination the obviously unfeasible nuclear-powered car. 
It was a daring scheme (to say the least), but not impossible from a purely technological viewpoint. But, as we all know, the dreams of a plutonium economy failed utterly. With the oil crisis of 1973, the nuclear industry seemed to have a golden opportunity. Instead, it collapsed. We can see in the Ngrams how the concept of "fast breeder" picked up interest and then faded, together with that of nuclear energy. The reasons for the downfall of the nuclear industry are complex and controversial but, surely, can't be reduced to accusing the "Greens" of ideological prejudices. Mainly, the decline can be attributed to two factors: one was the fear of nuclear proliferation by the US government, the other the opposition of the fossil fuel industry, unwilling to cede the control of the world's energy production to a competitor. Whatever the causes, in the 1980s the interest in a large expansion of the nuclear infrastructure rapidly declined, although the existing plants remained in operation.

And hydrogen? The downfall of nuclear energy could have carried with it also the plans for hydrogen as an energy carrier, but that didn't happen. The proponents repositioned the concept of "hydrogen economy" as a way to utilize renewable energy. 

One problem was that renewable energy, be it solar, wind, or whatever, is inherently a distributed technology, so why would it need hydrogen as a carrier? Yet, renewables had a problem that nuclear energy didn't have, that of intermittency. That required some kind of storage and hydrogen would have done the job, at least in theory. Add that at in the 1980s there were no good batteries that could have powered road vehicles, and that made the idea of a "hydrogen car" powered by fuel cells attractive. Then, you may understand that the idea of a hydrogen-based economy would maintain its grip on people's imagination. You can see in the figure (from Google Ngrams) how the concept of "hydrogen car picked up interest. 

It was a short-lived cycle of interest. It was soon realized that the technical problems involved were nightmarish and probably unsolvable. Fuel cells worked nicely in space, but, on Earth, the kind used in the Gemini spacecraft were rapidly poisoned by the carbon dioxide of the atmosphere. Other kinds of cells that could work on Earth were unreliable and, more than that, required platinum as a catalyst and that made them expensive. And not just that, there was not enough mineral platinum on Earth to make it possible to use these cells as a replacement for the combustion engines used in transportation. In the meantime, oil prices had gone down, the crises of the 1970s and 1980s seemed to be over, so, who needed hydrogen? Why spend money on it? The first cycle of interest in the hydrogen-based economy faded out in the mid-1980s. 

But the story was not over. Some researchers remained stubbornly committed to hydrogen and, in 1989, Geoffrey Ballard developed a new kind of fuel cell that used a conducting polymer as the electrolyte. It was a significant improvement, although not the breakthrough that it was said to be at the time. Then, in 1998, Colin Campbell and Jean Laherrere argued that the world's oil resources were being rapidly depleted and that production would soon start declining. It was a concept that, later on, Campbell dubbed "Peak Oil." In 2001, the attacks on the World Trade Center of New York showed that we lived in a fragile world where the supply of vital crude oil that kept civilization moving was far from guaranteed. Two years later, there would come the invasion of Iraq by the US, not the first and not the last of the "wars for oil." 

All these factors led to a return of interest in hydrogen energy, stimulated by the popular book by Jeremy Rifkin, "The Hydrogen Economy," published in 2002. The new cycle of interest peaked in 2006 (again, look at the Ngrams results, above), and then it faded. The problems that had brought the first cycle to its end were still there: cost, inefficiency, and unreliability (and not enough platinum for the fuel cells). Besides, a new generation of batteries was sounding the death knell for the idea of using hydrogen to power vehicles. Look at the compared cycles of hydrogen and of lithium batteries.

 Note the different widths of the peaks. It is typical: technologies that work (lithium) keep being mentioned in the scientific literature. Instead, technologies that are fads (hydrogen) show narrow peaks of interest, then they disappear. You can't just keep telling people that you'll bring them a technological marvel without ever delivering it. 

At this point, you would be tempted to say that hydrogen as an energy carrier and storage medium is a dead platypus. But no, the discussion on the hydrogen economy is restarting, research grants are being provided, plans are being made. 

Did something change that's generating this new cycle? Not really, the technologies are still the same. Surely there have been marginal improvements, but hydrogen remains an expensive and inefficient method to store energy. So, why this new round of interest in hydrogen?

The vagaries of memes are always open to interpretation, and, in this case, we can suppose that one of the elements that push hydrogen back to the global consciousness lies in its origins of supporting technology for a centralized economy, the one that would have resulted from the widespread use of fast breeder reactors. In this sense, hydrogen is in a different league from that of most renewable technologies that exist and operate over a distributed network. 

So, even if the nuclear industry is today a pale shadow of what it was in the 1960s, there remains the fossil fuel industry to champion the role of centralized energy supply. And, obviously, the fossil fuel producers, who produce hydrogen from fossil sources, are those who are going to benefit most by a return to hydrogen, no matter how short-lived it will be. 

There may be another, deeper, reason for the success of the hydrogen meme with the public. It is because most people, understandably, resist change even when they realize that change is necessary. So, replacing fossil fuels with electricity-producing renewables is something that will force most of us to radical changes in our lifestyle. Conversely, hydrogen promises change with no change: it would be just a question of switching from a dirty fuel to a clean one, and things would remain more or less the same. We would still fill up the tanks of our cars at a service station, we would still have electric power on demand, we would still take two weeks of vacation in Hawai'i once per year. 

Unfortunately, people change only when they are forced to and that's what's probably going to happen. But, for a while, we can still dream of a hydrogen-based society that seems to be curiously similar to that of the US suburbs of the 1960s. Dreams rarely come true, though. 


Monday, May 10, 2021

Memes that Kill: Witch Burning and Other Extraordinary Popular Delusions

A modern interpretation of Anna Göldi, executed in 1782 for witchcraft in Glarus, Switzerland. She is said to have been the last witch killed in Europe, at least as the result of a formal trial. The story of the great witch hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries remains a mystery in many respects. What caused this folly to take hold of the minds of the Europeans? And what caused that folly to abate? It turns out that evil has a natural cycle of growth and decline. It is possible to accelerate the decline of a killer meme if good people get together in rejecting it.

In 1841, Charles MacKay published his "Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of the Crowds." It was a milestone: the first study in the field that today we call memetics, a term coined by Richard Dawkins for how ideas ("memes") spread in the collective human consciousness. MacKay was perhaps the first to state publicly that the great witch hunts of the late 16th and early 17th centuries were a form of collective madness. Not even Voltaire (1694-1778) had touched on that subject, despite his criticism of all kinds of religious superstitions

As exterminations go, the war on witches was not the worst on record. In Europe, it caused about 50 thousand victims over a little more than a century. But it was so shockingly cruel in targeting mostly helpless women that it is remembered to this day as a form of collective madness. With us, the expression "witch hunt" is even proverbial. 

The extermination of the European witches generated plenty of studies in modern times, mostly concentrated on the causes of the phenomenon. Explanations are many but, in general, it is agreed that it was related to the stress generated by the Reformation and the associated wars. Apparently, torturing and killing women was a form of stress release. The human mind must have plenty of serious problems, evidently, but this much we know not just because of witch hunting.

In any case, it happened, and we should be happy that it didn't last more than it did. But this generates another question: what made the hunt cease? It is a fundamental point: if we could understand what makes people stop believing in killer memes, we might stop them earlier. 

But few of the studies examining the war on witches make a specific effort to understand why the hunting ceased. The general idea seems to be that when the conditions that caused the hunt disappeared, things returned to their normal state. Sometimes, it is also proposed that the enlightenment movement put an end to the killings. Lesson and Ross (1) proposed in 2018 that:

"The seventeenth century, however, was the time of the scientific revolution, whose effects may have eventually eroded popular belief in witchcraft, eroding popular demand for witchcraft prosecutions along with it until witch trials could finally be easily abandoned by religious producers. "

Not to disparage a study that's excellent in many respects, but this interpretation seems to me completely wrong. The death penalty for people found guilty of poisoning or harming others had the aspect of a rational response of society to a threat that, at the time, looked real and documented. During the 16th and 17th centuries, science had little to say about whether or not it was possible to poison people using herbal concoctions or other methods.

As Chuck Pezeshky says, "truth is the reliable and valid representation of information that allows shared coordination of action inside a social network." In some cases, this social representation coincides with the scientific views of the matter, but that is not the rule and it is not even common. 

Finding witches and killing them was not just a job for inquisitors. The book by Trevor-Roper "The European Witch-Craze" (1991) tells us how widespread was the belief, and how intensely it was believed that killing witches was a social duty for everyone, to be done for the good of everyone else. A leader who didn't engage in witch hunting was seen as a bad leader. In some regions, expressing doubts on the idea that killing witches was a good thing could be dangerous. 

If truth is a social concept, then we need to understand witch hunting in a social context, in the form of the entities that we call memes. What makes memes live and die? Charles MacKay gives us an interesting hint when he says, “Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.” As I said, MacKay was a great innovator and this sentence, in itself, is a correct statement of how memes propagate. They behave exactly like physical pathogens in an epidemic: you are infected by others but you recover by yourself. 

Indeed memetic infections can be described by the same equations used in epidemiology, as we showed in a 2018 paper together with my colleagues Perissi and Falsini. Epidemics are the result of internal feedbacks that, in turn, are the result of the networked structure of the system. This internal structure generates typical "bell shaped" cycles. Witchcraft trials are probably the first historical case of a memetic cycle for which we have quantitative data (from Leeson and Ross, 2018 (1)).

The model tells us that the diffusion of the memetic epidemic is a collective phenomenon due to people being infected by others. Conversely, the epidemic declines because people become "immune" to the meme. The concept of "herd immunity" holds not just for physical epidemics, but also for virtual ones. It is what makes society eventually resistant to these killer memes. So, the first step to fight one of these memes is to reject them individually.

There is an even more fundamental point about the decline of killer memes here, well expressed by Trevor-Roper:

Third rank intellectuals and officials started saying that the craze was unjust and irrational. And what they said was taken for granted. Then came the intelligentsia, showing that what it said for two centuries was wrong because of some minor detail in the interpretation of the scriptures. And that was the end of the process.

This statement marks a difference between physical and memetic epidemics. A physical epidemic doesn't care too much about human hierarchies: a king may die of the plague just like any commoner. But, in a social network, the propagation of memes is affected by the hierarchical structure: people tend to trust authorities more than other sources of information. Trevor-Roper hit a profound truth with his statement: witch hunting declined because ordinary people ("third rank intellectuals and officials") started realizing that the meme was evil and that they (or their wives, sisters, or mothers) risked being burned at the stake. And they stopped believing in the official truth as spoken by the leaders.

So, it seems that if we want to stop evil memes, we have to do that starting from the bottom. We can't put too much hope in laws, tribunals, treaties, and lofty principles: they are all under the elites' control and can be bent, transmogrified, or ignored. The leaders, typically, have an interest in maintaining alive memes that are profitable for them. But the memetic war is fought at all levels of the social network. People may be dazed for a while by the "Shock and Awe" treatment they receive from above, but in the long run, they understand. We cannot expect to be able to stop evil all of a sudden but an evil meme cannot last for long when good people get together to fight it. If history is a guide, evil is surprisingly fragile.

An meiner Wand hängt ein japanisches Holzwerk
Maske eines bösen Dämons, bemalt mit Goldlack.
Mitfühlend sehe ich
Die geschwollenen Stirnadern, andeutend
Wie anstrengend es ist, böse zu sein.

On my wall hangs a Japanese carving,
The mask of an evil demon, decorated with gold lacquer.
Sympathetically I observe
The swollen veins of the forehead, indicating
What a strain it is to be evil.

 Bertolt Brecht 


1. Peter T. Leeson, Jacob W. Russ The Economic Journal, Volume 128, Issue 613, 1 August 2018, Pages 2066–2105,

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Waiting for the end of the world - Sugar and the Information Paradox.


Amelia the Amoeba is the protagonist of a chapter of my book " Before the Collapse " (Springer 2019). She is a Naegleria Fowleri who has the rather nasty habit of devouring human brains but, apart from this, she kindly lent herself to be an example in the book of the mechanisms of growth of living creatures. In the following post, Alessandro Chiometti again uses the example of single-celled creatures for an interesting discussion on how our brains are destroyed, not by a brain-eating amoeba, but by an excess of available information. As a post, goes a little against the principles of modern "throwaway information", in the sense that rather than starting with trying to impress you with some flashy information, it gives you a little lesson in chemistry. But if you feel like working on it just a little, you'll see that it is a very interesting and thought-provoking post. It suggests that too much information is doing to us the same thing that too much sugar could do to Amelia: it kills our brains. And you'll learn some chemistry, too! (UB)


We are used to call "sugar" a substance that is actually sucrose, one of the many existing "sugars" which are referred to in organic chemistry as carbohydrates. These compounds can be formed by a single molecule of any sugar (monosaccharides) or by several molecules (polysaccharides). Sucrose is a disaccharide formed by the union of the two monosaccharides, glucose and fructose.

Although these two molecules have the same brute formula (C6H12O6), they are very different: glucose forms a six-atom ring while fructose forms a five-atom one but, above all, it is glucose that is the primary source of energy for every living being.

The role of glucose in the various aerobic and anaerobic cycles is fundamental for the production of the molecule that carries energy in the cell (ATP) and therefore for any cellular engine that requires energy. All the nutrients we consume throughout our lives are transformed by the body into glucose or stored as precursors of this in various forms (e.g. glycogen), ready for use.

In short, it can be said that glucose, and therefore its various precursors present in nature, is what allows “life” as we know it, in the sense of mobility, movement, sport, physical and intellectual effort, growth. It is certainly no coincidence that when you want to cultivate a bacterial culture with a suitable growth medium, the sugar supply must always be guaranteed. Like us, bacteria and other microorganisms grow and multiply thanks to glucose and therefore to sugar, of course.

However, have you ever noticed that we can keep sucrose for decades at room temperature and nothing happens to it?

It does not go bad, molds do not grow and, if greedy children or ants do not get their hands on it, even after years we find it exactly where we left it. And we can consume it safely without fear that some bacteria have grown in it.

And this, I guarantee, will happen for any sugar solution in which the sugar percentage is greater than 70% (for example, honey).

This is because microorganisms are very sensitive to what we call "osmotic pressure," and for this reason when they are in contact with pure sugar or salt crystals, or being in a too concentrated solution of these, they simply die. Instantly.

The cell of a microorganism is held together by the cell membrane which is called a "semipermeable membrane." It is a barrier that, when surrounded by a liquid phase, lets the solvent in but not the solutes dissolved in it. In an aqueous solution, in practice, water would pass through this membrane but not the salt dissolved in it.

But what happens when a semipermeable membrane separates two solutions of different solute concentrations? In this case, the solvent (water in general) passes through it from the most diluted part to the most concentrated part (thanks to the strength of the osmotic pressure). The result is that the two concentrations will be equalized until they are identical.

If we are talking about a closed system like a cell it is obvious that just so much water can be contained in it. The result of a strong osmotic pressure may be that the cell will explode from inside or, vice versa, it will dry out into a ghost of itself in the desperate attempt to dilute the external concentration. That will happen to all living cells.

I know that this was a very long introduction but, it was necessary to attempt the risky speculative reasoning on what is happening in our society as regards the possibility of accessing information.

The more time passes, the more it seems evident to me that the enormous amount of knowledge that we have at our disposal has in no way increased the knowledge of people or their ability to draw conclusions. following these. Rather the opposite.

Apart from the tsunami of fake news and orchestrated disinformation, all of us today have access to an amount of data and information that was unthinkable until a few decades ago. We can access the NASA website to find out how the permafrost melting is going in real time, we can access the John Hopkins University to know every death and every contagion due to Covid on planet earth, we can see the measures taken by each country and understand who has guessed or not the management of the pandemic, we can access the sites of evolutionary biology and know the progress of the sixth mass extinction.

Yet, there is something that's going wrong. Functional illiteracy is skyrocketing. We do not know how to distinguish between an astronomy site and an astrology site. In front of a three-variable graph, we have the same attitude of the Kubrik's apes in front of the black monolith.

Many people find it increasingly difficult to complete the reading of an article that fits on a single A4 page. (By the way, are you still reading?)

And many of them, even if they read it,  remain convinced that the article proves them right even if it says the opposite of what they claimed.

Where's the problem? Where is the osmotic paradox that can justify this?

I am trying to find a correlation here (warning: speculation on reasoning already speculative per se ) by comparing the information paradox with the "sugar paradox." It seems to me that the more information comes into contact with our minds, the more Holbachian common sense comes out of our heads. It should be obvious that common sense is not learned in books. Once, we had enough of it to distinguish a charlatan from a scientist. Not anymore.

Now, let me be clear: I know very well that there has never been a golden age of information, and that there have always been profiteers of people's good faith (the “Ponzi scheme” was born in 1918, not the day before yesterday). Nevertheless, perhaps we have been suffering positivist optimism. We thought that more information was always a good thing, just like a bacterium may think that the more sugar around, the better. We really hoped that having the possibility of accessing so much information, people would have been if not better, at least more aware.

But not for me, as George Gershwin said (*).

Patience, it will be for the next species.



(*) In the original version, Chiometti referred to the Italian singer Brunori Sas





Sunday, May 2, 2021

Cataclysms and the Megamachine: Is History a Cycle or a Progression?

This image by the Tuscan painter Piero della Francesca exudes such power that it may truly blow your mind. Apart from the mastery of the composition, the perfection of the details, the fascination of the human figures, a canvas in the hands of a grand master is not just an image: it is a message. In this case, all the figures are static, there is no one moving. Yet, the painting carries the message of a tremendous movement forward in time. It shows a great change occurring: something enormous, deep, incredible: the triumph of life over death. And those who sleep through it are missing the change without even suspecting that it is happening. Just like us, sleepwalkers in a changing world, where gigantic forces are awakening right now. 

"Cataclysms" (*) is a recent book by Laurent Testot (Univ. Chicago Press, 2020) that goes well together with "The End of the Megamachine" (Zero Books, 2020) by Fabian Scheidler of which I wrote in a previous post

Both books see human history using the approach that I call "metabolic." It means to take the long view and see humankind in terms of a living entity. Call it a "machine" (as Scheidler does), call it "Monkey" (as Testot does), call it a "complex system" (as it is fashionable, nowadays), or maybe a holobiont (as I tend to do). It is the same: humankind is a creature that moves, grows, stumbles onward, destroys things, builds new things, keeps growing, and, eventually, collapses. 

Bot "Cataclysms" and the "Megamachine" catch this multiform aspect of the great beast and both emphasize its destructive aspects. Both understand that the thing is moving. More than that, its trajectory is not uniform, it goes in bumps. It is a continuous sequence of growth and collapse, the latter usually faster than the former (what I call "The Seneca Effect"). 

So, what's happening? Is history going in cycles, or is it progressing in some ways? It is a question that has been asked and answered in various ways over centuries of historiography, at least from when Edward Gibbon (in 1776) started wondering why the mighty Roman Empire had disappeared. 

For the Christian eschatological view, there was no doubt that the Empire had served its purpose and it had to disappear to leave space for a new world which, in turn, was bound to disappear in the Final Judgement. For the thinkers of the 19th century, instead, a different kind of teleology was at work. It was an interpretation of Darwin's ideas that saw evolution as a movement toward higher and higher levels of perfection, with the white European man as the pinnacle of the trend. 

Later, these ideas started to look naive, and a catastrophistic streak of thought started to grow. The collapse of the Western Civilization was clearly seen for the first time in a telescope aimed at the future in 1972, in the study sponsored by the Club of Rome titled "The Limits to Growth." The study had gone full cycle, returning to the old eschatological view of the end of the world. It was a cataclysm. Unavoidable, unless the megamachine could do something that the megamachine could not do: to stop growing.

But the universe is complex and the best-laid computer models of mice and men gang aft agley. Over the history we knew, no collapse has ever been the final one. After every collapse, there has been a rebound. So, history is both a cycle and a progression. There is something on the other side of the unavoidable collapse we are facing nowadays. All collapses bring change: it may well be their purpose in the universe. Just as the Romans couldn't imagine what would come after that their empire was gone, for us it is impossible to imagine what will come after us. We can only perceive that something enormous is stirring. Now we see it through the glass of our models, darkly: but then we will see it face to face.

(*) I had started this post with the idea of writing a review of Testot's book, but as I kept writing, the text grew by itself and it became something else. But, about "Cataclysms," by all means it is a great book -- not just dealing with catastrophic events but giving you an organic view of history, full of concepts and ideas that you cannot find anywhere else. By all means, do read it! It will change the way you see the world.

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 forces on a somewhat "even" footing -- that is not a military cakewalk -- 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