The Right-Wing Steamroller: First Trump in the US, then Bolsonaro in Brazil, now Salvini in Italy..... No, wait! Salvini was Defeated!!
27 January 2020 | 8:27 am

A Reflection on the Defeat of the Italian League in the Recent Regional Elections.

The right-wing League has been defeated in the regional elections of yesterday in the "Emilia-Romagna" in Italy. It was a key region, traditionally held by the left. The leader of the League, Matteo Salvini, had made an all-out effort to win there in the wake of the weakening of the traditional political parties, but he failed. It was not just a local event, it shows the weakness of a whole propaganda system and it opens up the question of how social media affect democracy. It is just the beginning of a long story that we'll see unraveling in the future. (BTW, note in the image the Catholic rosary held by Mr. Salvini, part of a hodgepodge of modern and ancient ideas he used for his electoral propaganda).

Matteo Salvini, the leader of the Italian League, had focused his electoral efforts on Emilia-Romagna, the Center-North region that was a traditional stronghold of the Italian left. In the wake of the crisis of the left-wing parties in Italy, it seemed possible, even easy, for the League to win there. That would have been a big blow for the central government and would probably have forced new national elections. Then, the League would have won hands-down.

It was as good as any battle plan. But the best plans of mice and men (and of Mr. Salvini) tend to gang agley, as we all know. Mr. Salvini turned out to be an amateur in the role of the local Napoleon: he overstretched his forces and he was defeated. Now he is facing an uncertain retreat that he won't probably survive, politically.

Of course, the vagaries of local politics in Italy are only of modest interest for the rest of the world (and even in Italy). Yet, I think we all can learn something from the recent Italian elections. What we have seen was an unexpected failure of the recent propaganda techniques that had brought right-wing parties to victory almost everywhere in the world.

Matteo Salvini had done everything "by the book" to prepare for the elections. His propaganda machine goes under the name of "La Bestia" (The Beast) and it has been operating for a few years in the way pioneered earlier on by Silvio Berlusconi and that brought Donald Trump to the presidency in the US.

The idea is to target the lowest cultural level of the population. Use scare tactics, find enemies of all sorts, demonize them, then promise safety in the hands of a right-wing government. As "ministro degli interni" (ministry of the interior) at the national level Mr. Salvini had waged a feverish hate campaign against immigrants, communists, leftists, intellectuals, etc. Then, La Bestia used technologies of targeted propaganda on social media, the same pioneered earlier on by Cambridge Analytics. Again, all done in a very aggressive manner, targeting the most sensible fraction of social media users.

It didn't work. The resistance of the left was remarkable: it was the same surprise that Napoleon must have experienced when he found that he couldn't beat the Russians at Borodino. The left in Italy is commonly seen as a spent force but, evidently, it is not, not completely, at least. But, possibly, Mr. Salvini has undone himself by exaggerating with his electoral tactics. Too much screaming, too much hate, too many threats. Mr. Salvini surely has a certain capability of endearing himself with the least cultured fraction of the population but, as a leader, well, you could say he looks more like a bus driver. He never had a job, never worked for a living, failed to obtain a university degree. People perceived that the League really had no plan other than taking power and then, probably, screaming even louder.

One specific mistake that Mr. Salvini may have done has been to play down the climate-environmental problem. He did his best to avoid the subject and when he was forced to face it, he tended to slip away using jokes or sneers. He also failed to comment on the general tendency of his supporters to take an aggressive anti-science position, to say nothing about the barrage of insults they directed at Greta Thunberg. Also here, Salvini gave the impression of having no ideas and no plans. He didn't realize that it is no more possible for a politician to ignore climate change.

So, we saw the first defeat of a set of propaganda techniques that seemed to be invincible with Trump, Bolsonaro, and the others. At the same time, we saw the complete defeat and the disappearance of the "5-star" movement (M4S). The M5S was the result of another attempt to use the Internet in the political process. It was based on the use of platform called "Russeau" that tried to create a shared decisional process -- in some respects. it was the opposite approach of "The Beast."  Like a giant Rube Goldberg machine, the M5S decisional system worked well until it ceased to work.

Surely, the Beast, the Russeau, and other electoral methods will evolve and change on the basis of the experience gained in this and other elections. But, if the Internet is generating a remarkable revolution on the methods used to win elections, it doesn't seem to help much in what is to be done afterward. This problem is what doomed the M5S and would probably doom the League, in case they were to take power in Italy. With all our powerful communication technologies and models, all politics is still based on 4-5 word slogans: "Make America (or Italy) Great Again." A fine idea, but how exactly?

The Greatest Extermination in History: How Humans won the war on Whales
23 January 2020 | 5:04 pm

Image from the NYT. This dead whale on a California beach and the man taking a selfie in front of it symbolizes the war of humans on whales. The whales lost in what was probably the largest extermination of a non-human species in history. You'll find more details on this epic story in the upcoming book by Ugo Bardi and Ilaria Perissi "The Empty Sea" to be published by Springer

With the start of the 19th century (according to the human calendar), the lines were drawn: the two major vertebrate groups on Earth were squaring off against each other. On one side, the homo sapiens, the last survivor of the hominin genus, a bipedal primate with remarkable technical abilities. On the other side, the 89 species of the Cetacea order, known to humans as "whales," large aquatic animals that dominated the marine trophic chain.

When the war began, there were some 4 million whales in the Earth's ocean, for a total mass of some 120 million tons. On land, humans numbered about one billion individuals, but their total mass was less than 100 million tons. It looked like a fair fight but, in reality, the whales never had a chance.

The whales probably never understood what befell them: their powerful sonar systems worked only underwater and couldn't tell them of the menace that was coming from above the surface. Their sophisticated brains were unable to devise strategies to fight a threat that they had never faced in the tens of millions of years of their existence. Their stupendous bodies weighing tens of tons were of no use against small creatures using super-charged metabolic mechanisms. Their magnificent insulation system, that humans called the "blubber," made whales able to survive in icy waters but it was blubber that sent whales in hyperthermia when they tried to swim away from their human nemesis.

Image from Christensen 2006-  The Y-scale reports the estimated total mass of whales in the Earth's oceans. The X-scale goes from 1800 to 2000. It is a "Seneca Cliff," typical of the overexploitation of economic resources.

It was a war of extermination. In quantitative terms, it was possibly the largest extermination of a non-human species carried out by humans over their existence. And also the fastest one: commercial whaling started in the early 19th century, by the late 20th century it was basically over and the true collapse of the whale populations had lasted no more than a few decades. Afterward, one whale in four was still alive, and the large ones had been wiped out. Maybe 20 Million tons of whales remained out of an initial total of some 120 million. Whales are still hunted and killed, nowadays, although pollution and the keel of boats may be more effective extermination weapons than harpoons used to be (but harpoons are still used, too).

It is done, now, and the ocean is bereft of whales: it is not the same ocean anymore.  Humans are clever monkeys and they are good hunters, but they don't understand the results of their actions. Everything on this planet is connected and it is well known in biology that you can't do just one thing. So, the elimination of the top of the marine trophic chain is going to have unpredictable and probably disastrous effects on the whole ecosphere -- it will also have bad effects on the stability of the Earth's climate.

Some humans understand the danger of what they did, but most of them don't and don't care. They seem to think that exterminating whales is a right given to them by their God (maybe an evil deity going under the sacred name of MSY - maximum sustainable yield). About what the whales may have thought of their disgrace, we'll never know. But, if whales have a God or a Goddess, there may come a time for revenge, and humans will fully deserve whatever befalls them.

h/t Daniel Pauly

How to Predict the Future: Confessions of a Modern Cassandra
20 January 2020 | 6:57 pm

Telling the truth has always been dangerous and the original Cassandra, the Trojan prophetess, had to suffer the consequences for what she said. But there is a more interesting question: how did she manage to be right while everyone else got it wrong? Here I tell you of my experience as a modest 21st century Cassandra, with my blog. (if you like to hear the story told by the prophetess herself, you can read it here and here.)

It is traditional at the start of a new year to make predictions, but this time I would rather go back to what I have been doing for the past more than 15 years of blogging and social media activity. I have been dealing with several different subjects and, in some cases, I made predictions or I offered my assessments. How right (or wrong) was I?

I think my record was not so bad as a Cassandra. And from this record, I think there are three rules for good (let's say decent) predictions:

1. Always trust thermodynamics
2. Always mistrust claims of marvelous new technologies
3. Always remember that the system has unpredictable tipping points

So, below you'll find a list of what I think were my main successes and failures.

So, let's start with where I was right.  

2002 - The Hydrogen Economy is a Hoax. 2002 is the year when Rifkin published his book titled "The Hydrogen Economy." I had been working on hydrogen and fuel cells for some time while at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, in Berkeley, and I knew very well that things were not so easy as Rifkin painted them in his book. But, in the beginning, I have to confess that I tried to follow the crowd in search of research grants. Then, I thought it over and I decided that I had to say what I thought: this idea won't work. And I was right: 20 years later, no trace of the hydrogen economy, no hydrogen vehicles on the road, no production of hydrogen from renewable energy. Here is a 2007 post of mine on this subject

2003. No Nuclear Weapons in Iraq.  I don't think I had a blog at that time, but I did write an assessment of mine in Italian on whether it was likely that Iraq could have had WMDs in the form of nuclear weapons. My conclusion was that it was not possible: Iraq lacked the conditions and the infrastructures needed. As a result, I was vilified and insulted in various ways and told that if I loved Saddam so much, why didn't I go live in Iraq? But you know how it ended. I haven't been able to find that article of mine, but it is mentioned in this post.

2005. The compressed air car (The Eolo) is a scam.  The car running on compressed air is an idea that remained alive in Europe for some 10 years, starting in 2005. A French inventor, Guy Negré, claimed that he could mass-produce a vehicle that he called the "Eolo" that could compete with other technologies in terms of price and performance. I was skeptical from the very beginning on the basis of some simple calculations. And I was right. No matter how I was insulted by some diehard followers of the Eolo, more than 10 years later, Mr. Negré is no more with us, but his Eolo car never appeared on roads.

2005. Electric Cars are the future. Already in 2005, I bought myself an electric scooter and I started writing articles where I promoted electric vehicles as a good technology that could alleviate several problems we have: traffic, pollution, climate change, etc. I was right in thinking that EVs would become fashionable, even though it took some time for decision-makers to understand the point. Even today, EVs face strong resistance from an unholy alliance of oil companies, carmakers, and environmentalists. But they are going to replace traditional vehicles in the coming years.

2008. Oil prices will go down. You remember how, in 2008, oil prices had started a rally leading the barrel to be priced at $150. There was a moment of panic in which everyone was expecting prices to keep climbing even higher. They forgot that prices are the result of a compromise between offer and demand and that, since demand cannot be infinite, prices can't, either. So, in 2008 I published a post on "The Oil Drum" where I argued in this sense and I proposed that prices would go down. It was what happened.

2011. Andrea Ross's e-cat is a scam. In 1989, I had witnessed the first claims of "cold fusion." The story swept through the scientific world like a tsunami, but it turned out to have been a mistake. It also triggered infinite attempts of imitation, some of which were outright scams. One was the story of the "E-Cat" invented by Andrea Rossi in Italy. After some initial attempts of assessment, it was clear to me that it was a total hoax, and I said that more than once. Actually, it should have been clear to everybody, but Rossi generated a group of faithful followers who engaged, among other things, in insulting and vilifying the unbelievers  - I never received so many insults in my life as I did from this bunch of madmen. Now, almost 10 years after the first claim by Rossi that he would soon start mass-producing his machine, I think it can be said that it was a hoax. Find the story here.

2011. The Limits to Growth was Right! In 2011, I published my first assessments of the story of "The Limits to Growth," study and later on, in 2014, a book titled "The Limits to Growth Revisited," my first book in English. I re-examined the whole story how of the study was rejected and demonized, widely described as containing "wrong predictions". I concluded that there was nothing wrong in the book and that its rejection was one of the first examples of a negative PR campaign designed to discredit scientific results that were considered harmful to some political or industrial lobby. My assessment was among the first studies that led to a re-evaluation of the study that's still ongoing. It is still early to say if one or another of the 12 scenarios published in the 1972 book was "right" but there is no doubt that the study is now considered a milestone in the understanding of complex systems, as it deserves to be. In this sense, I had made a correct prediction.

2016. The "Sower's Way:" Photovoltaic Energy is the future. Here, I have been always a sustainer of PV energy, since 2005, when I placed PV panels on the roof of my house. I think I was right too, especially when PV reached "grid parity" with other technologies producing electric power. But it is moving onward. I marked the "2016" date because it is when I published a paper dealing with the concept of the "Sower's Way," that is, that we need to invest fossil energy to build up the new renewable energy infrastructure. We are moving in that direction, although facing a dogged resistance by groups of greenies who have decided that we all have to die in the darkness.

Now some cases in which I turned out to be wrong.

2003 -- Peak oil in 2010. Here, I don't think I ever made a peak date prediction myself, but I have been a "peak oiler," among other things the president of the Italian section of ASPO, the association for the study of peak oil. So, I share the blame for the two mistakes that peakers made. The first was to focus on the "peak" as if it was an equivalent of the apocalypse and spending inordinate amounts of time to try to predict the exact date when it would arrive. The second was to underestimate the importance that "non-conventional" oil could have had. We didn't realize that shale oil is not so much an economic resource as it is a strategic dominance weapon. There have been several predictions (including mine) that the shale "bubble" was going to burst, but so far it has not.

2005 -- EROI is a metric that can help us choose the best alternatives for the future.  When I discovered the concept of EROI (energy returned on energy investment) or EROEI (energy return on energy invested), developed by Odum and Hall, it was a small epiphany for me: here was an objective, scientific, rational way to evaluate the best technologies for the future. I wrote my first paper on the subject in 2005. That text became rather popular in Italy. But I didn't imagine what the reptilian part of human brains could do when it understood what EROI was and what could it be used for. The concept was stretched, massacred, mongrelized, cut to pieces and made into a stew, and more. Whoever had an interest in making a certain technology look good could find ways to juggle the numbers and assign to it a high EROI. The reverse was also possible if one wanted to demonize a certain technology. So, you can find studies that assign an EROI <1 to photovoltaics and > 100 to nuclear energy, and also the reverse. At this point, EROI has become a useless metric, destroyed by too much politics applied to it.

2009 -- High Altitude Wind Energy. In 2009, I published on the Oil Drum a very positive assessment of high altitude wind energy, in particular of the prototype being developed in Italy, the Kitegen. I was way too optimistic. High altitude wind power turned out to be much more difficult to develop than it had seemed to be at the beginning. There is nothing in the idea that goes against the laws of physics but, evidently, there are big problems, probably related to the control of the kites. Today, 10 years later, high altitude wind energy remains an unfulfilled promise, even though there still exist companies engaged in the field. I continue to think that this technology can play a role in the future, but it won't be the game-changer it seemed to be 10 years ago.

2019 - Greta Thunberg: the unexpected storm.  In 2018 I published a post in which I examined the trends of the "climate change" meme, concluding that the public interest for it was declining and that soon nobody would have been interested in it anymore. I was wrong: in 2019 Greta Thunberg appeared, changing everything. As I wrote in a later post, I made the classic mistake that all forecasters make: thinking that past trends will also be future trends. Sometimes it is true, at times it is deadly wrong, as in this case. It is curious to note how the young Swedish lady has been playing in the real world the role that Asimov's character, "The Mule" played in the "Foundation" series: something outside statistics and unpredictable by models.


There may be more things wrong and right that I said, after all, I calculated that I infested the Web with something like 3 million words, up to now! So, if you remember something I wrote that was egregiously wrong or right, tell me in the comments, I'll see to add it as a note to this post.

Overall, maybe I could have done better, but I think that if Lady Cassandra is seeing me from wherever she is now, in Hades, she may be nodding in approval!

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