Welcome to the age of diminishing returns

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Willie Soon-gate: why it is a very bad idea not to disclose one's potential conflicts of interest in scientific research

Willie Soon, scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian took over $1 million from fossil fuel companies to finance his studies and he failed to disclose his conflict of interest in the papers he published, where he denied the human role on climate change.

A few years ago, someone discovered that I owned shares in a company working on new technologies in wind power. That generated an attack against me on the part of some supporters of cold fusion.

The attack was based on a sort of an Aristotelic syllogism that went like this: thesis: Ugo Bardi has criticized cold fusion; antithesis: Ugo Bardi has invested in wind power; synthesis: Ugo Bardi criticizes cold fusion only because he wants the money he can make with wind power. Yes, the level of the debate can get this low! (*)

Of course, these accusations were totally absurd, but, for a while, the attack gained some traction on the web and it generated a wave of insults and smears against me (some details are here - in Italian). This initial success was based on the claim that I had been hiding something dark and shameful that could be unveiled only after a difficult investigation. Unfortunately for those who had started the attack, my involvement with that company was no secret and discovering it needed no investigation. I had publicly stated it at least three years before! I just had to point out my previous disclosure to see the whole brouhaha deflating and dying out.

This story shows how important it is to disclose all of one's potential conflicts of interest, no matter how unlikely and remote they may be. Of course, given the present level of the debate, whatever you do, you'll be always misunderstood, but, if you do it openly, you are much less vulnerable. It is a lesson that was lost on Dr. Willie Soon. In the scandal known as the "Willie Soon-gate," he failed to disclose that his scientific papers in which he denied the human influence on climate had been financed by the fossil fuel lobby. And that is a clear and direct conflict of interest. I am sorry, Mr. Soon, but this is not only unforgivable, but just silly: did you really think nobody would have noticed? Now, you have no defense against the attacks you are receiving.

In the end, as long as conflicts of interests are openly disclosed, I think their importance shouldn't be exaggerated. We should judge a scientific thesis for its merit, not on the basis of who funded it. In this sense, you may perhaps know that the first study on "The Limits to Growth" (1972) was financed by Volkswagen. They never tried to influence or modify the results of the study, even though I suppose that they were not happy about having paid for a work that arrived to the conclusion that their core business was doomed in the long run!

I have already disclosed my investments in companies working in sustainability. I did that in my blog Italian (here). Now, let me do that again, but in English, adding also some notes about the sources of my research funds, just in case.


Disclosure: Ugo Bardi's investments and research grants in sustainability. 

First of all, note that I am a government employee living on my salary, hence I can't create big companies or finance large PR campaigns. Nevertheless, I could save a little money in my career, so that I thought I could invest part of it in activities that I believe are good for humankind and - maybe - make a little money in the process. If you ask me if that worked out, well, I can cite the old story that there are three ways for a man to ruin himself: the fastest is with gambling, the most pleasurable is with women, and the surest is with high technology. But I am not completely disappointed, either. I believe that some of these companies will come out as winners in the long run. Here is the complete list:

Alterenergy s.r.l. (Photovoltaic energy)
Retenergie (Renewable energy)
Wind Operations Worldwide (new wind technologies)
Zefiro s.r.l. (Robotics and remote sensing, with some interest in renewable energy and waste management)
In addition, I have a 2.6 kW photovoltaic plant on the roof of my house. I also have royalties on some of the books I have published but, so far, I think I would have made more money if I had spent my time in weaving baskets and selling them.

About the sources of my research grants, most are from public grants dedicated to materials science, only indirectly related to renewable energy and sustainability. Only once I had a grant from a company involved in photovoltaic cell manufacturing (First Solar). All the sources of financing are declared in the papers I publish.


(*) About the media attack I describe in the main text, I can also add that it was not directed only against me, but had as another target Ms. Sylvie Coyaud, journalist of the Italian newspaper "La Repubblica" who had also criticized cold fusion and its practitioners. The attack against her, however, was much nastier and a number of anonymous idiots insulted her in terms that bordered on sexual harassment. In addition, she was accused to have been inspired by me for all what she had written about cold fusion, with the clear implication that a woman can't understand anything of these complicated matters. As we say in Italy, "there is no limit to the worst" ("non c'รจ limite al peggio").

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Farewell, Mr. Spock!

Samantha Cristoforetti, presently orbiting around the earth, pays homage to Leonard Nimoy and to his Spock character by making the "Live Long and Prosper" sign with her hand

Thank you, Leonard Nimoy, for the character of First Officer Spock that you played so well and for so long in Star Trek. You showed us a future where science was respected by everyone, where logic was not in contrast with morality, and where diversity was not only accepted, but praised. Star Trek was all about harmony in diversity.

The future of Star Trek was not to be our future, which turned out instead to be dominated by lies, damned lies, and psyops. But, for a while, we could dream of a different world. And Spock was the Star Trek character who made us dream the most.

You lived long and prospered on this planet, Leonard, now may you fly in high orbit with the Angels!

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The shale oil "miracle": how growth may falsely signal abundance

Oil production (all liquids in barrels per day) in the US and Canada. (From Ron Patterson's blog). Does this rapid growth indicate that the resources are abundant and that all the worries about peak oil are misplaced? Maybe not....

Sometimes, we use a simple metric to evaluate complex systems. For instance, a war is a complex affair where millions of people fight, struggle. suffer, and kill each other. However, in the end, the final result is seen in terms of a yes/no question: either you win or you lose. Not for nothing, General McArthur said once that "there is no substitute for victory".

Now, think of the economy: it is an immense and complex system where millions of people work, produce, buy, sell, and make or lose money. In the end, eventually, we think that the final result can be described in terms of a simple yes/no question: either you grow, or you don't. And what McArthur said about war can be applied to the economy, as well: "there is no substitute for growth".

But complex systems have ways to behave and to surprise you that can't be reduced to a simple yes/no judgement. Both victory and growth may well create more problems than they solve. Victory may falsely signal a military might that doesn't really exist (think of the outcome of some recent wars....), while growth may signal an abundance which is just not there.

Give a look at the figure at the beginning of this post (from Ron Patterson's blog). It shows the oil production (barrels/day) in the US and Canada. The data are in thousand barrels per day for "crude oil + condensate" and the rapid growth for the past few years is mostly due to tight oil (also known as "shale oil") and oil from tar sands. If you follow the debate in this field, you know that this growth trend has been hailed as a great result and as the definitive demonstration that all worries about oil depletion and peak oil were misplaced.

Fine. But let me show you another graph, the US landings of North Atlantic Cod, up to 1980 (data from Faostat).

Doesn't it look similar to the data for oil in the US/Canada? We can imagine what was being said at the time; "new fishing technologies dispel all worries about overfishing" and things like that. It is what was said, indeed (see Hamilton et al. (2003)).

Now, look at the cod landings data up to 2012 and see what happened after the great burst of growth.

I don't think this requires more than a couple of comments. The first is to note how overexploitation leads to collapse: people don't realize that by pushing for growth at all costs, they are destroying the very resource that creates growth. This can happen with fisheries just as with oil fields. Then, note also that we have here another case of a "Seneca Cliff," a production curve where the decline is much faster than growth. As the ancient Roman philosopher said, "The road to ruin is rapid". And this is exactly what we could expect to happen with tight oil

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Why have newspapers become so bad? There is a reason: it is another case of the "Seneca effect"

You probably have noticed the decline in the quality of newspapers. Actually, it is not just a decline, it is a true collapse: news are not verified, legends are published as fact, important issues are neglected in favor of gossip and let's say nothing about the way some crucial problems such as climate change are neglected and mispresented. There is a reason: as you see in the figure above, newspapers have rapidly lost a large fraction of their revenues in the form of advertising. In short, newspapers are a living example of what I called the "Seneca Effect", which states that "ruin is rapid." (Image by Mark J. Perry from the American Enterprise Institute.)

By now, you may think that I am becoming a bit fixated with this idea of the "Seneca Cliff", but the image above is so impressive that I just had to show it here. In previous posts, I described how decline could be much faster than growth (the "Seneca Effect" - see the graph on the left) in several historical cases involving the exploitation of natural resources. In these cases, the rapid collapse is the result of the attempt of operators to keep production constant or increasing, and hence overexploiting the resource.

The case of newspaper advertising looks similar. The decline of newspaper quality during the past few years has been startling and it can be explained by the graph at the beginning of this post. Advertising revenues for newspapers collapsed badly, "Seneca-style,"  starting with the early 2000s. This collapse took place while total advertising revenues actually increased; so, the data have to be interpreted as the result of the diffusion of the Internet. Apparently, Web advertising on social media and other channels provided better performance/cost ratios than newspaper related advertising and it is there that the advertising money went. And, without the money that came from advertising, it is no surprise that the quality of newspapers collapsed as well.

So, we have here a good illustration of the ubiquity of Seneca's observation that "the way to ruin is rapid", but also a different case than that of the exploitation of natural resources as - say - shale oil (which is, by the way, starting to show a very nice "Seneca Cliff"). Nevertheless, all human economic activities have to do with the exploitation of resources of some kind. In this case, the resource being exploited is the capital available for advertising.

We can see the effect of the competition between Social Media and Newspaper advertising as a classic case of the "Gause's law of competitive exclusion", well known in biology. It says that when two species compete for the same resources, one will usually go extinct. This is what's happening with the two "species" which are Newspapers and Social Media - the first is probably going to be extinct soon.

Below, I'll show you a simple model on how we can simulate the competition of  two species for the same resource. But, intuitively, we do expect that the collapse of the less efficient species should be abrupt. We can imagine that the old species (say, foxes) had found some kind of homeostatic equilibrium with its source of food (say, rabbits) and then, suddenly, the new species appears (say, wolves) which catches rabbits much faster and more efficiently. It is disastrous for the foxes, which go extinct quickly.

This is not just theory, think of what happened when the Europeans arrived in the Americas with their firearms. It was a disaster for the local people - less efficient than the Europeans in the art of war. Not a nice story to tell but, unfortunately, this seems to be the way the world works.


A simple model of Gause's law applied to advertising.
by Ugo Bardi

Here is the model's representation made using the Vensim software:

The model is built using simple assumptions which make it similar to the well known "Lotka-Volterra" (LV) model. It starts from an "advertising capital" (rabbits in the LV model), which is consumed by capital specifically dedicated to internet advertising (foxes in the LV model), assuming also that growth is quadratically damped, as it is often done in the LV model. There are two species in competition, Web and Newspaper advertising ("foxes" and "wolves") of which one starts with much lower numbers but with a higher efficiency of capital consumption. This second species appears as a "pulse" at about one third of the simulation. The result is that the first species (Newspaper advertising) reaches homeostasis, but collapses rapidly when the second species (Web advertising) enters into play. Here are the results of the investments on newspaper advertising

This is just a stab of a model, put together in an hour or so. Don't take it for more than that, but I think it does capture something of the system being modeled. For details write to me at ugo.bardi(zingything)unifi.it. I can also send to you the complete model.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Fooling peak oil one more time: can we find new sources of liquid hydrocarbons?

The world peak of conventional oil production took place in 2005-2006, but the supply of combustible liquids did not decline, mainly because of the contribution of the newly developed "shale oil" (or "tight" oil) fields. With the impending worldwide peak of "all liquids" it is likely that the industry will try a new, all out effort to squeeze out the last drops of liquid oil from whatever sources are available, no matter how dirty and expensive. It is not certain that the attempt will be successful, but it is likely that some new monstrosity will be created in Sauron's satanic mills. 

Peak oil is something referred to as a "theory," intended in a derogatory sense. But the concept is not just a theory; production peaks are historically observed facts, occurring not just for oil, but for any natural resource which is exploited beyond its capability to reform (e.g. for whale oil).

Not only peaks are a common phenomenon, but often they can also be predicted with good accuracy. That's the case for two of the major events of this kind; the peaking of oil in the US in 1970, and the worldwide peaking of "conventional" oil in 2005-2006. The first was foreseen by Marion King Hubbert in 1956, the second by Campbell and Laherrere in 1998.

Yet, despite the accuracy of these predictions, "peakers" are often taken by surprise when these peaks do not lead to a decline in the fuel supply. The US 1970 peak was offset by an increase of oil imports and by a major shift to coal for the production of electricity. The world peak of 2005-2006 was compensated by the increase in the production of non-conventional oil, in particular by "tight oil" (commonly referred to as "shale oil"). In the end, neither peak was the great turning point for humankind that some had foreseen.

Today, we are facing a new peak. The collapse of oil prices of late 2014 is an indication that the market cannot absorb the abundant - but expensive - unconventional oil that could be theoretically produced. The result is "peak liquids," arriving in a few years at most (according to Arthur Berman). But, just as it has happened in the past, the industry will not stand still. They will be actively seeking for new resources to keep production ongoing. Can peak oil be fooled once more, at least for some time?

As well known, predictions are difficult, especially when they are about the future. But it seems evident that, out there, something is stirring up and new "solutions" are being explored to counter the inpending decline of combustible liquids. The emphasis on nuclear energy in the latest IEA report is a sign of the times. But nuclear does not produce liquid fuels and the costs and the associated complications make it an unlikely savior of the world. The same can be said of biofuels: inefficient and land consuming; they have already reached their practical limits. Rather, the oil industry has always been good at squeezing out flammable liquids out of the dirtiest possible sources. Tar sands remain a potentially large resource, but their exploitation is hugely expensive. Perhaps more likely, the new "miracle" could be found in the "coal to liquids" process. 

Turning coal into liquids is an old idea and, in the 1940s, the Germans powered their whole war machine using synthetic fuels manufactured from coal. It was a tiny production compared to what we need today, but it shows that, in an emergency situation, coal can come to the rescue.

Making fuels from coal was contemplated during the first oil crisis of the 1970s, although it turned out that it was not needed. Then, in his 2005 report, Robert Hirsch suggested that peak oil could be staved off by a crash program involving - among other things - coal liquefaction. The technology is known, some plants are in operation right now; Wikipedia lists 6 plants in operation in the US and 6 more outside the US. Many more are planned. So, if a crash program on coal were to be started now, it could produce a major fraction of the US demand in 10 years, around 5 million barrels per day (image below, from Hirsch's report), an impact similar to that obtained from shale oil over a similar period of time.

Is it really possible? Will we see a rush to coal similar to the rush to shale that we have seen in the past decade or so? It can't be excluded. The world's coal reserves are - theoretically - very large, even though whether they are all extractable is another matter. Before that is ascertained, however, it is not unlikely that the financial system can be convinced to sink great amounts of money into the new, potentially very profitable, coal adventure.

The real problem is, of course, that trying to replace oil with coal would mean wrecking the earth's atmosphere and moving well over the "tipping point" of climate change. It would mean to forsake a whole planet in exchange for riding our SUVs for a few years more. Yet, the thirst for liquid fuels is so strong, and the denial of climate science so widespread and entrenched, that it is hard to think that the rush to coal could be stopped if - Heaven forbid - it were to turn out to be (or just perceived to be) economically profitable. So, before giving up with liquid fuels and admitting that the only way out is to go renewables, it is perfectly possible that some new monstrosity will be created in Sauron's satanic mills.


Note added after publication. Some commenters have correctly raised the question of the net energy of Coal to Liquids. Is it positive? Is it larger than that of Tar sands or tight oil? But it is also a difficult question to answer. The LCA/EROEI analysis is a good tool, but affected by uncertainties, and technologies always change. The point is, I think, not so much what is the actual value of the net energy provided, but the perception of the financial market of whether some money can be made from coal to liquids.

I think we can compare with the housing bubble. What is the net energy of a house? Negative, surely. And yet, the financial system poured in huge amounts of money in something that was known not to have an intrinsic value. So, it is all a question of perception. And people misperceive things badly enough.....

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Peak Movies

Doomstead Diner

Peak Movies: 1968 Filmography

Published on the Doomstead Diner on February 8, 2015

Ugo Bardi over on Resource Crisis recently wrote an article about the Decline of Literature, another one of his many examples of the “Seneca Cliff” idea, which postulates that while the road up to the Peak of anything is fairly slow, the Road to Ruin is pretty quick.

Right after reading that article, while I was looking for film clips to use in one of my articles, which I always like to drop some pop culture or music reference into if possible, I noticed that several films which rank on my all time favorite personal list were ALL either produced or released in 1968.

Now, you will get film history buffs who can point to many great films NOT made in 1968, there are many of them of course.  However, from my own perspective, I can find no other year where SO MANY were all produced that have stood the test of time as truly GREAT FILMS, of one sort or another.  Not all are from major studios, in fact quite a few come from the “B” Film category.

Here are my Top Ten Films from 1968, with a short review of each, and a clip or trailer I was able to dig up on You Tube.  They come in no particular order, and there are some I left off the list which are favorites just to keep it down to 10.


Read the whole post on the Doomstead Diner 


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)