venerdì 14 aprile 2017

Climate: limits and opportunities for the new economies

In the previous post Information, Energy and Human development, I conclude saying that we dont know what will happen to our society if the planet will be overheated. I dont have the answer, and maybe I will never have it, but sure I gained a new question about which has been the influence of the climate on the history of civilisation, and which could be its role, if there is any, into imagining a future more equitable and a sustainable society.

I start exactly from this last point: how we are now imagining a future civilisation? 

Stating that we need a new source of energy that should be renewable (in the way we do not risk total depletion of it, at least till the sun will shine), also thinking about a new economy, that is not based on an intensive exploitation of fossil fuels,  would represent a powerful leverage to make a step forward to a better future.

Recently, interesting currents are emerging in the economic scenario, promoting alternatives to the incessant growth that already in the 70ies revealed, thanks to the study of Limits to Growth’, the weakness of lasting this economic vision on a planet with a limited carrying capacity.

One of these currents is the Circular Economy’ (CE) that proposes a greater resource productivity aiming to reduce waste and avoid pollution, including the shift from fossil fuels to the use of renewable energies, promoting the role of diversity as a characteristic of resilient and productive systems, so that it represents an interesting  way out from the limits of the present Linear Economy.

Another one is the Degrowth Economy (DE) that not only is based on the previous pillars of the CE, but it is also a new philosophy of lifestyle. The DE affirms that the prosperity can be of better quality and more equitable for all the humankind, even with much fewer materials things, abandoning frenetic rhythms and harmonising the economy production according to the natural cycles (and I completely agree). 
We can grasp, from the previous description, why this current is called 'Degrowth': it simply pushes in the opposite direction of the nowaday 'Growth' economy, whose prosperity is based on the increasing demand of always new goods and services. 
Anyway, to be more precise, 'Degrowth' refers to the lowering of the indicator called Gross Domestic Product (or GDP), that measures the economic performance of a system according to, in simplified terms, the number of goods and services it can provide. Therefore, the DE assesses that more valuable prosperity is possible if we consistently lower the value of this indicator,  in particular in that countries we call Developed Countries, that stand out for their very high level of GDP in comparison to the world average. As a matter of fact, DE underlines also that this difference in GDP exists because there is a huge gap, both in economic and development terms, between the North and the South of the planet. The predominance of the North holds hostage the South socio-economic system, slowing down also its potential alternative trajectories toward a better life. 

Look at this paragraph, extracted from the very interesting book  'Degrowth: Vocabulary for a new era':

The message is clear and the reality too: the condition of the South of the Planet is very different from the North of the Planet. The DE aims to re-equilibrated this difference, conquering a new welfare for all the humans, based on more equity and environmental justice. Mumble to do it? 

Usually, when we want to change something in any present situation, it is a good idea to check some facts in the past, probably the reasons of the existence of certain things in the present have their roots in the history.

Thus, when, in the past, this predominance of the North economy started and, is this just due to a randomness,  or are there any fact/evidence, in the history of civilisation, that advantaged the North in comparison to the South?

Take a look at the following picture:

Figure 1. Chronology of the most important ancient civilisations.

All the most ancient cultures were born in the North hemisphere.

I started to think this fact can not be only a coincidence. Why the civilisation and the economy historically have progressed more in the North than in the South? Could this mainly due to a physically different space instead of a conceptual different space'?

I think soThe economy is made by humans exchanges, interactions, cooperations: all these conditions, in which humans live and lived in the past, determine the economy and the civilisation (Here, I refer to  'civilisation' as the attitude of humankind to dominates the environment according to the fundamentals of rationalism). In particular, the capacity to produce (manufacturing) and the capacity to distribute (transport) are the foundations of any world economic system.  

Lets start to examine which could be the macroscopic differences, in terms of the capacity of transportation and productivity, between North and South of the Earth.

First, we are terrestrial creatures, we move easier by land than by seas, also many animals that have been and are crucial for transportation, hunting, agriculture and so on, are terrestrials too. Take a look at the following picture:

Figure 2.  The surface extension of emerged lands. 

As we can see in figure 2, between the parallels - 60°S and + 60° N, i.e. in a climate that is not polar, the available land is much higher in the North than in the South. 
Thus, an important macroscopic physical difference between North and South of the planet is the extension of emerged lands in not polar zones. 
Moreover, the South portion of emerged lands is fragmented in 3 continents: South America, Africa and Oceania: if we move in the direction West- East (W-E, or vice-versa) we note that these three portions of land are far severals hundred of kilometres of water.  Thus, any civilisation was born in the South, (before the transportation didnt reach an adequate technological level)  should expand preferred along the direction the N-S , while the path W-E  was more difficult to travel due to the presence of the water.
Quite different is the availability of movement W-E in the North hemisphere. Here, Asia and Europe cover the larger portion of North emerged land; moreover in those two continents, were born the most ancient civilisations in the history of humankind (China, Egypt, Greek, Romans and so on, as already shown in figure 1). Probably, the presence of the Mediterranean sea, that is an almost close sea in a temperate zone, permitted the development of navigation techniques and the development of commercial trade routes in more safe and protected areas.

We can summarise saying that: More are the emerged lands, more are the possibilities of creating a network of connections and more are the possibilities to have suitable places where things could be manufactured.

Ok, you will say that today the problem of the trade connections have been overcome by technologies, so lets say that the oceans or the extension of emerged lands don't represent any more serious obstacles in exchanging goods or information also in the South hemisphere.
But there is another problem, if you note, that still remains:  along the N-S pathways (meridians), in any point of the globe, we had/have to face with a change in the climate conditions (figure 3). 

Figure 3.  The figure shows a rough, but significant split, of the three climate zones of the planet: polar, temperate and tropical zones.

Thus, I go back to the opening question of the post: has, (and had in the past) climate any impact on civilisation? And could it be related to the productivity of the human beings?

There is an interesting book, Civilisation and Climate by E. Huntington, that for the first time faced this issue at the beginning of 1900. 
Huntington, as himself reports, had the mission to investigate: “step by step,  the process by which geologic structure, topographic form, and the present and past nature of the climate have shaped man's progress, moulded his history; and thus played an incalculable part in the development of a system of thought which could scarcely have arisen under any other physical circumstances."

I admit I haven’t yet read the entire book, but if you search accurately in this treaty, you can find the author clearly reports that the temperate climate is the best environment for the development of civilisation, under several points of view. And figure 3 shows that the portion of temperate climate zone in the North of the globe is decisively larger than in the South one.

Here, as one of the example that reinforce the thesis of the author, I just report the following graphs, from his book:

This figure reports the main temperature in which a man, employed in a factory job, is able to reach his best performance in terms of productivity, intended as the best combination of mental and body energies. This temperature it is around 50 °F or 10 °C.
More recent studies assess that in an office, the ideal temperature for mental activities is around 20-22 °C, and it makes sense:  we probably need a warmer environment to reach the optimal mental-body energy combination to work in an office in which we stay sitting almost all the time. And we are sure enough that these average values of temperature are typical of the temperate climate zones.
The book from Huntington offers several others interesting examples to thinking on, it simply reveals that the human activities, and even the moral issues, still depend upon Nature. And this is a positive aspect- the author says- because it gives us the opportunity to correct our behaviour, knowing that there are climate physical conditions to take into account, even in planning a new economy.

And, especially in a Degrowth Economy, the relationship between our body energy and the climate is, probably, the most important to keep in mind if we want to achieve more equity in the opportunity of future sustainable development, for all the cultures independently of the latitudes they are.

What I would like to point out with these ideas, is that the productivity of humans, on which civilisation and economy both rely, have been and still remains highly conditioned by climate. 
The North and the South of the planet are different environments, different availability of space and climate, i.e. a mainly physical differences, that, reasonably, have affected the history of the world economies, with an active role in originating the inequalities we are observing now.
Changing our economy implies to face these climate diversities, maybe now more than in the past,  to image a future more equitable civilisation as it is described in the vision of a Degrowth Economy, or another new desirable more equitable Economy, that I think, we need so much precisely ‘now’.

The message of Huntington is full of hope, he concludes his treaty saying: ‘If we are able to conquer the climate, the whole world will become stronger and nobler”.

But something is telling me…that we are going exactly in the opposite direction. The domain on climate risks to go out of our hand, and for this reason, the climate issue remains, in my opinion, the most urgent problem to face to leave a dignified human legacy to the future generations.

lunedì 27 febbraio 2017

Information, Energy and Human development

In the MEDEAS project ( the acronym states for Modelling Energy system Development under Environmental And Socioeconomic constraints) more than 10 partners from UE countries, work on how to shift the energy provisioning necessary to drive all the activities of the modern society from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

The reason for the existence of such project states mainly in 2 points:

1.      The first is the concept that fossil fuels are treasure buried under the surface of finite dimension planet, and this is why sooner or later they are going to finish, independently from the effort we put in discover them.

This is what we call ‘a physical limit’: this kind of reservoirs can not be infinite because the planet is finite. Moreover, the fossil fuel resources are not renewable, because oils and gas are the products of complex and long time-taking geological transformation happen under the crust, in extreme environmental condition of pressure and under several biological material degradation processes. Those conditions are not easy to reproduce even in a lab. Thus, this point fixes that we should image a future society based not on this kind of resources.

2.      The second, and maybe the most urgent to deal with, is that the use of fossil fuel is 'one' of the main responsible of the GHG emissions: several studies assess if the GHG concentration would rise to 25% of the present concentration, an irreversible over-heating of the planet occurs.

The GHG emissions are not only from fossil fuel combustion, this is why the argument is very debated, but it is undoubtedly true the largest contribution comes from the activities of the post-industrial era.
Image a new society based on RE, or rather, trying to make the transition toward a cleaner and renewable energy sources looks like the right solution for both the problems reported at point 1 and point 2.
How to get there? How can we move toward the transition?

According to the preliminary results obtained in the MEDEAS project, performing simulations with models and analysing several historical data, the transition will be possible and sustainable, only if we put our effort on building RE energy infrastructures, lets’ say... urgently!

Why is this so important for our future?

History teaches us that the development, the economy and the human well-being rely mainly on 2 pillars: energy provisioning and circulation of information (both immaterial, named knowledge, and material, named goods).

Look at the following interesting picture from the book ‘The condition of Postmodernity’ (David Harvey,1989). It's not very recent but, nevertheless, currently valid.

Energy moves information. The picture (‘The condition of Postmodernity’ David Harvey, 1989) tracks an evolution path of the information propagation during the past years, it compares the speed necessary to an information to carry out a complete trip around the world.

The picture tracks an evolution path of the information propagation during the past years, it compares the speed necessary to an information to carry out a complete trip around the world. Reversely it also shows the physic distance is virtually shortened as consequence to the increased information (that nowadays is become the informatization) capacity. In another word, Harvey announced the dawn of globalisation.
That the capacity to diffuse information depends on the available 'energy', it's not explicitly reported in this picture, but we can sure to prove it simply doing a short research on the kind of energy resources that, in each period, drove the society.

Years 1500-1840.
In this period, a mixture of energy resources is available for the society. The main energy provisioning is in charge to the animals, both for transportation and agriculture, but also renewable energies, as the wind and the water flows were already exploited in manufacturing, in food production and in driving several other human activities.
Coal has been already discovered and used, but the massive implementation for heating and metals’ manufacturing starting around the year 1600. It became the main energy resource to prepare the ground for the Industrial Revolution.
Anyway, the potential of information spreading is weak in this period, in the order of several months.

Years 1850-1930
Around 1850, the Industrial Revolution culminated. We have the first evidence of the maturity of the steam motors, able to push both the terrestrial transport by railways and the maritime transportation by transoceanic vessels. 
In 1856, oil was discovered in the USA and a new era began toward the present civilisation. The first power plant in 1882 (USA) and the first industrial implementation of Radio Transmission are in 1897. Moreover, with oil, a so light and energy dense resource, the aviation is quickly developed a few years later, pushed by the incoming First world war 'necessities' to fly.
In the average, information spreads around the World in few weeks.

Years 1930-1950. Refineries became more sophisticated producing new powerful fuels, but the more important new entry is the uranium, now used to produce electric energy and heat in nuclear plants. In 1942 we have the first controlled nuclear reaction (Fission) and in 1954 ex-URSS built the first reactor for civil use. Uranium became a new non renewable fuel resource.

Years 1960 up to now. 
After the Second World War, the oil boosted the Boom Economy. Aerospace development, electrification, informatization, fertilisers and medicines extend the expectancy of life. And more recent, oil also has been and it is still used to provide the technologies for renewable energy plants (PV, wind, geothermal).

Thus, it should be quite clear that the future of humans depends on the availability of the energy resources, and find a better way to produce energy appears unavoidable to escape the modern society collapse.
Moreover, the use of a ‘clean energy ‘is decisive to mitigate the global climate changes. 
This is the real priority, because we could still image to go back to a society without fossil fuel, a pre-carbon period similar to the one described by Harvey, but we cannot exactly quantify what happens to the Earth’s life if the planet will be irreversibly overheated prior the occurrence of the unavoidable  ‘energy transition’, both that is sustainable or not.  

martedì 14 febbraio 2017

MEDEAS Newsletter


MEDEAS aims at developing a leading-edge policy-modelling tool to support the planning of policies that would favour the transition of the European Energy system toward a new system, based on renewable energy. 

giovedì 26 gennaio 2017

BSLab-SYDIC International Workshop- Roma, 2017

Intervento al workshop organizzato dall'Italian Chapter of System Dynamic Society

"Mechanisms of meme propagation in the mediasphere: a simple system dynamics model".
Perissi I. -Bardi U. -Falsini S.

lunedì 19 dicembre 2016

Intervista di TV3, (Televisiò de Catalunya) ai partner del progetto MEDEAS

L’institut de Ciències del Mar del CSIC, a Barcelona, impulsa el projecte europeu Medeas, en què participen investigadors de 8 països. Medeas construeix una aplicació informàtica que, amb dades de tendències ambientals, energètiques, econòmiques i socials, permet projectar i fer simulacions de la transició a les renovables. Una eina que ha d’ajudar a analitzar, planificar i accelerar la transició energètica.

giovedì 24 novembre 2016

INSTM results in MEDEAS project


MEDEAS partners from INSTM have just published a scientific article in the International Journal of Heat and Technology, entitled "The Sower’s Way: A Strategy to Attain the Energy Transition".
The energy transition from fossil fuels toward renewable energy resources can be seen as a process similar to the challenge faced by ancient farmers who had to save some of their harvests as seed for the next harvest: we need to save and invest part of the energy produced by fossil fuels in order to build their own replacement in the form of renewable energy plants. This strategy is called here "the Sower’s Way".
The calculations to quantify the allocation of the energy necessary today to attain the transition (represented by the curves in the figure) indicate that a considerable increase in renewable energy installations and plants is necessary and that it is essential to invest, as soon as possible, in their implementation.

The complete article can be found:

Climate: limits and opportunities for the new economies

In the previous post Information, Energy and Human development , I conclude saying that we don ’ t know what will happen to our society if...