Welcome to the age of diminishing returns

Friday, August 29, 2014

Climate change: would Cli-Fi help?

This novel by Jim Laughter (2011) is mostly forgettable, but at least it may be a start for a new genre.

They say that Americans spend almost three hours per day watching TV, which seems to be the world record. That means that a large fraction of their time while awake is spent into a fictional universe which has little to do with reality (that includes most of what is referred to as "news"). That may be the reason why Americans are the least concerned in the world about the threat of climate change. Apparently, fiction easily trumps reality, at least as long as the hurricane doesn't flood your house or the forest fire vaporizes it.

Apart from extreme cases, indeed, fighting fiction with reality is a hopeless task. Scientists know (or should know) this very well. For decades, they have been trying to convince the public that climate change is a serious problem and they have been doing that by writing incomprehensible papers that nobody even tries to read. No wonder that they had no success facing the fossil fuel lobby, which, instead, as been spinning one fancy tale after another; from the "hide the decline" conspiracy, to the "you forgot to take into account water vapor" accusation. Unless the public is hit hard by the consequence of climate change, they will always prefer a fancy tale to hard facts. And, even then, when reality strikes in the form of the various climate related disasters, they have other priorities rather than worrying about reducing their carbon footprint.

So, it seems that in the clash of fantasy and reality, reality usually succumbs, at least in the short run. Then, can we fight fiction with fiction? Could we transform climate change in a tale? Can we spur action on the basis of a tale? In principle, it should not be impossible: people act on the basis of their worldview and this worldview is normally largely based on narrative; just think about the current predominant vision, the one that says that liberism and the free market will solve all problems. Is it based on hard facts? Not at all, it is pure fiction.

So, a number of attempts at a new literary genre that goes under the name of "Climate Fiction", or "cli-fi" may explore the concept that dramatizing climate change could make it understandable to normal people. Does it work? Well, so far the attempts seen in this field have been less than memorable. One example comes to mind; "the day after tomorrow" of which it was said that "This movie is to climate science as Frankenstein is to heart transplant surgery." In terms of Cli-Fi novels, we seem to be gearing up for something interesting but, so far, the list of recent ones is very short and not especially impressive.

A cli-fi novel that I read recently is "Polar City Red", by Jim Laughter, published in 2009 by Deadly Niche Press. As a novel, it is, ahem....  let's say that it is not among the best novels I can think of. It starts from a reasonable - although not very original - premise; the idea that governments secretly created "polar colored cities" (of which the one of the title is the "Red" one) where a small number of people were to take refuge to escape the disaster created by global warming. But the development of the story is all based on cardboard characters and on a plot which goes nowhere and which has holes as big as a Siberian methane crater. If we really want to find something nice about this novel, let's say that if it is to be a start of a new genre, it is not really worse than the pulp fiction of the 1930s, which gave rise to what was later called "science fiction." After all, you have to start from somewhere!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

UFO: a knowledge problem

For those of us who have lived the whole cycle of the UFO phenomenon, I highly recommend "The UFO phenomenon" a book by John Greer, "The Archdruid". The book is also summarized in a post of his.

Greer is a lucid thinker, an excellent analyst, and his knowledge is truly encyclopedic. The result is a book that, as it could have been expected (and as he himself describes) "managed the not inconsiderable feat of offending both sides of the UFO controversy. It did so by the simple expedient of setting aside the folk mythology that’s been heaped up with equal enthusiasm by true believers in extraterrestrial visitation and true believers in today’s fashionable pseudoskeptical debunkery."

It is not often that a book can change one's worldview, but this one did that for me on several points. Greer is completely right in noting that the UFO phenomenon - as others - have given rise to a wave of "pseudoskeptical debunkery." The concept is that often scientifically minded people have gone too far in their criticism of anything that appears to be outside what we consider the realms of science.

One of the problems considered by Greer is disinformation, that is the willful distortion and misrepresentation of the data. It is something that plays an important role every time we move away from phenomena which can be comfortably reproduced in a laboratory. But scientists have usually no training and no experience in recognizing disinformation and dealing with it. They just tend to ignore it, and are easy victims of its effects. On this point, the discussion in Greer's book is excellent and brings overwhelming support to his conclusion that the UFO phenomenon is mainly the result of disinformation created by the US military.

Another point raised by Greer is how the debate on UFOs has been framed using different views on how to obtain knowledge (if you like, it is an epistemological problem). Believers in the extraterrestrial origins of UFO have been using rhetorical methods, debunkers have been using the scientific method. Greer correctly notes that there is an abyss of difference in the two methods. Science tries to verify a theory by falsifying it and just one experiment that goes against the theory will destroy it. Rhetoric attempts to buttress a theory by piling up positive results and neglecting negative ones. When we get to debating UFOs, debunkers are at a definite disadvantage as they have to prove that all sightings are illusions, or hoaxes, or known flying objects. It can't work.

So, if someone says that he has seen strange lights in the sky, it is silly to feel that a scientist's duty is to automatically dismiss that by saying that it was just the planet Venus or something like that. That doesn't mean that we have to cede to the tsunami of pseudoscience diffusing all over the infosphere, but science will lose credibility if it continues operating in the "automatic debunking mode". (See, for instance, this post by Paula). And if science loses credibility, it will become more and more difficult to demolish even clearly flawed claims, for  instance about low temperature nuclear fusion.

The epistemological problems that Greer raises is profound and important. Suppose that there existed alien intelligences, and that it were possible to contact them, would the scientific method be suitable to study them? Hardly so, at least beyond a trivial level. Even studying the behavior of our own species - which we know to exist - turns out to be extremely difficult and easily affected by disinformation campaigns, as it has happened to "The Limits to Growth" study in 1972 and is happening now for climate science.

Modern science was born to study the motion of planets and to solve all kinds of mechanical problems. But, in time, we have been discovering how complex the universe is. Think just about this: we have good models telling us how human activity is changing the climate. But we have no good models telling us how to convince humankind that it is crucial to stop doing the things that create climate change. Clearly, we are missing something and something very important, which the scientific method can hardly deal with. The story of the UFO phenomenon is a reminder that we need - as always - to go beyond the old paradigms.

A previous post of mine on the UFO phenomenon.

h/t Corvide

Saturday, August 23, 2014

"Peak UFO": the decline of a cultural cycle

Peak UFO: Results of a query for "unidentified flying objects" in the JSTOR database, a collection of scientific journals. The number of articles mentioning the "UFO" concept is an indication of the scientific interest in the field. It peaked in the late 1960s and declined afterward.

When I came to age, in the early 1970s, the concept of UFO, unidentified flying object, was well entrenched in the worldview of the time. A worldview that included science fiction, space exploration, and UFOs together; a triad of different facets of the same idea: that space was the "new frontier" as President Kennedy said in 1960s, or the "final frontier" as it was repeated at the start of every episode of the first series of "Star Trek".

Time has passed, and the frontier has turned out to be too difficult to reach. After the moment of enthusiasm of the post-war years, space exploration turned out to be too expensive for a society which started to be burdened by the growing costs of mineral depletion and of pollution. With the final frontier becoming more and more remote, science fiction abandoned the genre of space conquest, moving toward epic fantasy and pseudo-medieval settings. And UFOs seemed to recede below the threshold of consciousness of the media.

But did UFOs really disappear? This summer, following a suggestion by "Corvide", I went back to this arm of the space triad of the 1960 and I read 

two books. One is "The UFO Phenomenon: Fact, Fantasy and Disinformation" by John Michael Greer (AKA, the Archdruid), the other "UFOs for the 21st century mind", by Richard M. Dolan.

Both are recent books which attempt to evaluate the whole UFO cycle from its beginnings, that we may take as the late 1940s (even though the phenomenon is much older). Of the two, Greer's book is by far the better. Greer is skeptical about UFOs intended as manifestations of extraterrestrial entities, but the most fascinating part of his study is not so much about that. It is the part dedicated to how the UFO story was the origin and the test bed of the disinformation techniques which were ten extensively used over and over, in particular by the US intelligence. Greer's book deserves a complete discussion which I'll try to tackle in a future post. Here, instead, I'll give space to Dolan's book which is also fascinating, but for completely different reasons.

About "UFOs for the 21st century mind" let me say that if there ever was an example of the concept of "beating around the bush" this is it. The book goes on for almost 500 pages (472 to be exact) of case after case of people claiming the strangest things seen in the sky or on the ground, but never the author feels the need to define what we are talking about. What does Mr. Dolan think UFOs are? To find some kind of an answer, we must go to chapter 10, where we find, buried in the mass of the book, a mere 29 pages of discussion on this fundamental question. And a very unsatisfactory discussion it is: we are told of the Hollywood-style features of the "Grays" and of weird speculations such as the fact that these creatures might be working at a long term breeding program for the creation of human-alien hybrids (p. 379).

The fascination with Dolan's book lies all there: in this startling contrast between a large number of claims that there is "something" up there and the extreme poverty of the interpretations of what this "something" could be. It doesn't help that Mr. Dolan thinks that we are victim of a conspiracy which has the government hiding the truth from us; the book has a distinct feeling of being badly outdated. Reading it feels like reading a science fiction story of the 1950s, with its space heroes yielding blaster guns against the alien invaders. Is it possible that in more than half century of discussing UFOs we haven't progressed even just a bit, with the "Grays" of today replacing the "little green men" of the 1950s? But that seems to be where we stand.

Not that it is a fault of Dolan, nor of other UFO researchers. The problem may simply be impossible to deal with, even worse than that of the P vs. NP in mathematics. Let me explain: it is perfectly possible that there exist other civilizations, somewhere, and that these civilizations could be technologically much more advanced than ours. I also have no objections to the concept that these civilization could be neighboring us in ways that we cannot understand at present and being in contact with us occasionally, or even frequently.

Once this is stated, however, how do we proceed? So far, the most complex thing we know is the human brain and human brains have at least a fighting chance to study other, similar, brains. But what about something more complex (and perhaps much more complex)? We have at least one example of a high-tech civilization coming in contact with a low tech one. It was in the years during and after World War II, when the Melanesian islanders observed the arrival of the US army (and earlier on, of the Japanese army). The islanders were not stupid, but they totally misunderstood the meaning of what they were seeing. The result was the phenomenon that we know today as "Cargo Cult".

Then, consider what could happen if the difference in complexity and technological level were much higher. Imagine yourself as a honeybee: would you be able to understand that your hive was built by human beings for their purposes? Would you be able to even perceive the existence of human beings? You see what the problem is. So far, the study of entities more intelligent and more powerful than us has been reserved to the field we call "theology" which starts from assumption not exactly compatible with the scientific method as we know it nowadays.

This is the big problem with UFOs, probably an unsolvable one. Listing thousands (or even tens of thousands) of cases of "mysterious things flying above" (or landing from said above) is not useful. We are just accumulating a sort of "bestiary" of aliens, a compendium of the kind popular during the Middle Ages. But we are not progressing in the biology or the ecology of aliens. We don't even know if what we are seeing is real, although deformed by our limited capabilities of perception and understanding, or is an illusion, vanitas vanitatum, like the dragons and the sea serpents of medieval bestiaries.

In the end, it seems that the UFO phenomenon was the result of the culture of the times when it was born. A result of the optimism of the post-war years and of the diffusion of the concept of space as the new (or final) frontier. Once that concept started to vanish from our cultural horizon, the same destiny befell on the UFO phenomenon.  

Is it over, then? Are we really alone and we have just been dreaming of more powerful entities visiting us (and, perhaps, benevolent and merciful entities?). The absence of evidence is no evidence of absence, especially if we don't know what exactly should the "evidence" be. So, there may well be, out there, higher patterns that we can't understand but that we may dimly perceive. It has been said that now we see darkly, as in a mirror, but then we will see face to face. And, who knows? The only unsurprising thing about the future is that it is always full of surprises.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Italy: overshooting the bear

A poster in favor of the bear named Daniza, under threat of capture or suppression in Italy. It says "Leave alone Daniza and her cubs, otherwise I'll never come back to Trentino" (Trentino is the Northern region of Italy where the story is unfolding). Killing and destroying everything which is not under direct human control is the origin of the disaster called "overshoot". As long as people will not realize that there are limits to the human appropriation of resources on this planet, nothing will change.

If you like to show your support for Daniza and her cubs put your "like" on the Facebook page titled "Io sto con Daniza" (I am with Daniza)

The recent story of the bear called "Daniza" is typical of many stories of this kind. A few days ago, someone went looking for mushrooms in the woods of the Trentino region in Italy and stumbled onto this female bear and her two cubs. He wasn't smart enough to leave the place at the fastest possible speed, as he himself reported later. The alarmed bear decided to teach him a little lesson which, fortunately, left him almost unscathed, rather than consigning him to the records of the Darwin awards. Mother Daniza, apparently, limited herself to chasing the intruder away rather than using all her force against him, as she could have decided to do.

The result: cries of "shoot the bear!". Immediately after the incident, local politicians and local newspapers all seemed to agree on the need of killing Daniza. After a considerable reaction against this idea on the Web, the local government limited the proposed action to capturing the bear; which would probably condemn to death her two cubs. As I am writing, they are still trying to capture Daniza but, so far, she has managed to remain free with her cubs.

Despite the number of people expressing themselves in favor of Daniza and her two cubs, there remains the fact of this immediate and commonplace reaction: wilderness is a problem, wild animals are dangerous. Let's eliminate them and everything will be fine. Which is, after all, the way we tend to try to solve most problems: shoot or bomb the source of the trouble until (hopefully) the problem will disappear.

This attitude is widespread and it is, after all, the main reason for the phenomenon we call overshoot. Recognizing no limits to their action, humans want to appropriate every possible resource of the planetary ecosystem. Whatever opposes this action is ruthlessly eliminated. They don't realize that they are dependent on the ecosystem, rather than the reverse. So, the over-appropriation of the natural resources depletes them to the point that they can't reform fast enough to replace the losses. The result has a name: collapse. Killing Daniza the bear and her cub won't cause the world's economy to collapse, but it is an indication of an attitude which is leading us exactly there.

Here is a telling graph by xkcd showing how little wilderness has remained in the world. And we keep destroying it.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Italy: the story of the donkey and the economist

Italy's "Energy Efficiency" plotted as a ratio of the GDP (constant dollars) to the energy consumption (data from the World Bank)

There is an old story in Italy (but also in other Mediterranean regions) that tells of a man who tried to train his donkey to work without food. So, he gradually reduced the beast's daily ration of hay. Later on, the man reported that, unfortunately, the donkey had died just when it had learned to go without any food at all.

The man of the story must have been an economist. He was trying to optimize the system and he had defined the "efficiency" of the donkey as the ratio of the work performed divided by the amount of hay consumed. He had found that reducing the amount of hay improved efficiency and, with impeccable logic, had brought the idea to its natural conclusion.

Something similar seems to be taking place with the economy of whole countries. Economists define as "efficiency" the ratio of the GDP produced per unit of energy consumed. Noting that this ratio has been increasing for many Western economies during the past decades, they conclude that economies are becoming more and more efficient. They even speak of "decoupling", noting that the GDP can keep increasing while the energy consumption remains constant - or decreases. This is supposed to be a wonderful thing.

Unfortunately, the problems with this optimistic interpretation appear stark clear with the case of Italy. Notice, in the graph above, how this "efficiency" shot up just when the Italian economy started to collapse, with a decline in GDP, loss of more than 25% of the Italian industrial production, massive increase in unemployment and all the related disasters. (See here, and here for reports about the post-peak Italian economy)

The increase in efficiency shown by the graph is a pure illusion. The Italian economy is not becoming more efficient but, simply, contracting. Industries are closing down and people become unemployed. As a consequence, less energy is consumed in manufacturing and for transportation. At the same time, other elements of the economic system, say, rents or property taxes, remain relatively unaffected; government spending, for instance, tends to go up. Hence, the GDP doesn't decrease as fast as energy consumption and the ratio of the two increases (*). Obviously, that's nothing to be happy about. 

Concepts such as "efficiency" and "decoupling" seem to be based on highly aggregated parameters; too much to provide a useful interpretation of what's happening in a country's economy. That doesn't mean that the economy cannot get more efficient with time, just as a donkey may learn to work even with a reduced hay reaction. But, without energy, and especially without cheap and abundant energy, an economy simply starves and, eventually, it suffers the fate of the donkey of the story.

(*) The increase in the GDP/energy consumption ratio can be simulated by a dynamic model and it can be shown that it is just an effect of the time lag in the process of transformation of natural resources into capital. But that will take another post to explain.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Steam trains will never replace horses

Don't you have this feeling that it is becoming more and more queer to keep repeating the same old, stale sentence, "Renewable energy will never be able to replace fossil fuels"?

From The Telegraph

Global solar dominance in sight as science trumps fossil fuels

Solar power will slowly squeeze the revenues of petro-rentier regimes in Russia, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia. They will have to find a new business model, or fade into decline 

new PS20 solar plant which was inaugurated last month at

There are already 19 regional markets around the world in which PV solar panels can match or undercut local electricity prices without subsidy Photo: Reuters
Solar power has won the global argument. Photovoltaic energy is already so cheap that it competes with oil, diesel and liquefied natural gas in much of Asia without subsidies.
Roughly 29pc of electricity capacity added in America last year came from solar, rising to 100pc even in Massachusetts and Vermont. "More solar has been installed in the US in the past 18 months than in 30 years," says the US Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA). California's subsidy pot is drying up but new solar has hardly missed a beat.

The technology is improving so fast - helped by the US military - that it has achieved a virtous circle. Michael Parker and Flora Chang, at Sanford Bernstein, say we entering a new order of "global energy deflation" that must ineluctably erode the viability of oil, gas and the fossil fuel nexus over time. In the 1980s solar development was stopped in its tracks by the slump in oil prices. By now it has surely crossed the threshold irreversibly.

The ratchet effect of energy deflation may be imperceptible at first since solar makes up just 0.17pc of the world's $5 trillion energy market, or 3pc of its electricity. The trend does not preclude cyclical oil booms along the way. Nor does it obviate the need for shale fracking as a stop-gap, for national security reasons or in Britain's case to curb a shocking current account deficit of 5.4pc of GDP.

But the technology momentum goes only one way. "Eventually solar will become so large that there will be consequences everywhere," they said. This remarkable overthrow of everthing we take for granted in world energy politics may occur within "the better part of a decade".

If the hypothesis is broadly correct, solar will slowly squeeze the revenues of petro-rentier regimes in Russia, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia, among others. Many already need oil prices near $100 a barrel to cover their welfare budgets and military spending. They will have to find a new business model, or fade into decline.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Peak mileage and the diminishing returns of technology

This graph, from "economonitor," is very interesting because it contains so much relevant information. (However, note one detail: the title of the graph, "Miles Driven" is somewhat misleading; it should be "mileage", as the text of the post clearly says.) The relation of mileage to hourly wages is a parameter worth examining because it tells us a lot about the "systemic" efficiency of road transportation. What kind of efficiency can we actually afford?

Now, the graph shows a clear "peak mileage" which occurred around the year 2000, when Americas could afford the highest mileage from their cars in history. It was an efficiency peak of the road transportation system. But then, this efficiency diminished. How can we explain that?

The data of the graph depend on three factors 1) the cost of gasoline, 2) the average hourly wage, and 3) the average mileage of cars. Let see first the behavior of oil prices, which determine gasoline prices.

You see how oil prices spiked twice during the past 50 years, with the first and the second (ongoing) oil shocks. Amazingly, after the start of the first oil crisis, the mileage per hour worked increased, despite the steep price increases. But the opposite took place with the second oil crisis, mileage per hour worked rapidly decreased. Something must have compensated the price increase during the first crisis, but that is not occurring during the second. Why?

Of the other two parameters involved in the mileage curve, hourly wages play only a minor role. In real terms, wages have remained more or less constant in the US since the early 1970s, as you can see in this graph (source: income inequality)


What changed a lot in this period is the technology of cars. The first oil shock in the 1970s was, indeed, a shock. People reacted by actively seeking for technological solutions which would increase the mileage of their cars. And these solutions were easy to find: simply reducing the size and the weight of the monster gas guzzlers of the 1960s did the job. Look at these data (source):

You see how quickly mileage increased throughout the 1970s - it nearly doubled in less than 10 years! And you can see how quickly people forgot about the oil problem once prices collapsed in the second half of the 1980s. The graph also shows that, with the second oil crisis, mileage restarted to increase, but by far not as fast as in the 1970s. There is a reason: it is difficult to optimize something already optimized. This we call 'diminishing returns of technological progress."

In the end, it looks like the "peak mileage" of the late 1990s is the real one. In the future, the a combination of factors which led to the peak will never return. Oil depletion is destined to make oil less and less affordable, even though market oscillations may hide this phenomenon. Wages are unlikely to grow in real terms after having been static for the past 40 years. And technological miracles are unlikely. Even the Toyota Prius, technological marvel of our times, can only bring us back to where we were 15 years ago in terms of mileage per hour worked. As long as we remain within the paradigm of "road vehicle powered by a combustion engine" we have reached the limit of what we can do.

The result of the reduced overall efficiency of transportation we can see in this last graph (from advisorperspectives). In the US; people are driving less. Perhaps there are behavioral factors involved, but "peak mileage" suggest that they are doing that because they can't afford to drive more.

h/t Giorgio Mastrorocco