Wednesday, May 31, 2017

President Trump considering whether the United States should stay in the Paris climate agreement

Monday, May 29, 2017

Why the American Way Of Life Is Negotiable: the Coming Transport Revolution.

Image: Volkswagen advertising in 1939 (source). Already at that time, Germany was planning to adopt the American model of "a car in every garage." But car ownership seems to be becoming more and more obsolete. Sooner or later, people will have to give away their cars, closing a peculiar and unusual cycle in the history of humankind (BTW, this is the most subversive post I ever published, I think)

In a previous post,  I discussed the RethinkX report by James Arbib and Tony Seba on the future of transportation. The report discusses a technological revolution that would bring about a new concept: "Transportation as a Service" (TaaS) that will see people move mainly by using publicly available, driverless cars. Many took the report (and my comments on it) as just another technofix aimed at keeping things as they are; business as usual. Indeed, the report framed the "TaaS" concept in terms of economic growth. Nothing else is acceptable in the public debate, today.

So, it seems that few people realized what kind of sacred cow Arbib and Seba are planning to slaughter and serve as well cooked burgers. It is nothing less than the private car, the pivotal element of the American way of life (yes, exactly what George Bush 1st said "is not negotiable"). This idea is as far from business as usual as I can imagine, one of the most disruptive and revolutionary ideas that I came across in recent times. So, I think I can go more in depth into this subject and explain why it is so disruptive and revolutionary.

Let start from the beginning: it all started in 1908 with the Ford T (figure from "The Daily Signal")

The growth in car ownership was the result of a political decision that most Western governments took at some moment (even Adolf Hitler took such a decision, at least in part). It didn't necessarily have to be taken: for instance, the Soviet Government always discouraged private car ownership. But governments, although not benevolent organizations, are made of people and people can recognize a good business when they see it. More cars meant more highways, more bridges, more shopping centers, more housing developments, and more opportunities to build things. That meant a lot of money flowing. So, the explosive development of private motorization happened because it could happen.

But, in recent times, the trend is reversing. The number of cars per person and per household is going down. These data by Sivak (2015) seem to be the most recent ones available

And it is not just the number of cars that's going down, also the number of miles driven per person or per car is falling. The trend is the same in many Western countries: we went through some kind of "peak car". 

So, what's going on? One factor is that cars are becoming more expensive (image from "The Atlantic"): 

That's mainly because cars are becoming heavier and more complicated. Today, a classic Volkswagen Beetle would cost very little, possibly less than it did at the time of the great motorization growth of the 1950s. But no insurance company would want to insure it, and no government would provide a license plate for it: too noisy, unsafe, and polluting.

But the increasing cost of ownership is probably a minor factor in comparison to deeper changes that are taking place. The increasing social inequality that leads to a larger and larger fraction of people becoming poor or very poor. See below the behavior of the "Gini Coefficient", a measure of the inequality in society.

So, cars are more expensive and there are more poor people. No wonder that car ownership is going down: a gradually higher fraction of the population cannot afford cars any more.

We shouldn't be surprised: for most of humankind's history, most people would walk; only a few could afford horses or coaches. One car in every garage was a very peculiar phenomenon that couldn't possibly last for a long time and that won't probably ever be repeated in the future. But the end of the cycle may not be painless for many. If you live, or have lived, in a Western suburban area, you know what the problem is (image from Pinterest).

There you are: miles away from anything that's not other people's homes. Miles from your workplace, miles from the nearest supermarket, miles from the closest train station. No car means no job, no groceries, no place to go.

By far and large, most families living in Western suburbs still own at least one car. They have to, even though that means an increasingly heavy strain to the family's budget. But, as the current trends continue, there will come a moment in which owning a car will become a burden too heavy to carry for a non negligible fraction of the suburban population. Then what happens? Well, there are several possible ways for people to cope: biking, carpooling, using donkeys, move to the city to live in a shack made of discarded cardboard containers or, simply, go zombie and die.

Cities are unlikely (to say the least) to establish conventional bus services for the citizens who find themselves stranded in the bloated suburbs: it would be awfully too expensive. So, as it happens in these cases, technological innovation is supposed to come to the rescue. And it does that with the concept of "TaaS" (Transportation as a Service). It is, basically, a high-tech car rental service where you use a vehicle only when you need it, thanks to the technological marvels of Global Positioning Satellites, automated driving, and electric power.

It is not obvious that TaaS will be less expensive than car ownership in terms of dollars per mile. But, with TaaS, you don't have the fixed costs of owning a car: you can save money by reducing your travels to the bare minimum. So, you can use TaaS to reach your workplace (if you still have a job) and to reach a supermarket to redeem your food stamps. For the rest of the time, you stay home and watch TV or use the social media. What else do you need?

Arbib and Seba have correctly described in their report how this phenomenon is not going to be gradual: it is going to be explosive. As car ownership goes down, the cost of cars will increase simply because of diminishing economies of scale. Add to it the decreasing profits of the oil industry and the whole thing is going to implode fast, generating a textbook example of the "Seneca Cliff".

By the end of the cycle, people (those who will survive the ordeal) might abandon the suburbs and move into high-rise apartment building that can be serviced by public transportation at reasonable costs. At this point, the American landscape could look much like that of the old Soviet Union (image from Wikipedia)

Eventually, TaaS is just an example of the concept of the "Internet of Things" that's so fashionable nowadays. It means that you won't own things anymore: cars or whatever; you rent them. So, your refrigerator, your TV set, even your toaster, are not your property but of the corporations leasing them to you. It looks like a good idea, because you can have the latest models and you don't have to worry about maintenance. At least as long as don't run out of credit, because, if you do, your toaster will refuse to toast your bread.

All this sounds like... well, you know what it sounds like. Would you have ever imagined that Communism would come one day to the US brought by corporations and in the name of technological progress? The "American way of life" really turns out to be negotiable

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Coming Seneca Cliff of the Automotive Industry: the Converging Effect of Disruptive Technologies and Social Factors

This graph shows the projected demise of individual car ownership in the US, according to "RethinkX". That will lead to the demise of the automotive industry as we know it since a much smaller number of cars will be needed. If this is not a Seneca collapse, what is? 

Decades of work in research and development taught me this:

Innovation does not solve problems, it creates them. 

Which I could call "the Golden Rule of Technological Innovation." There are so many cases of this law at work that it is hard for me to decide where I should start from. Just think of nuclear energy; do you understand what I mean? So, I am always amazed at the naive faith of some people who think that more technology will solve the problems created by technology. It just doesn't work like that.

That doesn't mean that technological research is useless; not at all. R&D can normally generate small but useful improvements to existing processes, which is what it is meant to do. But when you deal with breakthroughs, well, it is another kettle of dynamite sticks; so to say. Most claimed breakthroughs turn out to be scams (cold fusion is a good example) but not all of them. And that leads to the second rule of technological innovation:

Successful innovations are always highly disruptive

You probably know the story of the Polish cavalry charging against the German tanks during WWII. It never happened, but the phrase "fighting tanks with horses" is a good metaphor for what technological breakthroughs can do. Some innovations impose themselves, literally, by marching over the dead bodies of their opponents. Even without such extremes, when an innovation becomes a marker of social success, it can diffuse extremely fast. Do you remember the role of status symbol that cell phones played in the 1990s?

Cars are an especially good example of how social factors can affect and amplify the effects of innovation. I discussed in a previous post on Cassandra's Legacy how cars became the prime marker of social status in the West with the 1950s, becoming the bloated and inefficient objects we know today. They had a remarkable effect on society, creating the gigantic suburbs of today's cities where life without a personal car is nearly impossible.

But the great wheel of technological innovation keeps turning and it is soon going to make individual cars as obsolete as it would be wearing coats made of home-tanned bear skins. It is, again, the combination of technological innovation and socioeconomic factors creating a disruptive effect. For one thing, private car ownership is rapidly becoming too expensive for the poor. At the same time, the combination of global positioning systems (GPS), smartphones, and autonomous driving technologies makes it possible a kind of "transportation on demand" or "transportation as a service" (TAAS) that was unthinkable just a decade ago. Electric cars are especially suitable (although not critically necessary) for this kind of transportation. In this scheme, all you need to do to get a transportation service is to push a button on your smartphone and the vehicle you requested will silently glide in front of you to take you wherever you want. (*)

The combination of these factors is likely to generate an unstoppable and disruptive social phenomenon. Owning a car will be increasing seen as passé, whereas using the latest TAAS gadgetry will be seen as cool. People will scramble to get rid of their obsolete, clumsy, and unfashionable cars and TAAS will also play the role of social filter: with the ongoing trends of increasing social inequality, the poor will be able to use it only occasionally or not at all. The rich, instead, will use it to show that they can and that they have access to credit. Some TAAS services will be exclusive, just as some hotels and resorts are. Some rich people may still own cars as a hobby, but that wouldn't change the trend.

Of course, all that is a vision of the future and the future is always difficult to predict. But something that we can say about the future is that when changes occur, they occur fast. In this case, the end result of the development of individual TAAS will be the rapid collapse of the automotive industry as we know it: a much smaller number of vehicles will be needed and they won't need to be of the kind that the present aotumotive industry can produce. This phenomenon has been correctly described by "RethinkX," even though still within a paradigm of growth. In practice, the transition is likely to be even more rapid and brutal than what the RethinkX team propose. For the automotive industry, there applies the metaphor of "fighting tanks with horses."

The demise of the automotive industry is an example of what I called the "Seneca Effect." When some technology or way of life becomes obsolete and unsustainable, it tends to collapse very fast. Look at the data for the world production of motor vehicles, below (image from Wikipedia). We are getting close to producing a hundred million of them per year. If the trend continues, during the next ten years we'll have produced a further billion of them. Can you really imagine that it would be possible? There is a Seneca Cliff waiting for the automotive industry.

(*) If the trend of increasing inequality continues, autonomously driven cars are not necessary. Human drivers would be inexpensive enough for the minority of rich people who can afford to hire them.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

"Peak Hats." Social Change and the Coming Demise of Private Cars

For a long time, hats were oversized and expensive status symbols more than tools for protecting people's heads. During the past half century or so, they have nearly disappeared. A similar destiny may befall on private cars, also oversized and expensive status symbols rather than tools for transporting people. With the disappearance of cars, we may see hats coming back. 

If you look at images of people taken before mid 20th century, you'll notice that almost everybody was wearing hats. In those times, people would often wear top hats or bowler hats but, by the 20th century, people started wearing the ubiquitous Fedora hat as you can see in any gangster movie set in the 1920s and 1930s.

But, today, almost nobody wears hats and Fedora-wearing gangsters seem to have disappeared everywhere. The trend is confirmed by a search on Google Ngrams. Here is, for instance, the result for "Fedora hat". You could call what we see here as "peak Fedora" in analogy with the concept of "peak oil"

Searches for other types of hat confirm that we see a relatively recent phenomenon taking place during the second half of the 20th century. For instance, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was the last US president to wear a top hat at the inauguration ceremony, in 1961, just as Abraham Lincoln had done, long before. Afterward, hats disappeared from the heads of US presidents, just as of most ordinary people.

So what happened that caused the near disappearance of a clothing item that had been commonplace all over human history? Surely, fashion changes all the time but it is not always just a question of whim. There are often practical reasons: think of the uncomfortable corsets that disappeared in the 1920s, when women became more active in everyday life and needed more practical ways of dressing.

For hats, the story may have been different. A top hat may be a little clumsy to wear but surely it doesn't have the same practical problems of a corset. So, the decline of all kinds of hats probably comes from a different factor: the importance of hats as status symbols.

All over human history, hats have been used to separate the upper classes from the lower ones. In the Western World, it would have been unthinkable for workers or peasants to wear top hats, just as the upper class wouldn't even dream of wearing berets. Wearing or not wearing a certain type of hat was a choice determined by one's social status. So, it is in social factors that we can probably find the explanation for the demise of hats.

The 20th century saw a strong trend toward higher social equality in the Western World, at least for a while. Here are the data for the Gini coefficient for people's incomes (a parameter proportional to economic inequality)

As you see, there occurred something that we could call "peak equality" in the 1960s-1970s. This peak corresponds well to the disappearance of hats. It makes sense: in a society where wealth is reasonably well distributed, excessive display of one's status may be seen as poor taste. Many societies and ideologies that theorize equality have emphasized the concept that everybody, rich or poor, should wear the same kind of hat: think of the clothing that the Chinese wore at the time of the cultural revolution. Then, if everyone wears, say, the Fedora hat, what's the point of wearing it at all? You may as well leave it home. This is probably the main factor that made hats mostly obsolete in the Western World.

But things may be subtler than this. Although in the early 20th century social inequality had become less evident, it still existed. And people are natural hierarchical animals; they need to establish hierarchies. There lies the problem: hats were good status symbols as long as social mobility was low and people were born with a certain social status. In those times, a worker might have been able to afford a top hat, if he really wanted, but wearing it in public would have been unthinkable for him. But, in the 20th century, people had become socially mobile and also geographically mobile while, at the same time, monetary wealth rapidly became the main marker of social status. So, if you saw someone wearing a top hat, was he really rich or was he a cheater? It was hard to say. What was needed was a more robust social marker; something expensive enough that would provide a direct and reliable indication of a person's wealth. And it was found in the 1950s: the private car.

The private car had what was needed to be an excellent status symbol in the new social and economic structure. The shift to suburban life made private cars not anymore a luxury but a necessity. Then, cars were expensive enough that people had to commit a substantial fraction of their budget to buy one. And the industry soon provided a range of models with a price spread that selected buyers according to their financial status. Add to that the clever marketing idea of the "model of the year" and soon buying a car became the way to keep up with the Joneses. It would strain to the budget of suburbanites enough to provide an immediate and reliable signal of what was the income of the owner of a certain model of car.

Just as top hats were oversized and overexpensive for their practical purpose, cars soon became also oversized and overexpensive for their practical purpose. The extravaganza of tailfins was a phenomenon of the late 1950s and early 1960s, but it was not so bad as the present-day fashion of the monstrosities that go under the name of "sport utility vehicles" (SUV). (image source:

SUVs may be seen as a bad case of mechanical obesity, but most cars on the road are overexpensive and underused: they are idle most of the time and they are used only for a small fraction of their load capacity. All of them, so far, had their main reason to exist in the fact that they served their purpose of status symbols. But the situation is rapidly changing: the trends toward social equality changed sign in a phenomenon called "The Great U-Turn" that gradually brought us back to the inequality levels of the 19th century, when people wore top hats. The reasons for this evolution are complex and not completely understood (but there are hints that it is related to fossil fuel depletion) In any case, these epochal changes can't be without consequences for transport.

Society is now splitting in two social classes: the very rich and the very poor; while the middle class is being rapidly squeezed out of existence. Stuck in the suburbs, the poor (the former middle class) desperately need transportation but they don't care anymore about keeping up with the Joneses. It is more a question of survival and any contraption that moves on wheels will do for them. The rich, on their part, don't really need cars to show their wealth. They compete with people in the same social class by means of much more expensive status symbols: mansions, estates, art, private jets, or whatever. For both the rich and the poor, cars cease to be a status symbol and become part of the concept of transportation as a service (TAAS). This concept includes both the traditional public transportation systems, from buses to trains, as well as the new forms of individual transportation made possible by the development of new technologies.

As a consequence of these trends, private cars are going to become as obsolete as top hats. That doesn't mean reversing the inequality trends. The rich will still ride luxurious vehicles, they just won't own them anymore, normally, just like when they travel first class on planes and trains. The poor will use TAAS to the extent they can afford it, otherwise they'll have to walk. That will be a good opportunity to abandon the bloated suburbs of our times and rebuild human-sized cities. The number of running cars will drastically diminish and those that will remain will mostly be of the right size for what they are needed. That means we'll use fewer fossil fuels, we'll reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases, and apply a lower pressure on the Earth's ecosystem.

Don't take all this as a praise for social inequality. If it were for me, I would much prefer to live in a world where people are valued for what they give rather than for what they own. But that's not the way our world works, today. There are some ongoing trends that we can't ignore. The demise of the wheeled dinosaurs that have plagued us for such a long time might be quite rapid (a true Seneca Collapse) and that will be a good thing.

By the way: we'll also wear hats again.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Make the Anthill Great Again! The Ant Colony and the Human One

Image above: the 1998 movie "AntZ". This post was inspired by a post by Antonio Turiel titled "Of Ants and Men" where he used the example of an ant to discuss the difficulties that humans have to perceive the real problems facing humankind today. Here, I examine again, a little more in depth, the same issue.

Imagine yourself as an ant. What would be your perception of the world? Mainly, it is other ants from the same colony. As an ant, you are nearly blind but you have an excellent sense of smell and most of your sensorial inputs are the pheromones you receive from your sister ants that then you transmit to other ants. This kind of feedback-based pheromone exchange may lead to remarkably complex behaviors. Yet, the colony has no structure that we could see as a brain. If we define "self-consciousness" as the capability of a creature to model itself, the colony doesn't have this capability. It can react to external stimuli, and it can do that fast. But it can't plan for the future. It is the same for single ants: for them, the colony is a set of smells; they don't really perceive it.

Now, zoom back to your condition of a human being reading a blog post. What's your perception of the world? You are probably smarter than the average ant, but, like an ant, your perception of the world is mainly shaped by the pairwise contacts you have with other human beings, members of the same colony. These stimuli are verbal, not olfactory, but the mechanism of transmission and retransmission is the same. Like an ant, you are continuously exposed to stimuli from the media and from social networks that you then retransmit to other humans. This often generates transient bursts of reinforcing feedbacks that may generate rapid, even violent, collective reactions on the part of the whole colony. But the human colony doesn't have a brain, it can react to external stimuli but it can't plan ahead. Those large human colonies called "states" don't show an intelligent behavior; not more than ant colonies do. States explore their environment, compete for resources, occasionally fight each other, at times very destructively. But these are behaviors that ant colonies engage in as well.

Of course, single human beings have abilities that ants lack: they are self-conscious in the sense that they can model their environment and themselves. They even have specific brain structures dedicated to this purpose, such as the "mirror neurons" used to model the behavior of other humans. But all this doesn't seem to affect the behavior of the colony. The sophisticated modeling capabilities of human brains seem to be used mainly to gain an advantage in playing the sexual competition game between individuals. Outside of this realm, most humans probably see their "country" mostly as a semantic entity created by simple messages related to defense and attack. They have no perception of the immense complexity of a giant human colony of tens or hundreds of millions of individuals.

Theoretically, however, the power of the human brain could be applied to the management of the colony. In history, we see the widespread attempt to place a single human being - that is, a single brain - in charge of the activity of the state. That sometimes leads to attempts of planning for the future of the whole colony, but it often backfires creating disasters. A single human brain cannot manage the immense complexity of a human state. Dictators, kings, emperors, and the like are normally just as clueless about the system they are supposed to manage as their subject. Maybe as clueless as the ants of an anthill.

Yet, something changed in recent times. We may see the appearance of "world modeling" in the 1970s as the serendipitous awakening of consciousness in the human colony. Digital computers made it possible to perform studies such as the 1972 "The Limits to Growth" that modeled society on the basis of quantitative data and projected the results to the future. It was the first time in history that society could really plan for the future. In particular, the models identified a phenomenon scarcely known before: it was called "overshoot", the tendency of society to overexploit its resources and then collapse. The models could be used to plan ahead and avoid collapse.

But, as well known, these studies had little or no impact and the world's human colonies continued their blind path toward collapse. This is probably understandable. The emergence of complex structures such as brains is driven by evolutionary competition. Humans developed their large brains as tools for inter-group sexual competition. But states or industrial companies compete by exploiting the available resources as fast as possible. They have no advantage in the capability of planning for the long term, especially when the results of the planning is that they should slow down the exploitation rate. Doing that would only give more chances to their competitors who don't. So, the behavior of human colonies remains dictated by one very simple rule: grow as much as possible and don't care about anything else.

It is the same for ants: eusocial ant colonies have been around for more than 50 million years. If anthills had benefitted from being self-conscious, there was plenty of time for natural selection to create that characteristic. Instead, it seems that the intelligence of both individual ants and of ant colonies is optimized for the survival of the anthill. There is evidence that social insects are less intelligent than their wild counterparts as a result of the colony taking over in many tasks that were once for the individual to deal with. The same phenomenon may be taking place in human colonies: human brains have been shrinking during the past tens of thousands of years. The trend may have been greatly accelerated in recent times by the development of social networks on the Internet.

In the end, it may well be that the evolution of the human species is leading it to develop a eusocial behavior similar to that of social insects such as ants or bees. That would possibly entice an overall reduction of individual intelligence, not completely compensated by an increase in societal intelligence. Eusocial human colonies would keep competing against each other for the available resources as they ar doing now. As a eusocial species, humans might be very successful, just as eusocial ants have been very successful in the insect world. But, on the whole, these eusocial entities would not be self-conscious and wouldn't engage in long term planning

Yet, the future remains impossible to predict: humans are clever monkeys and you never know what they may be able to invent. There may be ways to make the human colony conscious and that would lead to a whole new spectrum of behaviors that, at present, we can only vaguely imagine. For the time being, it seems that we can't do much more than blindly keep at the impossible task of making the anthill great again.

Some references

Ant colony as an emergent phenomenon

The brain of social insects shrinks in size

The social brain hypothesis, Dunbar

The social brain hypothesis doesn't apply to social  nsects

Evolution of Ants starting from early Cretaceous, 100 million years ago. Article by Wilson and Holldobler

On the shrinking human brain.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Apple and the Ant

Antonio Turiel keeps what I think is one of the best blogs in the world (perhaps the best) dedicated to energy and fossil fuels: The Oil Crash. Too bad that, despite the title, the blog is written in Spanish. But if you can read Spanish or are willing to spend some time to decipher a Google translation, then you can truly learn a lot from Tutiel's blog. One of the best recent posts is titled "De hormigas y hombres," that is "Of ants and men". 
Image "Ant man" from the 2015 movie.

Reality can be only what you can perceive and it would seem that nothing can exist - for you - beyond your perception sphere. Out of it, there is the realm of the "unknown unknowns" as defined by Donald Rumsfeld, the "black swans" described by Nassim Taleb. But, in practice, there is a twilight zone in which you can vaguely perceive that "something" exist out there. Some only partly unknown unknown that you perceive enough that you realize you should be worried about it. But you don't know how and why. 

One way to perceive the unperceivable is to imagine yourself as someone or something who/which faces a similar plight, but one that you can understand. The task of understanding dimensions beyond the third for creatures like us, who live in a three-dimensional world, was beautifully described by Edwin Abbott in "Flatland," a story set in a purely two-dimensional world.

Another metaphor for the difficulty we have in understanding some concepts is that of ants or other social insects: splendidly organized creatures but very limited in their capabilities as single members of the group. Do ants understand that they are part of an ant colony? Probably not; they only perceive other ants. The colony is an emergent phenomenon that no single ant or group of ants ever planned or even perceived. 

In his post on ants and men, Antonio Turiel describes a metaphor that starts from another characteristic of ants, their very poor eyesight. That serves to underline another kind of human limitation: the inability of seeing beyond the narrow limits of what we see and hear in the media. Turiel describes an "ant-man" who has good smelling abilities but cannot see beyond a very short distance ahead. This ant-man is more intelligent than a regular ant and can plan ahead, even by sophisticated ways of reasoning. But he lacks the capability of seeing above himself at any distance. 

Let's assume that this ant-man smells an apple. He knows that the apple exists and he moves in the direction that makes the smell stronger, knowing that he is getting closer and closer to it. But, at some moment, he finds that, bizarrely, the smell starts diminishing while no apple is perceived by the ant-man's antennas or mandibles. So, the ant-man embarks in a series of scanning strategies to try to find the apple; first going linearly up and down, then moving in a spiral, and more. But he cannot find the apple for the simple reason that it is above him, hanging from the branch of a tree. Eventually, the ant-man dies of starvation. 

Here is an excerpt from Turiel's post (translated from Spanish):

"The metaphor of the ant-man is useful for us to illustrate the dilemma that the Western Societies have been facing lately: the lack of dimensional of the debate. During the past two years, we saw several countries engaging in a crucial elections, always with just two choices: the Greek Referendum, Brexit, the election of Donald Trump... Last week-end, it was France's turn, with the competition between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen. The winner was the former, with great solace of the financial markets and of the European Commission. In all these cases, a society that sees its way of life in danger, a society that knows it is being slowly but inexorably moving toward collapse, looks for new directions to move. In the same way as the ant-man of our story, society first moves following straight lines; initially in the classic alternative of left and right, but being those lines totally discredited (as in France, where neither the Socialist party nor the conservative UPM reached the second turn in the elections) people start looking for new directions. It is not casual that all this succession of elections that we have been discussing were choices among two alternatives: it is a movement between two extreme points, it is a straight line search. It is the most banal strategy, but the way in which our society has been working up to now. There was no need of anything more complex." <..>

"There will come a time, as desperation spreads among the dispossessed middle classes, when this linear movement between two opposing and equally useless options will be abandoned and a spiral movement will begin, probably when the level of abstention is so high that it will destroy the legitimacy of two-choice elections. Arriving at this point, desperate solutions will be pushed by the dire conditions of the majority of the population. We commented on this point recently when discussing the end of growth: more than a quarter of the Spanish population is at risk of poverty and exclusion, and that when GDP saw two years of growth, unlike other countries around us. The whole possibility of getting out of the hole in which we find ourselves is that growth continues and at a good pace, but that is a chimera."

And there we are: totally unable to conceive the real terms of the problem. Nobody realizes that behind everything that's happening around us there is a physical problem: the deadly combination of resource depletion and ecosystem disruption. Our society is an emergent phenomenon which we cannot really perceive, full of unknown unknowns and our desperate two-dimensional search of something that will save us is hopeless: left or right, it doesn't matter. We are blind like ants unable to see the apple hanging from a tree above them.

Read Turiel's whole post (in Spanish) on "The Oil Crash"

Monday, May 8, 2017

Go Electric, Young Man! The Story of the Electric Fiat "500"

The Fiat "500," manufactured from 1957 to 1975 was a true prodigy of engineering and it left a deep impression on popular culture in many countries. Above, driven by "Lupin Sansei" (ルパン三世), a Japanese Manga character created by Monkey Punch. In this post, I describe how we transformed one of these old cars to run on electric power.

Some ten years ago, myself and my friend Pietro Cambi had the weird idea of "retrofitting" Pietro's old Fiat 500, turning it into an electric car. To understand why we embarked in such a task, you have to consider that we were (and are) both "peak oilers"; but also we were (and are) both Italian and the Fiat 500 is a car that has a peculiar fascination for Italians. Nobody in Italy can forget how the 500 motorized Italians in the 1950s, at the time of the "Economic Miracle". For Italians, the Fiat 500 carries the same fascination that the French have for their "R4", the Germans for their VW "Beetle" and the Russian for their "T34" (this last one not exactly a car, though). 

So, we put this idea into practice in 2007 and it worked. It was, actually, rather easy. An electric car is so much simpler than a car powered by a combustion engine. Just look at the difference: 

You see? The internal combustion engine is a mess of pipes, cables, valves, and all sort of strange things. The electric motor is just what you see: a cylinder with a small fan on top. That's it. To make things even simpler for us, we took a motor of the same rated power (12kW) as the old engine and we connected it to the gearbox. In reality, a smaller motor would have been more than enough. Then, if we had been able to create something more sophisticated, we wouldn't have needed a gearbox, we could have connected the motor (better still, two motors) directly to the wheels. More efficient and even simpler. 

For more technical detail, you can see a post of mine on "The Oil Drum". We added lithium-polymer batteries and a control system. The result was a wonderful little car that ran very nicely with a range of nearly 100 km. It aroused a lot of interest, as you can see in this picture (h/t Chantal, professional model who kindly accepted to pose with the 500)

It also aroused some interest with politicians and we tried to have the government approve a law that favored the electric retrofitting of old cars. It didn't work; the law was rejected, also because the Communists (yes, there were Communists in the Italian parliament, at that time) voted against it. Apparently, they thought that the working class should only take the bus. 

Apart from the diehard Communists in parliament, our attempt to create a retrofitting industry was probably doomed from the beginning. We expected some resistance to the idea, but we were not fully prepared to the howls of disgust we received, directed at the concept of retrofitting and reusing old cars. Apparently, a rule of life is that prosperity comes from building as many toys as possible and discarding them as fast as possible (and he who dies with the most toys, wins). Repairing or refitting old toys is not contemplated by the rules, even though that would save energy and resources. Only subversives, madmen, and peak oilers could ever think of such a thing. 

Ten years have passed. From then, some more retrofitting attempts have been made, some again with the Fiat 500. And the lower cost of batteries has made the task much less expensive than it was in 2007. Still, retrofitting remains a very marginal industry where only a minuscule number of enthusiasts are engaged. 

You may call this result a failure but, rethinking about this story, I think we still did something good. One good result was to demonstrate how simple and practical an electric vehicle could be in an age when there were very few electric cars available. Of course, we were not the only ones who proposed electric prototypes; there were many others. But we added our little bit to a movement of ideas that was leading to something. Then, there came Elon Musk and his Tesla; the electric car is not anymore a toy for hippies, it is a serious commercial and industrial product, moving onward to conquer the market. 

More than all, I think that what we did was a step in a direction which we ourselves couldn't fully perceive at the time. We had this idea that a car needed not to be a huge, smelly, inefficient, destructive monster but it could be something simple, small, friendly, and unprepossessing (see below, Pietro Cambi driving the 500 in the Cathedral Square, in Florence)

Taken to its extreme consequences, the idea of a small and friendly car becomes something that has little to do with the concept of "car" as it was intended up to now. Add to it a GPS positioning system, make full use of the intelligent electronic systems we have nowadays, and we have a completely new paradigm. The car is not anymore a car, but just an element of a "TAAS" (transportation as a service) system, where we don't own cars, we share them. That's the direction in which we are going. And we are going there using electric cars. 

Saturday, May 6, 2017

The Clepsydra

It looks like I became a character in a comic book!

Last year, I gave a talk in Basel, invited by the "Nature Addicts Fund". I spoke about several subjects, but one that seems to have had an impact was my description of how complex systems tend to dissipate energy potentials as fast as possible. I used the metaphor of the "hourglass," based on the "Self-Organized Criticality" model developed by Per Bak and others. A model that explains a lot of how and why collapses occur.

You can find a document about the whole Basel meeting at this link. Below, the two pages dealing with my talk. Note that they use the beautiful name of "clepsydra" for an object normally called "hourglass". Literally, clepsydra means "thief of water" and it refers to ancient water clocks.

To read the text below, enlarge the images by clicking on them.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The Decline of the West: Left or Right, It Doesn't Matter

The auditorium of Fiesole, near Florence, Italy. A monster of glass and concrete, it was announced almost 15 years ago but it was never completed and probably never will be. It can be seen as a metaphor of the decline of the West: if there are no more resources to produce or to distribute goods, the whole economy grinds to a halt. 

In a previous post, Miguel Martinez examined the retreat from Moscow of Napoleon's army as a metaphor for the decline of the Left in the West. Martinez notes how the Left has normally emphasized the redistribution of the goods produced by the economy but that, nowadays, the resource crisis makes it impossible to produce enough goods to distribute. It is just like when the soldiers of Napoleon's army found little or nothing to plunder after that they had conquered Moscow.

In practice, the plight of the Right is not different from that of the Left. Traditionally, the Right emphasized production rather than redistribution. But these are two sides of the same coin: the gradual depletion of resources and the increasing ecosystem disruption make it impossible to produce goods at the same low costs as it was easy to do decades ago. The attempt of Donald Trump to restart coal production in the US is similar to the plight of Napoleon's soldiers marching in the snow during their retreat from Moscow. The only choices available to them were either to plunder cities that they had no capability to conquer or to redistribute spoils that they had not been able to plunder. Right or Left, they were are going nowhere. It is the same for us.

I think these concepts can be illustrated by the story of a building in the city where I live, Fiesole, on a hill near Florence, in Italy. In 2003, the mayor  announced the plan of building a large auditorium which he described as an "absolute necessity for the town." There followed a debate where many local residents (including myself) noted that the city may have needed an auditorium but that the proposed one was way too large. 

As you may imagine, our protests were swamped in howls of disdain. We were accused of a "nimby" attitude and told that the new auditorium would bring jobs for the inhabitants of Fiesole, money for shop owners, and turn Fiesole into an internationally known cultural center. In any case, it would mean economic growth and how could anyone be against that? 

So, the auditorium was built. It was even enlarged with the progress of the construction until it was supposed to be able to seat 312 people.  The only problem: it was never completed. Today, only the outer walls and the roof stand (and they say that the roof leaks). The reason is said to be that the city ran out of money, which is probably true, but I also think that the builders themselves, at some point, looked at what they were doing and they gasped in awe. I can imagine them asking each other something like. "'what the hell are we doing here? This thing is too damn big." I can imagine the same moment of awe for the soldiers and the commanders of Napoleon's army in Moscow, "What the hell are we doing here? It is getting damn cold."

Just as Russia was too big for Napoleon to conquer, the auditorium of Fiesole is too big for the size of the city. Imagine building New York's Metropolitan Opera House in Mount Carroll, Illinois, and you get the right feeling. Fiesole is a small town on top of a hill and it doesn't have enough hotel rooms to host the kind of events that would need a hall with 300+ seats. Bringing people there from other locations is not a solution, either. There are wholly insufficient parking facilities nearby; using buses would be slow and expensive and, anyway, full size buses couldn't negotiate the sharp turns in the roads around the Auditorium. Given these conditions, who would ever need this auditorium when there are literally dozens more convenient ones in nearby Florence? If the auditorium of Fiesole were ever to be completed, what could be done with it? Maybe we could paint it in white and have people come to look at the elephant of the city zoo. 

Doesn't this story really feel like Napoleon's invasion of Russia? Yes, Napoleon was caught in a bubble scheme of his own making where he had to keep fighting and winning bigger and bigger battles in order to have more spoils to redistribute. Eventually, the bubble had to burst. The Western economic system has been caught in the same kind of bubble, although not based on military actions (not completely, at least). Rather, it is a bubble of construction and redistribution that's bursting right now. 

So, today, walking in front of the concrete and glass giant in a square of the small town of Fiesole, one is nearly overwhelmed by a thought: how could people make such an absurd error? Surely there was money involved but, for what I can say, it was mostly done in good faith by people who really believed that the city needed such a thing  (1) (and, if you care to know, the mayor who started the whole thing was a former member of the Communist party). But it didn't matter: the Right would have done exactly the same. It was just like for Napoleon's soldiers who took the road to Moscow, convinced that they were going toward glory and riches. Looking at the errors of the past we can always learn one thing: that we never learn from the errors of the past (2). 

1. There was a certain method in this madness. A parking lot was built downhill and it might have provided a sufficient number of parking spaces for the auditorium, even though it still remained off-limits to full size buses. But to get to the auditorium from that parking lot one needs to walk up a long flight of steep stairs. So, the idea was to build an escalator to take people uphill but, as you may imagine, it was a grand plan that turned out to be too expensive. Even grander and more expensive was the idea to build a cableway that would have taken people to Fiesole from the valley below, where new hotels would be built. That would have been coupled with a special train service from Florence's central train station. These ideas were more or less equivalent to think that Napoleon's armies could advance into Siberia after having taken Moscow, until they would conquer Vladivostok, on the other side of Eurasia.

2. Evidence that people haven't learned anything from past mistakes comes from the plans for a new airport in Florence. A new oversized project that aims at increasing the number of tourists coming to Florence, all in the name of Growth. Apparently, nine million tourists per year are not enough for Florence. Do we think this number will keep growing forever? 

Monday, May 1, 2017

Are Trump's Climate Policies Backfiring?

Data from a recent Gallup poll. Something is moving in the climate wars and science seems to be winning.

Trump's presidency is generating a backfire in beliefs on climate change. A recent Gallup poll went somewhat unnoticed in the great noise of the 100 days date, but it shows a consistent increase in the belief that climate change is real, it is caused by human actions, and it is dangerous. See the figure above, and also this one:

In an earlier post, I had defined the situation with the public opinion as "trench warfare in the climate wars", with neither side being able to gain a significant advantage over the other. But now, with Trump president, the deadlock seems to be over. The Gallup polls never reported such a clear majority of Americans seeing the climate situation in the right terms.

So, what's going on? I can think that Trump's heavy hand in punishing climate science and climate scientists is correctly perceived by the public as ideologically minded and dangerous - and many Americans don't like it. Scientists are seen as the victims of a political persecution and that is causing an increase of trust in science.

The situation may evolve even more in favor of climate science as Donald Trump becomes less and less popular. A significant fraction of Americans are still trusting him, but that trust may soon wear out as Trump's policies fail. They have to fail since they are based on two fundamental errors that have to do with physics, which is impervious to manipulation by politics. The first error is that climate change and ecosystem disruption are not important factors in the economy. The second is that mineral resources are still abundant and that the decline of the production of fossil fuels can be reversed. Because of these fundamental flaws, whatever Trump does will be a disaster, even assuming that he manages to avoid making some truly colossal strategic mistake in the international arena. Trump seriously risks to be remembered as the worst president in American history.

The decline and fall of Donald Trump could generate a long-lasting bad reputation for climate science denial. Unfortunately, there is little to be happy about that; the damage that Trump can manage to do to science and to the ecosystem even in just a few years of presidency will be very hard to reverse - if at all possible. And it is known how the public opinion is volatile and sensible to PR campaigns. A new scandal such as "Climategate" or a fortunate denial meme such as the "pause" could bring things back to the starting line. In any case, the climate change question is so polarized by now that the hardcore Trump supporters will never be convinced of the reality of climate change, not even when the their homes are swamped by the sea. 

But let's not be too pessimistic. At least for now, things are going in the right direction. And it could be worse! (even California's drought seems to be over)


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" to be published by Springer in mid 2017