Welcome to the age of diminishing returns

Monday, March 23, 2015

Climate Change: how to make the problem bigger. Lessons from the case of world hunger

Results of a search for "world hunger" using Google Ngram Viewer. Clearly, the perception of hunger as a major world problem is relatively recent: it peaked in the 1980s and it remains well entrenched in collective consciousness today. Would climate change show the same trajectory in the future? And, if it does, does it mean that the problem can be solved? Or won't we only make problems bigger in the efforts of solving them?

Momentum is clearly building up for climate action, even though denial is still putting up a stiff resistance. So, in a way, things are going well, but is it enough? Do we still have time for significant action against climate change? And if we will engage in such an action, will we take the right decisions?

Normally, the key of the future lies in the past and we can examine our present situation with climate in light of an older problem: world hunger, which went through a path of perception and action which may go in parallel with the climate problem.

Famines have a long history and, in ancient times, they were often perceived as "acts of God." The idea that something could be done against hunger took time to penetrate humankind's consciousness and we can perhaps find a first glimpse with the satirical essay titled "A Modest Proposal" written in 1729 by Jonathan Swift (best known for his "Gulliver's Travels"), where he proposed that the Irish poor should sell their children as food for the rich English. In reading it, you get a feeling of the frustration that Swift felt for the way the problems of Ireland were perceived in his times and, clearly, that hunger was no concern of the elites of the time. One of the results was the slow and ineffective response of the British government to the Irish famines which came in later times, in particular to the great famine of 1845 that killed millions of people.

Perceptions about world hunger changed in mid-20th century and the interest in the problem rose up rapidly and peaked in the 1980s. Afterward, it went down, but remained a clearly visible problem, something that everyone agrees it must be acted upon. Can we hope for a similar evolution of the concept of climate change? If we use google Ngram viewer, we can compare the terms "world hunger" and "climate change" and here is the result:

We should not pay too much attention to the relative magnitude of the curves. What counts is that the "climate change" curve has not yet saturated, but the use of the term is growing rapidly. It may still take some years before the curve reaches a peak, but there may arrive a moment in which the importance of climate change becomes obvious and nobody will deny it any more.

These are good news; but there is a problem. Suppose that the moment comes when everyone agrees that climate change is a big problem and we have to do something about that. Then, will anything be done? Will something be done fast enough? And will the right things be done? On this point, I am afraid that there will be problems. Big problems.

Let's go back to world hunger: most people today seem to agree that it is a success story and that the problem was solved by the so called "green revolution" that is, greatly increasing food production worldwide. It was, surely, a remarkable technological success, but did it solve the problem? Or didn't it just create a rat race between food production and population? In this case, we only made the problem bigger, instead of solving it (a case of the "black swan" trap). And the green revolution is all based on the idea of turning fossil fuels into food. But if population keeps increasing, while the stocks of fossil fuels can only decrease, we are going to have big problems. Actually, enormous problems. We'll never solve the hunger problem if we can't manage to stabilize the human population.

The reaction of humankind to climate change could be the same. Once we finally recognize that it is a problem, we may look for some technological quick fix to solve it and that may only make the problem bigger. Think of the various proposals of climate engineering that involve at spreading reflecting substances in the high atmosphere. If some of these proposals were implemented, then we could keep emitting greenhouse gases without generating atmospheric warming; and we probably would. Then, with emissions going up, we'll need more screening of sunlight, and, with more screening, we would keep emitting. It would be another rat race between emissions and screening. And what if something were to go wrong with the management of solar radiation? Something we didn't predict or we didn't understand? Then we would be in deep, deep trouble (anyone said "black swan"?). We'll never solve the climate problem if we don't manage to stabilize the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Nobody likes to play the role of the catastrophist but, here, it is clear that we have a gigantic problem. It is not so much a physical or a technological problem, it is that we never developed methods to solve worldwide complex problems; we mostly tend to worsen them. It happens all the time (the political situation in North Africa and Middle East comes to mind as just another example). There have been several attempts to develop new and more effective ways to tackle big problems, such as focussing attention on the leverage points of systems. These methods are true game changers, but will any decision maker pay attention?

Friday, March 20, 2015

Frontiers does it again: how bad practices in science publishing can mislead the public

The publishers of "Frontiers" provide readers with a remarkable pitch for their activities that includes the lavish use of terms such as "grassroots", "community oriented" "empowering researchers," and the like. Unfortunately, reality is far from these fantasies. "Frontiers" is not a grassroots initiative, but a profit oriented, commercial publishing house, and scientists have no control on what they decide to publish or not to publish.

I described in a previous post how the science publisher "Frontiers" took down a perfectly legitimate paper in climate science on the basis of unscientific criticism they received - a story that led me to resign from the position of chief scientific editor I had with them. Now, they did it again, although in reverse: they refused to take down an unscientific paper about AIDS on the basis of perfectly legitimate scientific criticism they received about it. What they did was, instead, to demote it to an "opinion" paper. That only made the problem worse.

Let me state it clearly: the business of a science publisher is to publish peer reviewed scientific papers. Opinion pieces can find space in scientific journals only when dealing with issues that can't be solved with the standard scientific method; say, about science policy. But it is totally wrong for a science publisher to publish bad scientific papers under the label of "opinion pieces." For that, we have plenty of tabloids that can do the job. 

What Frontiers did is not just a minor mishap: publishing bad science about serious issues such as AIDS is dangerous as the treatment of AIDS is an issue of life and death for many people. Unfortunately, however, the diffusion of "open access" journals managed by scientifically incompetent editors is leading to a proliferation of bad science. And this bad science appears, at first sight, as legitimate, "peer reviewed" articles that can badly mislead the public.

This is a problem deeply ingrained with scientists having delegated the dissemination of their result to commercial publishers. In principle, there is nothing wrong with publishing as a commercial enterprise but it is turning out that scientists have no real control on what these publishers (even supposedly "serious" ones) publish or do not publish. The case of Frontiers shows this point very clearly. So, the only possibility we have - as scientists -  to contrast this trend is to avoid submitting our work to publishers who clearly show little or no understanding of the basic elements of what science publishing should be.

In the following, you can find the responses of a group of Italian scientists to the paper on AIDS that Frontiers published.  


Texts kindly provided by "Dora"

Last September, Frontiers in Public Health published an AIDS denialist paper by Patricia Goodson, a psychologist who teaches Health and Kinesiology at Texas A&M University. Following the immediate reaction of the scientific community, the publisher Frontiers launched an investigation to look into the peer review process and to understand how the paper came to be published. 

During this investigation Frontiers “has sought expert input from the Specialty Chief Editors of the HIV and AIDS section of Frontiers in Public Health and Frontiers in Immunology”, which led to a conclusion that ended up turning what could be a simple, however serious, oversight of peer reviewers and chief editors into a debacle of the journal: Dr Goodson’s article has been re-classified as an “opinion” piece, “which represents the viewpoint of an individual”.

So the paper continues to be indexed on PubMed and can easily be used by the AIDS denialist movement for its propaganda in social networks and among lay people with HIV or who are at risk. Used in this way, the paper's re-designation as an "opinion" article rather than a "research" one is purely academic.

Johns Hopkins biologist Kenneth Witwer has called on scientists to boycott the publisher in response.

With a group of friends at the Italian HIVforum and with the support of four Italian scientists, I’ve sent a letter of complaint to Frontiers’ editors. The Frontiers Editorial Office Manager replied acknowledging receipt and promising a more comprehensive response “in a few days”. It's now been two weeks and there’s no trace of that “more comprehensive response”.

This is our complaint letter to Frontiers.

Dora – On behalf of the HIVforum Group (dora@hivforum.info)

March 1st, 2015
Frontiers in Public Health  
EPFL Innovation Park, Building I
CH – 1015 Lausanne, Switzerland
HIV/AIDS Chief Editors

Nina Bhardwaj,
New York University School of Medicine Langone Medical Center, New York, USA

John B.F. de Wit,
The University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia

Frank Miedema,
University Medical Centre Utrecht, Utrecht, Netherlands

CC to

Kamila Makram, CEO of Frontiers

Editorial Office of Frontiers

As PLWHAs, scientists, clinicians and activists we are dismayed at the decision of Frontiers in Public Health to publish an article whose sole purpose is to promote HIV/AIDS denialism: Questioning the HIV-AIDS hypothesis: 30 years of dissent. (1)
The individuals who developed this piece are associated with a well-known internet based group (2) whose ideological purpose is to convince people with HIV/AIDS, and those who are at risk, that the virus does not exist or is harmless, that their diagnosis is a fraud, that HIV/AIDS is not sexually transmissible, and that competent treatment of the disease including the prevention of mother to child transmission is a cruel hoax perpetrated by greedy and foolish doctors, the pharmaceutical industry, governments, and gay activists.
It is difficult to understand how in 2015 a professional journal focused on public health could willingly lend support such a perverse project.

As a work of supposed scholarship, the paper is of manifestly poor quality. Likewise, its call to public health practitioners to take seriously such claims and to engage with them in informed debate is disingenuous: such “debates” have been carried on ad nauseam for decades, and serve only as a tactic to generate sound and fury in order to try to convince the denialists’ target audience that there is genuine uncertainty in the scientific and medical communities about whether HIV exists or causes any human disease. (3) Attempting to engage denialists is pointless: they have demonstrated conclusively over the past 30 years that they are impervious to evidence based counterargument, and will simply repeat the same claims over and over despite repeated refutation and painstaking explanation. Invariably such “debates” degenerate into personal attacks, and on a number of occasions to lawsuits.

Clearly, no one familiar with the basic science could take any of this paper’s contentions seriously, but its purpose is not to convince competent scientists or clinicians. Its purpose is to try to lend a veneer of credibility to their argument, when they target their main audience in social media. (4)

Dr. Goodson’s opening argument that “according to established immunology principles” the detection of antibodies necessarily demonstrates a past resolved infection and not a present one will be recognized as nonsense by anyone with basic science literacy, but is calculated to provide false reassurance to people with HIV who are struggling with their diagnosis.

She concludes her argument by blithely dismissing at a stroke the vast epidemiological literature demonstrating the causal relationship between HIV infection and AIDS with the statement that “epidemiological data do not provide evidence for causation”. It beggars belief that someone who teaches public health in a US institution could so profoundly misstate the fundamentals of her field, or that such a statement could pass unremarked on in a public health journal.

In between, she recites a familiar litany of tired falsehoods, misrepresentations and misapprehensions designed to mislead her intended audience into ignoring and dismissing measures to prevent, diagnose and treat a serious infectious disease. Dr. Goodson asserts, for example, that an HIV-1 Western Blot with bands at gp41, p32, and p24 is read as “negative” in Africa and Australia, which is patently false. Citing no less an authority than Dr. Henry Bauer himself she claims that HIV-1 p24 and gp41 are “found in blood platelets of healthy individuals.” which is again untrue. She states that “a retrovirus is nothing more than RNA with an outer protein shell” which “enables it to bind to cells of the type it infects”, ignoring the lipid bilayer envelope and other key components of lentiviruses.

She states incorrectly, that antiretroviral drugs “destroy the immune systems’ healthy T-cells”, and “cause a collapse identical to AIDS”, and that the apparent “miraculous recovery” observed by patients with AIDS using them is nothing more than a temporary illusion created by their broad spectrum antimicrobial effects.

There is nothing in Dr Goodson’s paper that warrants informed debate, nor any insight that could possibly contribute positively to public health.

We cannot understand how such obvious untruths and misrepresentations were able to pass through the filter first of the peer review and later of an investigation which has “sought expert input from the Specialty Chief Editors of the HIV and AIDS section of Frontiers in Public Health and Frontiers in Immunology”. (5)

Open access publishing is not merely a discourse among scholars but its very accessibility intersects with that of lay social media where it can be open to abuse by interests that seek to borrow the reputation of peer reviewed journals to further agendas inimical to public interest: this creates an enhanced obligation on publishers to be mindful of potential audiences and to avoid causing harm to readers who might lack the background knowledge and skills to evaluate contentious and clearly counterfactual claims, especially where such deliberate misinformation might lead individuals to make poor health decisions.

While it may have been the intention of the publisher that such claims might be conclusively dealt with by open debate on their pages, in reality this has not been possible in the case of HIV/AIDS denialism for many years, if ever. Such "debates" are futile because denialists by their nature are not amenable to reason or evidence, and in reality there is no dispute among informed scientists and clinicians about whether HIV exists and causes disease. (6)
Frontiers' publisher has possibly misinterpreted the lack of public engagement with Dr Goodson's absurd paper as approval of, or at least indifference to, its publication. In fact many of us have trusted the good sense of Frontiers' editors to take appropriate action for such a bizarre submission with obvious adverse implications for public health, and did not wish to add unnecessarily to the publisher’s further humiliation by contentious public criticism in the comments.

Unfortunately our trust in the judgment of Frontiers' senior editors appears to have been misplaced. The decision to demote the paper to “Opinion Article” will make no difference to the intended lay audience who will see only that Goodson’s claims are published in a peer reviewed journal of some repute, and are therefore credible.

The original publication of the paper was an embarrassing error which has highlighted to readers and potential contributors a significant deficit in the journal’s editorial oversight. In its Statement of Concern, the publisher has promised to make public the outcome of its investigation into how this paper came to appear in its journal. (7) To date this has not occurred.

The decision by Frontiers’ senior editors to support continued publication despite being made aware of the likely public health consequences of such a decision is incomprehensible, and appears to demonstrate indifference to, or a lack of understanding of, the journal’s responsibilities to its readers, contributors and to the wider community.

Dora – On behalf of the HIVforum Group (dora@hivforum.info)

Guido Poli, AIDS Immunopathogenesis Unit, San Raffaele Scientific Institute and Vita-Salute San Raffaele University, Milano, Italy (poli.guido@hsr.it)
Guido Silvestri, Emory University School of Medicine, Emory University, Atlanta, GA, USA (gsilves@emory.edu)
Andrea Savarino, Istituto Superiore di Sanità, Rome, Italy (andrea.savarino@iss.it)
Giovanni Maga, Institute of Molecular Genetics IGM-CNR National Research Council, Pavia, Italy (maga@igm.cnr.it)

Monday, March 16, 2015

What we can still learn from "Star Trek": a saga of harmony in diversity.

Star Trek: a low budget TV series. Cardboard models of spaceships, few and simple special effects, a small number of actors always engaged in the same mock-up of the command bridge of a starship. And, yet, it influenced a whole generation. 

The death of Leonard Nimoy, the actor who played Mr. Spock in the original TV series  "Star Trek" has ended an age. Star Trek was a true 20th century saga, a way of seeing the world. To some of us, it may look completely obsolete, today, but it must have been telling us something deep; something important, if it was so successful, so followed, so revered by so many. So, what was the secret of the series? It was not technological wizardry; it was the human side of the story. It was a story that told us of how it was possible to have harmony in diversity.

The literary origins of Star Trek go back to Homer's Odissey, but its immediate ancestor is "Moby Dick" by Herman Melville. With all the obvious differences, the similarities are many and obvious. One is that the Pequod, the ship of Moby Dick and the Enterprise, the starship of Star Trek, never land anywhere, they just wander over the oceans and in the interstellar space. And, despite all the technological wizardry involved, the command deck of the Enterprise looks very much like that of a 19th century ship (and, maybe, Odysseus himself would have found himself at home sitting in Captain Kirk's chair).

It has been observed many times that Melville's microcosm echoes the structure of the American society of his times, a society which needed to integrate and harmonize its different cultural elements. Think of the character of Quequegg, the tattooed islander who appears very early in the novel and, in a sense, characterizes it. But, if the Pequod is America, it is also a society which is already facing its limits in its search for a disappearing resource: whales. This is why I described "Moby Dick" as "The greatest peak oil novel ever written".

With "Star Trek" we have again a microcosm of the American society, although, in this case, it has one galactic. But this future society still faces the problem that the Pequod was facing, a problem that was so deeply felt in the 1960s, when the series was born, that of the limits to human expansion. In Star Trek, humans can travel in the Galaxy but can't (or won't) expand in it. The economy of the "United Federation of Planets" seems to be a steady state one; they don't seem to be obsessed with economic growth, actually they may not even use money! In Star Trek we see no economic growth, no population increase, no industrial production, no attempt of humans to exterminate alien races in order to colonize other planets. The Enterprise hops from one planet to another without ever stopping anywhere, without ever leaving a long lasting trace of its passage. It is like the wake left by the Pequod on the sea, which disappears leaving no trace.

So, with Star Trek, if the problem is the limits, and if you can't go on exterminating aliens in order to steal their planets, then the solution is harmony in diversity, the same as one of the main themes of "Moby Dick" with the multiracial crew of the Pequod. The central point of "Star Trek" is not technology, it is not the future, it is people; and one character in particular: first officer Spock, the equivalent of Quequegg in Moby Dick; the alien to be integrated and, at the same time, respected. Note how the relation of Captain Kirk and Spock mirrors that of Quequegg and Ishmael of Moby Dick. In both cases, they recognize their respective cultural difference and they respect each other. As on board of the Pequod, the deck of the Enterprise is a place where individual differences are neither ignored nor rejected, they are accepted and valued. Star Trek lacks the negative character of Captain Ahab of Moby Dick, and hence emphasizes even more the positive results of collaboration of different individuals. This is the "secret" of Star Trek: harmony in diversity.

In a sense, the message of Star Trek echoes that of "The Limits to Growth", the 1972 study that first quantified the physical limits to human growth on the surface of the earth. The study was the result of the intuition of a man, Aurelio Peccei, who had asked the question of how human beings could live in justice and prosperity on a limited planet. The answer that he obtained from the scientists was a statement of the obvious: humankind cannot grow forever on a finite planet. Little was said in the "Limits" study about the destiny of humankind beyond cold graphics and tables, and that was one of the reasons of its downfall in the decades after its release. But Peccei had not really asked for graphics. He had asked a question that computers could not answer at that time and cannot answer today. The real answer was that we don't need to grow forever to live in harmony without losing our diversity.

It is an answer that Peccei had surely in mind, but that was shadowed, and eventually lost, by the great noise created by the debate on the Limits to Growth. But, perhaps, we can find again and one of the places where we can find it is in Spock's words "Live Long and Prosper." So simple as that: we could live long and prosper if we wanted, but we haven't learned how to do that. Probably we never will and the command deck of spaceship Earth remains manned by homicidal psychopaths.

h/t to Alexander Stefes for the discussion that led me to write to this post

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Putin eats babies: lies, damned lies, and psyops

Google Ngram's results for "propaganda". The term seems to have been most popular in a period that went from the 1940 to the 1970s, gradually losing interest in the following years. Of course, however, propaganda didn't disappear - it just went undercover.

I distinctly remember one day when I was - maybe - twelve; when my father saw me reading something that was lavishly illustrated with red flags and with hammers and sickles. He looked at that, very worried, then he relaxed. "Oh..., " he said, "that's fine: it is our propaganda." At that time, in the 1960s, my father was active in politics and the house was full of pamphlets of the Christian Democratic party. 

What I was reading was one of those pamphlets, full of vivid images of the deformed faces of Soviet communists crushing women and children under their booted feet. Those papers have disappeared from the house long ago, but examples of that old propaganda are easy to find on the Internet. You can see one on the right; it is an image that goes back to 1944, but the style and the message are the same of the time when the cold war was in full swing. Note how the caption says "Dad, save me!" echoing the well known slogan that "communists eat children".

Of course, also the other side, that of the communists, was using the same kind of naive propaganda methods and neither side seemed to think there was something wrong with that. My father, for instance, found natural and legitimate that his political side would openly engage in propaganda. It was "our" propaganda, fighting for us in the political struggle, just as "our" artillery was fighting for us in war. In a war, nobody would claim that the guns on their side were shooting flowers at the enemy.

It was only in later times that propaganda changed its face. The term never disappeared from usage, but it slowly fell out of fashion, at least in the sense that it became politically incorrect to say that one's faction was using propaganda. It was only something used by "them," not by us. "Our" side would never debase itself by using propaganda.

In part, the term "propaganda" was replaced by more neutral terms, such as "consensus building" and "public relations." In large part, however, in the West, propaganda went undercover; fully exploiting Baudelaire's observation that "the finest trick of the devil is to persuade you that he does not exist." It became refined, unobtrusive, subtle. And it was incredibly successful in convincing Westerners that it didn't exist - maybe for a while it even disappeared for real! Perhaps it wasn't needed any more during the period of Fukuyama's "End of History," when everybody got genuinely convinced that the collapse of the "evil empire", the Soviet Union, had shown the superiority of economic liberism At that time, everyone knew that we just needed to sit down and relax to enjoy the goods that free markets would bring to us. There was no need any more to be told over and over that our enemies were dangerous, baby-eating monsters.

But, in recent times, something has changed. Propaganda is back with a vengeance. Here is just an example:

You see? No matter how you see the recent crisis in Ukraine, you have to admit that, in terms of propaganda, we are back to the methods of the 1950s and the 1960s, just a bit more sophisticated in graphical terms, but still based on the same simple theme: our enemies are baby-killing evil monsters. It is an accusation that has been fashionable and effective from the times when the Romans accused their Cartaginese enemies to sacrifice children to their god, Baal. Note how, in the image, they have managed to put the image of a child close to the title, "Putin's killed my son," even though they are completely unrelated stories (that shows, incidentally, the contempt they feel for their readers.)

We are not yet arrived to accusing Vladimir Putin of eating babies, but - as things stand - we may not be far away from that. Look at the image, here, titled "Bloodymir;" where Putin is shown with blood on his mouth, as if he had just finished his breakfast of child meat. And these are just a few examples of the new wave of propaganda that is invading the Western media. It is amazing how these simple tricks worked in the 1950s and 1960s and still seem to work today. And it seems that they are being used to take us straight to a new war. A lot of people, indeed, seem to be reasoning today just in the same way people reasoned in the 1950s: it is "our" propaganda, hence it must be good.

We can see propaganda as one of the several failed technologies of the 20th century, just like nuclear powered cars and weekend trips to the Moon for the whole family. Propaganda never promised to take us to the Moon, but, at the beginning it, was touted as a way to build informed consensus in a democratic society. That was the theme, at least, of Edward Bernays' 1928 book, titled "Propaganda," where he stated that that propaganda is not just good, but essential for democracy: "The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society."

Evidently, something went wrong with these ideas. In its commercial version, propaganda became an instrument to convince us to buy things we don't need, while, as a political tool, it turned itself into the evil form we call today "psyops," the deliberate dissemination of lies to cast an enemy in a bad light. It is a form of black magic; powerful but extremely limited and often backfiring. Psyops can only create enemies, not friends. In the end, the effect is the opposite of what it was supposed to do in Bernay's times: by casting an external or internal opponent as "evil", consensus is destroyed, not created.

Nevertheless, Bernays had a good point: we need consensus. Of course, we don't need the forced uniformity that can be achieved by a dictatorship, but, without consensus on some basic points, it would not be possible to keep a democratic society going. The rule of the law, the need of due process, people's basic rights, are all part of this consensus. And there never was a moment as today in which we are so badly in need of consensus on such vital subjects as climate change and resource depletion which threaten the very existence of human civilization. But we are not achieving a significant consensus on these critical issues; what passes for "debate," today, is a sterile clash of absolutes were psyops have been used with great effect to destroy the credibility of a whole generation of climate scientists.

So, we are stuck: we need to manage a planet, but we don't know how to do it. Will we ever be able to find an agreement on something important that doesn't involve hating or bombing someone? Maybe there are ways, but we haven't found them, yet.


(*) Maybe you are curious to know what was the effect of a massive exposure to right-wing propaganda on a teenager (me) in the 1960s. Well, it is a long story, but I can tell you that too many and too blatant lies can badly backfire. The story of my very wavering juvenile political positions is not so interesting, but I can say that one of the reasons that led me to become a scientist was to search for an unbiased truth, somewhere, perhaps the result of the overexposure to propaganda I experienced in my youth. Over the years, I found that even science is not without biases, but, at least, in scientific debates we don't accuse our colleagues of eating babies. 

Monday, March 9, 2015

How do Empires hunt bears? The control of natural resources from ancient Rome to our times

Hunting the Russian bear is turning out to be a difficult task for the global empire.
(image from homesweethome)

You probably know the joke that starts with the question "how do economists hunt bears?" The answer is, "they don't, but they believe that if bears are paid enough, they'll hunt themselves." It is a good illustration of the awesome power of money. It doesn't work so well with bears, but, if paid enough, people will engage in all sorts of nasty and unpleasant activities, including hunting and killing other human beings.

The question about bears can be translated to another situation. You know that empires are large structures dedicated to collecting resources from the periphery and concentrating them in the center. This is, obviously, disadvantageous for the periphery. So, how do the imperial elites convince people living in the peripheries to surrender their resources to them? The answer is similar to that of the joke about economists and bears: by paying them enough.

This point needs some specification and, as it often happens, the past gives us a guide for the present. So, let's consider the case of the Roman Empire, whose cycle we know very well. The Romans had a well developed and tested method of empire building. First, they would attack and defeat a bordering kingdom. Then, they would proceed to exterminate or enslave the local elites. At this point, they would replace them with a partly or fully Romanized new elite to govern the territory, from then on called a "province."

The critical feature of the system was that it could not be managed just by brute force; it would have been too expensive. So, the Romans needed to convince the local elites to act as tax collectors for them. Not an easy task, in principle, since the local elites could have reasoned that it was more convenient for them to keep all the taxes for themselves. Occasionally, indeed, provinces revolted in order to regain their independence. For instance, the Jewish uprising that started in 66 AD in Palestine was almost successful and it shook the empire to its foundations. But, on the whole, the provinces remained remarkably quiet up to the end the Roman Empire. The bears were thoroughly tamed. 

How did the Romans manage to keep their Empire together so well and for such a long time? It was, obviously a question of control. The entities we call "states" (and their more aggressive version known as "empires") exist because the center can control the periphery. This control takes various forms, but, basically, it is the result of the financial system: money. In Roman times, the provincial elites were paid with Roman money to act as tax collectors and they could also make more Roman money in other ways, for instance by enlisting in the Roman army. With the Roman currency, they had access to all sorts of luxuries available in the Empire and, in particular, to the gigantic emporium of all goods and services that was Rome itself. It was safer for them to accept this situation rather than embarking in the difficult and risky idea of starting a war against the mighty Roman Empire. In a way, the bear was paid to hunt itself.

The system worked nicely for several centuries, as long as the Empire could coin money. As I argued in an earlier post of mine, the fall of the Roman Empire was not so much a question of loss of resources, but of loss of control. When the Romans ran out of gold and silver from their Spanish mines, they lost the capacity of creating their currency and they couldn't keep a functioning financial system. Without a financial system, they had no way to control the flow of resources from the periphery to the center. The African and Asiatic granaries that had  provided food for the Romans collapsed for lack of maintenance and, without sufficient food for its population, the Empire could not survive. If you don't pay the bear, it will eat you.

And we are back to our times: the bear is alive and well; roaring at the Eastern borders of the global empire. In the past, for a while it seemed that the bear could be convinced to hunt itself. The Russian elite seemed to be happy to be paid to have access to the luxuries that the global empire could provide and they accepted to become part of the globalized financial system. But, at some point, the bear bared its teeth and growled, refusing to be tamed.

What went wrong? One problem that we can identify if is that the Romans would make sure that the military forces of a defeated kingdom were crushed and eliminated before transforming it into a province; the bear was thoroughly defanged before being tamed. In the modern case, however, it is not so easy to defeat a nuclear bear that maintains a considerable fighting power.

But, the main factor that kept the Russian bear alive and angry may be a much more fundamental one. The global empire - just as the Roman Empire, long ago, - needs a fully functional financial system if it is to keep expanding. When the Roman financial system collapsed, the empire collapsed, too. Now, the global financial system doesn't look in good health, to say the least and a new financial collapse, after the one of 2008, may be just around the corner. In these conditions, it is hard to think that the bear can be paid to hunt itself.  That must have been understood even in the capitals of the global empire. So, we are seeing a belated attempt to kill the bear by strangling it - destroying it using economic sanctions. Considering, however, that Russia controls mineral resources that are vital for the empire, choking the bear to death (even assuming that it were possible) may not be the best strategy, really.


A version of the bear joke, but with elephants (h/t Marie Odile)

  • MATHEMATICIANS hunt elephants by going to Africa, throwing out everything that is not an elephant, and catching one of whatever is left.
  • EXPERIENCED MATHEMATICIANS will attempt to prove the existence of at least one unique elephant before proceeding to step 1 as a subordinate exercise.
  • PROFESSORS OF MATHEMATICS will prove the existence of at least one unique elephant and then leave the detection and capture of an actual elephant as an exercise for their graduate students.
  • COMPUTER SCIENTISTS hunt elephants by exercising Algorithm A: 1. Go to Africa. 2. Start at the Cape of Good Hope. 3. Work northward in an orderly manner, traversing the continent alternately east and west. 4. During each traverse pass, a. Catch each animal seen. b. Compare each animal caught to a known elephant. c. Stop when a match is detected.
  • EXPERIENCED COMPUTER PROGRAMMERS modify Algorithm A by placing a known elephant in Cairo to ensure that the algorithm will terminate.
  • ASSEMBLY LANGUAGE PROGRAMMERS prefer to execute Algorithm A on their hands and knees.
  • HARDWARE ENGINEERS hunt elephants by going to Africa, catching gray animals at random, and stopping when any one of them weighs within plus or minus 15 percent of any previously observed elephant.
  • ECONOMISTS don't hunt elephants, but they believe that if elephants are paid enough, they will hunt themselves.
  • STATISTICIANS hunt the first animal they see N times and call it an elephant.
  • CONSULTANTS don't hunt elephants, and many have never hunted anything at all, but they can be hired by the hour to advise those people who do.
  • OPERATIONS RESEARCH CONSULTANTS can also measure the correlation of hat size and bullet color to the efficiency of elephant-hunting strategies, if someone else will only identify the elephants.
  • POLITICIANS don't hunt elephants, but they will share the elephants you catch with the people who voted for them.
  • LAWYERS don't hunt elephants, but they do follow the herds around arguing about who owns the droppings.
  • SOFTWARE LAWYERS will claim that they own an entire herd based on the look and feel of one dropping.
  • VICE PRESIDENTS OF ENGINEERING, RESEARCH, AND DEVELOPMENT try hard to hunt elephants, but their staffs are designed to prevent it. When the vice president does get to hunt elephants, the staff will try to ensure that all possible elephants are completely prehunted before the vice president sees them. If the vice president does happen to see a elephant, the staff will: (1) compliment the vice president's keen eyesight and (2) enlarge itself to prevent any recurrence.
  • SENIOR MANAGERS set broad elephant-hunting policy based on the assumption that elephants are just like field mice, but with deeper voices.
  • QUALITY ASSURANCE INSPECTORS ignore the elephants and look for mistakes the other hunters made when they were packing the jeep.
  • SALES PEOPLE don't hunt elephants, but spend their time selling elephants they haven't caught, for delivery two days before the season opens.
  • SOFTWARE SALES PEOPLE ship the first thing they catch and write up an invoice for an elephant.
  • HARDWARE SALES PEOPLE catch rabbits, paint them gray, and sell them as desktop elephants.


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)