Welcome to the age of diminishing returns

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter thougths: the tale of the three rings


(image source)


 A little Easter reflection on nuclear weapons and an old story from the Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio.

I spent most of this Easter reading the recent book by Ron Rosenbaum How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III. A painful reminder that the threat of nuclear war has not gone away with the end of the cold war. Today, with about 10,000 operational nuclear warheads still existing and with weapons spreading to more and more countries; the risk of war is probably larger than ever. 

And we know more, now, about the effect of even a limited nuclear war. The concept of "nuclear winter" has been demonized and laughed off as an obvious mistake but new calculations show that the threat is real - very real. There is a threshold, somewhere around a few hundreds to several hundred bombs detonated, where the aerosol generated by the explosions cools the atmosphere enough to destroy all crops for several years. That would mean the death of billions of human beings; the destruction of civilization and, perhaps, even the extinction of the human species. What has been called the "second holocaust" is for everybody.

One such war could start because a few madmen think that the Lord has given them the right to destroy humankind. Against this threat, there is only one hope: that of learning to live together. So, here is an old story by the Italian Renaissance writer Giovanni Boccaccio who understood this point very well. If you have five minutes, read it - it is a glimmer of hope that comes from a long time ago.

Happy Easter, everybody!

___________________________________________

Giovanni Boccaccio: the tale of the three rings

       Saladin was so brave and great a man, that he had raised himself from an inconsiderable station, to be Suhan of Babylon, and had gained many victories over both Turkish and Christian princes. This monarch, having in divers wars, and by many extraordinary expenses, run through all his treasure, some urgent occasion fell out that he wanted a large sum of money. 

       Not knowing which way he might raise enough to answer his necessities, he at last called to mind a rich Jew of Alexandria, named Melchizedeck, who let out money at interest. Him he believed to have wherewithal to serve him ; but then he was so covetous, that he would never do it willingly, and Saladin was loath to force him. But as necessity has no law, after much thinking which way the matter might best be effected, he at last resolved to use force under some colour of reason. 

       He therefore sent for the Jew, received him in a most gracious manner, and making him sit down, thus addressed him: "Worthy man, I hear from divers persons that thou art very wise and knowing in religious matters ; wherefore I would gladly know from thee which religion thou judgest to be the true one, viz., the Jewish, the Mahometan, or the Christian ?*' 

       The Jew (truly a wise man) found that Saladin had a mind to trap him, and must gain his point should he exalt any one of the three religions above the others ; after considering, therefore, for a little how best to avoid the snare, his ingenuity at last supplied him with the following answer :

" The question which your Highness has proposed is very curious; and, that I may give you my sentiments, I must beg leave to tell a short story. I remember often to have heard of a great and rich man, who among his most rare and precious jewels, had a ring of exceeding beauty and value.  


Being proud of possessing a thing of such worth, and desirous that it should continue for ever in his family, he declared, by will, that to whichsoever of his sons he should give this ring, him he designed for his heir, and that he should be respected as the head of the family. That son to whom the ring was given, made the same law with respect to his descendants, and the ring passed from one to another in long succession, till it came to a person who had three sons, all virtuous and dutiful to their father, and all equally beloved by him. Now the young men knowing what depended upon the ring, and ambitious of superiority, began to entreat their father, who was now grown old, every one for himself, that he would give the ring to him. 

The good man, equally fond of all, was at a loss which to prefer ; and, as he had promised all, and wished to satisfy all, he privately got an artist to make two other rings, which were so like the first, that he himself scarcely knew the true one. When he found his end approaching, he secretly gave one ring to each of his sons ; and they, after his death, all claimed the honour and estate, each disputing with his brothers, and producing his ring; and the rings were found so much alike, that the true one could not be distinguished. To law then they went, as to which should succeed, nor is that question yet decided. 

And thus it has happened, my Lord, with regard to the three laws given by God the Father, concerning which you proposed your question : every one believes he is the true heir of God, has his law, and obeys his commandments; but which is in the right is uncertain, in like manner as with the rings."

        Saladin perceived that the Jew had very cleverly escaped the net which was spread for him : he therefore resolved to discover his necessity to him, and see if he would lend him money, telling him at the same time what he had designed to do, had not that discreet answer prevented him. The Jew freely supplied the monarch with what he wanted ; and Saladin afterwards paid him back in full, made him large presents, besides maintaining him nobly at his court, and was his friend as long as he lived.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Italy's nuclear rollercoaster: the government scraps nuclear energy for the second time



Italy is a curious country for many reasons. One is its attitude towards nuclear energy, that has been going up and down in the government's programs like a true rollercoaster.


Back in the 1960s, Italy had an ambitious nuclear program; one of the most advanced in the world. Then, something happened in the 1970s that made the nuclear industry the target of some powerful political forces. After a struggle that lasted about a decade, nuclear energy in Italy was officially killed by a popular referendum that took place in 1987. In the 1990s, Italy was the only country in the world that dismantled perfectly functioning nuclear plants.

In the 2000s, the pendulum swung in the opposite direction. In 2008, Mr. Berlusconi's party won the national elections and rapidly embarked in a new nuclear program that involved building at least four nuclear plants and perhaps four more. And now, suddenly, the plan has been shelved again by a new bill that scraps all the previous decrees on nuclear energy.

The reason for this sudden policy reversal is commonly said to be related to the need to avoid the popular referendum on nuclear energy set for June of this year. After the Fukushima disaster, it is almost certain that the referendum would have resulted in the defeat of the government's nuclear plans. But there may have been other reasons; in particular the high cost of the plan that had been recently declared to be "too expensive" by the Italian finance minister, Mr. Tremonti.

So, Italy has been a true rollercoaster for nuclear energy: killed by law at least two times in a few decades; surely a unique case in the world. But are we seeing now the final demise of the idea of nuclear plants in Italy? Perhaps not: the recent government decree may simply be a stop to nuclear energy, not its definitive disappearance. After the effect of the Fukushima disaster is over, it is not impossible that we'll see the government's nuclear rollercoaster restarting its ride. Italy is a curious country, indeed.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Shale gas: the problem with EROEI


Carcinogenic chemicals associated with the extraction of shale gas have raised great concern. But perhaps there are worse problems as recent results indicate that gas losses during extraction by "fracking"  may generate great damage in terms if global warming.


The idea that fossil fuel depletion might be a cure for global warming has been around for quite a while. With time, the interaction of climate change and depletion has become a small field of study that I tried to review in a post on TOD titled "Fire or Ice?" Some recent entries in the field are a paper by Chiari and Zecca (in Italian) and one by Ward et al. on "Hydrology and Earth System Science."

In general, one would expect that depletion would ease the climate problem and this is, indeed, the opinion of several (possibly most) of the authors who have studied the question. Of course, depletion doesn't mean "running out" of a resource. Rather, the effect of depletion on production is best understood in terms of energy return on energy invested (EROEI). As a resource is progressively depleted, extraction must move to more expensive (lower EROEI) sources. That increases the price of the resource, lowers the demand and, eventually, causes production to decline. So, lower production means less greenhouse gases emitted and that is good for the atmosphere.

However, there is a problem: EROEI does not measure how "dirty" a fuel is, in particular in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. Hence, even depletion may not be a solution to the climate problem (this point was made, among others, by Zecca and Chiari.) A recent paper by Howarth et al. to be published in "Climatic Change" (see also a review on the BBC site) is adding - almost literally - fuel to the fire by examining the emission of shale gas extracted by the fracking process.

As well known, "shale gas" is the new resource that is promising to bring us nothing less than "a new era of abundance" ("unless politicians and environmentalists get their way.") Unfortunately, even if this new era were real (and there are serious doubts about this point) it comes with strings attached; and what strings! The study by Howarth and his coauthors arrives to the conclusion that shale gas might be a true disaster for the environment.

Natural gas is composed mainly of methane (CH4) which is a potent greenhouse gas. Because of the higher ratio of hydrogen to carbon, it is true that natural gas produces less CO2 than other fuels when burned. But the extraction, processing, and transportation of gas is never perfectly tight and a certain amount of gas always is lost into the atmosphere. In time, atmospheric CH4 is transformed into CO2 and its warming effect is reduced; but it never disappears.

After an examination of various sources of losses, Howarth and coauthors conclude that:

Summing all estimated losses, we calculate that during the life cycle of an average shale-gas well, 3.6 to 7.9% of the total production of the well is emitted to the atmosphere as methane (Table 2). This is at least 30% more and perhaps more than twice as great as the life-cycle methane emissions we estimate for conventional gas, 1.7% to 6%.

Here are the results in graphic form for a 20 year time horizon. For a 100 year case, emissions from shale gas look less dramatically higher than the others, but are still very important.
(Note that the scale of the figure says "Grams Carbon per MJ", but it seems clear from the text that the authors are not simply reporting the mass but the warming potential of the gases).

Of course, the data and the assumptions of the study can be criticized; as done in a recent paper on Scientific American.  On the whole, however, its conclusions make sense: the complex operation of "fracking"is much more prone to gas losses than the simpler extraction of conventional gas. This is bound to generate more global warming.

What is striking in the paper by Howarth and the others is that shale gas does not seem to be so expensive in EROEI terms; that is in terms of the higher amount of energy needed for extraction. So, we are facing a fundamental shortcoming in the way we account for costs and benefits of what we are doing. In monetary terms, shale gas seems to be a good deal. In EROEI (energy) terms it is probably less good but it may still provide a positive return. It is in environmental terms - in the so called "external costs" that shale gas is a disaster. We don't have enough data to show that this is a general case - that is, if what is happening with natural gas is happening with all energy resources. But, if this is the case, our problem is not that the EROEIs of fossil fuels are too low; they might be too high!

So, it may be that society is reacting to scarcity in the wrong way by following a path that is perhaps easing the situation in the short term (getting more energy) but horribly worsening the problem in the medium/long term (global warming). If it were true that shale gas will bring a "new era of abundance" in terms of energy, then we risk to move toward a climate disaster: runaway global warming. But we just can't see it coming; we lack the necessary accounting tools, we don't have the appropriate decisional structures. So, we are blithely moving onwards (anyone said "lemmings?")

So, what do we do? Right now, with a wave of rampant climate denialism engulfing about everything in the debate, the idea that we can stop fracking by traditional method of international climate treaties seems to be unthinkable (and that should be clear also from this article on the Weekly Standard). Even more unthinkable is that we could do it by telling people to install high efficiency light bulbs. So, the only hope we have to avoid a climate disaster is to beat shale gas in its own terms: economic ones. Don't forget that shale gas may well be abundant, but it is also expensive in monetary and energy terms. So, if we can deploy renewable technologies that produce electricity at a lower price than gas, then there is a chance that shale gas will stay where it is: underground.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

I am Gagarin, son of the earth


While we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first human orbital flight, it is worth remembering also the dog Laika who gave her life to show us the path to space.



50 years after the first spaceflight, the epic story of Yuri Gagarin today has a melancholic ring. With the last flight of the space shuttle planned for this year, it may be that the human adventure in space ends exactly half a century after that it had started. To travel to space we need resources that we don't have any longer and that is the unavoidable result of peak oil and of the start of the decline of our civilization. But everything goes in cycles and everything that happens had to happen. Who knows, though, one day we may dream of space again.

To commemorate Gagarin, I would like to propose a poem about him written by the Russian author Evgeny Yevtushenko that I am taking from Marco Pagani's blog "Ecoalfabeta."  Curiously, it seems that it has never been translated into English; so I am translating the first section of it (from Italian: it will not be a perfect translation but I hope it conveys the meaning of the poem).


I am Gagarin, son of the Earth
Evgeny Yevtushenko, 1969

I am Gagarin.
The first to fly,
and you flew after me.
I have been given
forever to sky and earth
as son of humankind.
In that april
the faces of the stars, freezing without caressing
covered with musk and rust
became hot
for the red freckles of Smolensk
risen up to the sky.
But freckles are gone.
How terrible it is,
being nothing more than a bronze, a shadow,
not being able to caress the grass or a child
nor to hear the squeaking of a little gate in a garden.
Under the black scar of a postal stamp
I am smiling to you
with a smile long gone.
But look at postcards and stamps
and you will understand:
Forever
I am flying.

(rest of the poem, in Italian)

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Interview with the designer of the "Nuclear? No Thanks" logo


The original version, in Danish, of the "Nuclear Power? No thanks" logo that was created in 1975 by Anne Lund and Søren Lisberg. Here are some comments and an interview with Lisberg on this interesting story from a "pre-Chernobyl" era of opposition to nuclear power.


In about three decades, from the early 1950 to the early 1980s, the public perception of nuclear energy went through a complete reversal. Initially, nuclear energy had been regarded as a great hope for the future, as it had been described in the "Atoms for Peace" speech given by president Eisenhower in 1953. Shortly afterwards, in 1954, Lewis Strauss spoke of nuclear power as "energy too cheap to meter". In 1957, Walt Disney launched a successful book and a movie titled "Our friend, the atom" describing the gifts of prosperity, health and peace that the new atomic technologies would bring to us.

The 1960s were a period of rapid growth of nuclear energy but, with the 1970s, the general opinion on the technology was rapidly changing with the growing concern about the absurd numbers of nuclear weapons stockpiled by the superpowers, USA and URSS. With tens of thousands of warheads available, the world was in the grip of the "MAD" strategy: mutually assured destruction. As a consequence, in the 1970s, there started to appear a diffuse movement of opposition to nuclear weapons.

Initially, the anti-nuclear movement had nuclear weapons as its main target. Gradually, however, the tide turned against nuclear power as well; an industry that was perceived to be strictly linked to military applications. We tend to think that the turning point in the public perception was with the Chernobyl incident, in 1986, but opposition to nuclear power had started much earlier. One of the most successful pre-Chernobyl anti nuclear campaigns was created in Denmark in 1975 by Anne Lundberg and Søren Lisberg who created the slogan "Nuclear Power? No Thanks" written around the "smiling sun" symbol.

It would be way too much to attribute the problems of the nuclear industry to a slogan and to a smiling sun but, surely, the "Nuclear? No Thanks" message had an effect in generating widespread opposition to nuclear energy. Indeed, the symbol is a true masterpiece of communication: simple, clear, and effective. Its negative message against nuclear energy is balanced with a symbol of hope, the smiling sun, that carries an optimistic message while hinting to a solution to the energy problem. No wonder that it has been so successful and that, in various forms, it has accompanied the environmental movement along its whole history. The "Nuclear? No thanks" logo is still with us more than 30 years after its first appearance.

It is surprising that this incredibly successful logo was the result of the work of two young persons who had no previous experience in graphic design or media communication. Apparently, the idea came as "a gift from God" as Søren Lisberg, one of the designers, says in this interview that he has kindly accepted to give for the blog "Cassandra's Legacy".

Here is the interview (questions are in italics)


1. First of all, Mr. Lisberg, thanks for kindly agreeing to answer my questions. So, to start this interview, could you tell us something about yourself? You are well known for having invented the "Nuclear? No thanks" slogan, together with Anne Lund, back in 1975. But we would like to know a little more about your background, how you came to know Anne Lund, how the idea of making the symbol&slogan came. And, after that, what was your career, and what are you doing now?


Anne Lund and I designed the "Nuclear power? No Thanks" slogan in April 1975 and the first printed versions were sold on May 1st 1975, on the International Workers day. About me, I am currently 58 years old, working with children - I am a pedagogical teacher in my everyday job. I met Anne when we both had committed ourselves in the anti-nuclear movement which, in Denmark, was called OOA (Information on nuclear power). The idea for the logo "Nuclear power? - No thanks, " was born because we needed something that would allow ordinary people to show their opposition to nuclear power in a friendly and sober way. The slogan should convey happiness and the sun was chosen as the symbol because the sun is earth's force - without our sun, life on Earth would not exist - so a happy sun with a friendly text. The very words "no thanks" I remember from my grandmother who taught me to say thanks and no thanks to be polite. I have not made other logos and my career has been with the children - and my commitment to how we treat Mother Earth. I have found much inspiration in pedagogy from Florence (region Emilia) and I have been on a study tour down in Italy. Besides wonderful art, Italy has a unique view of children, which many in Denmark share, including myself.


2. Could you tell us something about the intellectual background of when the "Nuclear? No thanks" slogan was invented? What was the status of the green movement, how was nuclear energy perceived at that time, what you thought it could be accomplished with that action, etcetera.

In Denmark, the population has never voted on nuclear power, but our movement OOA and the small label "Nuclear power? - No thanks," together with the majority of the population convinced politicians of taking the sane action of not introducing nuclear power in Denmark. We had at that time, in 1975, a high school named Tvind in Denmark, students in that school built the world's largest wind turbine of the time, inaugurated in front of 400 people on Tvind May 29, 1975. So, in Denmark there was an incipient awareness of where we should get our energy from in the future if we said no to nuclear power, we could suggest other sources of energy - it was wind, solar, wave energy. Our struggle against nuclear power put us in contrast with many people but, to our great fortune, there was also an engineer who could help us in our reasoning against nuclear power. We held public meetings at schools and libraries, spent our free time to talk and argue against nuclear power.

3. Could you tell us something specific about how the slogan/symbol was conceived? Where you influenced by other symbols, ideas? Had you tried other, different ones before coming up with this specific one?

As previously written the idea came as a godsend - we were not inspired by any other slogan, we had no other ideas in play, only a short dialogue about the sun and the friendly no thanks. Anne suggested the yellow color because in shops in Denmark we are always greeted by a black lettering on yellow background.


4. What was that made you focus on nuclear as a target of action? Did you conceive possible alternatives, (say, "Coal? No thanks" or, maybe "Concrete? No thanks")?

When we, then and now, focus on nuclear power it is due to the hazard of the technology, (the accidents that occurred in the world have unfortunately proven us correct here). The problems of storing the radioactive waste was and is another problem. With regard to coal, this is also a big problem, especially emissions of CO2, therefore we in Denmark have also bet big on wind energy and Denmark has just adopted a plan which aims to make the country independent of fossil fuels. But this plan is not ambitious enough to be much more than what our government and the EU plan - but it's a step.


5. More than 30 years after that the slogan "Nuclear? No thanks" was conceived, how do you judge it? Do you think it was effective? Would you do that again? And what is your judgement on the present situation; about nuclear energy, the overall energy situation and the future for humanity?

The slogan "Nuclear power? - No Thanks"  celebrates its 36th birthday in April 2011 and I think it has fully proven its worth: it is viable, it is meaningful and it has been translated into 45 national and regional languages, sold 20 million copies, in addition to appearing on banners, t-shirts, stickers, etc. The Danish National museum has exhibited copies of the logo, as well as the great museums in Berlin, Amsterdam, London, which have collections of the slogan. A Basque group of mountain climbers placed a flag with a Basque version of the Smiling Sun on top of Mt. Everest. In Århus a 12 meter large out-door wall painting of the Smiling Sun is still kept in good shape. On your question "if I would do it again" my answer is clearly yes - the world today shows us that something must be done before it is too late (Japan). I often wonder - why do we spend so much energy ? - does it make us happy ? - will our world be still there in the future? - will our children be smarter ? The people in this world must seriously discuss the problem of energy wasting - we must educate our children to think about energy and we must tell our politicians that they must make decisions that benefit the next three generations and not just our own.

As a final comment from me, Anne and I have never earned a dollar on the slogan "Nuclear ? - No thanks". All the money earned has gone to the battle against nuclear power over large parts of the earth.

Søren Lisberg

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The cuckoo that won't sing. Sustainability and Japanese culture


Many elements of Japanese culture have taken a stable foothold in the West. One is Judo (the figure above shows Kano Jigoro, founder of modern Judo) but there are many others in figurative art, literature, philosophy and other fields. Here, I discuss what we can learn from Japanese culture in terms of sustainability, referring in particular to the "Edo Period" from about 1600 AD to mid 19th century. The Japanese society of that period is one of the few historical examples we have of a "steady state" economy. How did the Japanese managed to attain that? Here I am suggesting an explanation on the basis of the old Japanese story of  "the cuckoo that won't sing."


This is a version of a talk that I gave at the "Kosen Dojo" in Florence, Italy on March 26 2011. It is not a transcription, but a text written from memory where I try to maintain the style of a spoken presentation.


Ladies and gentlemen, let me say first of all that I gave many talks on energy and sustainability in my career, but this is the first time that I am giving one while sitting cross legged on the floor on a Japanese mat, a tatami. But, let me add, it is a real pleasure to do it, and it is a special pleasure to give it in a dojo, under the portrait of Kano Jigoro, the founder of modern Judo. Indeed, I used to be a judoka myself, although I must say it is a while that I don't practice. So, this place reminds me a lot of Japan, where I had a very nice time when I lived there, years ago and, as you all know, the recent events in Fukushima have highlighted the problem of energy and sustainability both in Japan and in the whole world.

The Japanese have suffered more than anybody else as the result of the way we have mismanaged atomic energy. It is a sad story that of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in 1945. Perhaps some of you has had a chance to visit those places - I visited both cities and I can tell you that the memory of those events is not something you can easily ignore. In comparison, the nuclear accident in Fukushima has been a small thing, of course.  But it remains difficult for us - intended as humankind - to manage nuclear energy. Maybe it is just too big and complex for us to manage.

Anyway, let's not go into the pros and cons of atomic energy; it is not what I wanted to discuss with you today. Rather, I think you might be interested in discussing a little about Japanese culture. The very fact that we are all sitting on the floor on a Japanese tatami, means that Japanese culture is influencing us; just as it has influenced Western culture in many fields - just think of manga! So, what I would like to do today is to discuss what we can learn from Japan in terms of sustainability.

So, let me start with something about the history of Japan. You surely know of the early "Heian" or "Imperial" period that started long ago; it was the "classical" period of Japanese history. Then, the Heian age gave way to a period of civil wars; the sengoku jidai, the period of the Samurai. Many movies have shown it as a romantic age, but I am sure the people who lived in it didn't find it very romantic; it was a period of continuous wars and it must have been very hard for everyone. Anyway, that historical phase was over when Tokugawa Ieyasu emerged as the winner of the struggle and he became the shogun, the ruler of all Japan. That was around the year 1600 and it started the "Edo" period which was much quieter. The Edo period lasted until Commodore Perry arrived with his "black ships" in mid 19th century and that started the modern period.

Now, the two centuries and a half of the Edo Period are very interesting in terms of sustainability. It was not just a period of peace; it was also a period of stable economy and of stable population. Actually, that is not completely true, population increasing during the first part of the Edo period, but when it arrived to about 30 million, it stayed nearly constant for almost two centuries. I don't know of another society in history that managed such a period of stability. It was an example of what we call today "steady state" economy.

The reason why most societies can't manage to reach a steady state is because it is very easy to overexploit the environment. It is not something that has to do just with fossil fuels. It is typical of agricultural societies, too. Cut too many trees and the fertile soil will be washed away by rain. And then, without fertile soil to cultivate, people starve. The result is collapse - a common feature of most civilizations of the past. Jared Diamond wrote about that in a book of a few years ago; titled, indeed "Collapse".

Now, there is an interesting point that Diamond makes about islands. On islands, he says, people have limited resources - much more limited than on continents - and their options are limited. When you run out of resources, say, of fertile soil, you can't migrate and you can't attack your neighbors to get resources from them. So, you can only adapt or die. Diamond cites several cases of small islands in the Pacific Ocean where adaptation was very difficult and the results have been dramatic, such as in the case of Easter Island. In some really small islands, adaptation was so difficult that the human population simply disappeared. Everybody died and that was it.

And that brings us to the case of Japan; an island, of course, although a big one. But some of the problems with resources must have been the same as in all islands. Japan doesn't have much in terms of natural resources. A lot of rain; mostly, but little else and rain can do a lot of damage if forests are not managed well. And, of course, space is limited in Japan and that means that there is a limit to population; at least as long as they have to rely only on local resources. So, I think that at some point in history the Japanese had reached the limit of what they could do with the space they had. Of course, it took time; the cycle was much longer than for a small island such as Easter Island. But it may well be the civil wars were a consequence of the Japanese society having reached a limit. When there is not enough for everyone, people tend to fight but that, of course, is not the way to manage scant resources. So, at some point the Japanese had to stop fighting, they had to adapt or die - and they adapted to the resources they had. That was the start of the Edo period.

In order to attain steady state, the Japanese had to manage well their resources and avoid wasting them. One thing they did was to get rid of the armies of the warring period. War is just too expensive for a steady state society. Then, they made big effort to maintain and increase their forests. You can read something on this point in Diamond's book. Coal from Kyushu may have helped a little in saving trees, but coal alone would not have been enough - it was the management of forests that did the trick. Forests were managed to the level of single trees by the government; a remarkable feat. Finally, the Japanese managed to control population. That was possibly the hardest part in an age when there were no contraceptives. From what I read, I understand that the poor had to use mainly infanticide and that must have been very hard for the Japanese, as it would be for us today. But the consequences of letting population grow unchecked would have been terrible; so they had to.

We tend to see a steady state economy as something very similar to our society, only a bit quieter. But Edo Japan was very different. Surely it was not paradise on earth. It was a highly regulated and hierarchical society where it would have been hard to find - perhaps even to imagine - such things as "democracy" or "human rights". Nevertheless, the Edo period was a remarkable achievement; a highly refined and cultured society. A society of craftsmen, poets, artists and philosophers. It created some of the artistic treasures we still admire today; from the katana sword to Basho's poetry.

So, the Japanese succeeded in creating a a highly refined society that managed to exist in a steady state for more than two centuries. I think there is no comparable case in history. Why did Japan succeed where many other societies in history had failed? Well, I think that being an island was a major advantage. It shielded (mostly) Japan from the ambitions of their neighbors and also from the temptation that the Japanese might have had to invade their neighbors. And if you are not so terribly afraid of being invaded (and you have no intention of invading anyone) then you have no reason to have a big army and so no reason to increase population. You can concentrate on sustainability and on managing what you have. Then, of course, when Commodore Perry and his black ships arrived Japan was not an island any more; in the sense that it was not any longer isolated from the rest of the world. So growth restarted. But, as long as Japan remained isolated, the economy remained in steady state and, as I said, it was a remarkable achievement.

But I don't think that the fact of being an island explains everything about the Edo period. I think, that it would not have been possible without a certain degree of wisdom. Or, perhaps, a more correct term in this case is "sapience."

Wisdom or sapience is not something that you can quantify or attribute to specific persons. But I think that Japan as a whole had attained a certain degree of - let's say - "enlightenment." Please, understand that I am referring to the Edo Period. I know very well that, today, Japan is just as ugly as most places in the Western World - polluted, overcrowded and full of ugly buildings. But, during the Edo Period they had developed a way of looking at the world that we still admire today, that is - in my opinion - embodied in Japanese poetry: a marvel of lightness, of perception of the detail, of love for the delicate little things of the impermanent world. But not just poetry - think of Judo according to Kano sensei. It is a way of life - a philosophy, a way of gaining wisdom. Judo is  a modern idea, of course, but it has its origins with the Edo period. As far as I understand, the Japanese attitude at that time was as far as possible from that monstrosity that we have today; that of the golem we call "homo economicus" who seriously thinks that a tree is worth nothing unless it is felled. If this is the way we see the world, we deserve to collapse and disappear. Wisdom cannot be a non renewable resource, but we seem to have been able to run out of it, too.

So, out of Japanese wisdom I think I would like to tell you a little story that has to do with the warring period, but that was surely invented during the gentler Edo Period. You probably know the names of the main leaders of the last phase of the civil wars in Japan: Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu. Eventually, it was Ieyasu who became shogun and the leader of all Japan. About how he managed to do that, there is this story which exists in the form of a "senryu", a short poem. It says that one day Nobunaga, Hideyoshi and Ieyasu got together and they saw a cuckoo bird that won't sing. So, Nobunaga said; "If it doesn't sing I'll kill it". But Hideyoshi said, "No; I'll convince it to sing" And Ieyasu said, "I'll wait until it sings"

I think this story is a nice illustration of how people of the Edo Period rationalized the events that led to their age. It says that the winning strategy is not violence and not even cunning. It is adaptation. The Japanese had understood that they could not force or cajole their island to behave the way they wanted - just as you can't force or cajole a cuckoo bird to sing. They had to adapt and they did. This, I think, is wisdom.

Now, one characteristic of wisdom is that it can be applied to different situations, different places, different times. Let's see how we can see this story in our age. Of course, we have big problems: not enough oil, not enough mineral resources, not enough water and not enough atmosphere to take in the results of burning oil. So, how do we react? Well, a little like Nobunaga. We tend to use violence and not just in terms of "oil wars". We try to force the earth to produce what we want. In a sense, it is like telling the bird "sing or I'll kill you". So, it is "drill, baby, drill" and we are willing do anything and use anything we can find in order to produce the liquid fuels we are convinced we absolutely need, even if we are going to destroy the land and the atmosphere. We are willing to build atomic plants, no matter what the risks involved and to do many other things to force the earth to produce what we think we need.

Then, there is a different attitude that looks more civilized. It is efficiency. It says that if we can convince people to use resources in more efficient ways, we can still have everything we are accustomed to have and save the earth, too. Fluorescent lamps and small cars surely look much better than the "drill baby drill" idea but, in the end, the concept is not so different in the sense that we are not willing to change in what we think we need. The American way of life remains not negotiable, apparently, just the way of obtaining it might be. It is a strategy that might even work - for a while, at least. But can we really find technological solutions to get all what we are accustomed to have - and for everyone? The recent case of the Fukushima disaster should have shown to us that we are not so smart as we think we are. 

We have not arrived yet to the last part of the story; when we could discover that the winning strategy is neither forcing nor cajoling the earth to give more than it can give. The winning strategy is adaptation. We need to adjust our needs to what this planet can give us. It is what the Japanese did on their island and, after all, we are all living on an island, a gigantic, spherical, blue island floating in the blackness of space. It is up to us to manage the bounty that we can have from the earth and create something that could be as beautiful as the Edo Civilization in Japan; surely with better and softer ways of controlling population.

If the historical example of Japan counts for something, we may be heading in the right direction and the age of planetary civil wars may end one day or another. So, if we can wait long enough, one day we may hear the cuckoo sing.




Acknowledgement: thanks to Jacopo Visani and Niccolò Giannetti for having organized the meeting at the Kozen Dojo where I gave this talk.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Tricking the Atomic Genie



This 1957 video by Walt Disney was produced in parallel with a book titled "Our friend, the atom."  It was translated into Italian and I perfectly remember having read it when I was, maybe, ten years old. Still today, half a century later, the imagery of the book is with me. When I think of atoms, electrons are blue and protons red, as they were drawn in that book.

"Our friend, the atom" was full of optimism and of hope for the wealth and prosperity that the atomic age would bring to us. It is a shock, today, to look back to those times and realize how much it had been promised and how little was actually delivered. Go to minute 4:40 of the film and watch the story of the Fisherman and the Genie. How naive it was to think that we could trick nature so easily! Our greatest mistake has always been to think that we are smarter than nature.




The clip shown here is the first of a 5-parts series. To see the whole movie, go to http://www1.teachertube.com/ and type "our friend the atom" in the search box. Clip n. 5 is especially interesting as it shows animations of what were thought to be the actual benefits that atomic energy would bring to us.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Breaking news: Priam's treasure returned to the Berlin Museum



"Cassandra's Legacy" is proud to present some breaking news about Priam's treasure that was found by archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann in the late 1800s while excavating the site of the ancient city of Troy. The Treasure is well known for including such objects as "Helen's Jewels" and other artifacts coming from the time of the siege of Troy as told by Homer in the Iliad. It had been removed from Berlin by the Red Army in 1945 and kept in Russia ever since. Now, after extended negotiations, we have confirmation that the treasure has been returned to the Berlin museum where it is being examined and studied. 

We are able to present some early results of the new investigation being performed on the treasure. A text written in linear B on an "ostracon" (ceramic potsherd) appears to have as title something that we can translate as the "New Trojan Times"  and "Cassandra jailed; a victory for Procurer Xen Kuxnell".

The text is fragmented, but some relevant lines which have been translated are;

"Xen Kuxnell, procurer general of the Trojan state....."

".... Cassandra, accused of fraud and embezzlement of state funds for her activity of prophetess..... 

"..... Jailing order obtained by the high Trojan Court..... "


"..... ostracon messages exchanged by Cassandra and her colleague, archpriest Lacoon, which had been made public recently, contain sentences which have been understood as indicating that the seers were attempting to alter the data in order to obtain public funding for their studies on the artifact known as 'Trojan Horse.' Cassandra and others have surmised that the Trojan Horse is a danger for the city of Troy because of the alleged presence of hidden Greek troop inside."

"..........Timiux Ballux, of the "friends of prophecy" group declared that the fragments exchanged by Cassandra and her colleagues contain evidence for alteration and suppression of data that did not support claims of horse-related danger. These leaked ostracon exchanges detail attempts to alter data that is the basis of wooden horse modeling. These are actions that constitute a serious breach of prophetic ethics. "

"Antonyx Wattx - "what's up on the walls?" - declared that no proof could be provided that the noises coming from inside the Trojan Horse are not of natural origin."

"Trojan senator Jamiux Inhofex has declared that stopping the demolition of the city walls in order to make room for the horse to pass would damage the Trojan economy and cause the loss of many jobs. He also declared that suggesting that the Trojan Horse is dangerous is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the Trojan people...."


No further text could be deciphered from the ostracon fragment which showed evident signs of having been burned in a strong fire.