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Google Eats Another

Started by K-Dog, May 20, 2023, 09:56 AM

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The Seneca Effect Blog is Closing Down

The Internet is full of angry people shouting insults at each other. Take it easy, fellows, do as a good stoic would do. Accept the will of the Gods, but keep doing your duty and help others as much as you can. And have a little fun, when you can.

The moment has arrived: after about two years of posting on the "Seneca Effect" blog; I see that a cycle is concluded: look at the stats:

Why this remarkable "Hubbert Curve"? I can think of more than one reason, but essentially two: 1) The blog has been sabotaged by the search engines, Google in particular, and 2) the blog has evolved into something that readers find confusing.

About the first hypothesis, there are surely elements of truth in it. I already discussed it in a previous post, and the majority of commenters agreed that they couldn't find the blog in the first rows of their search engine, except if they used "Bing." Apparently, Microsoft likes me, but Google doesn't. There is nothing especially conspiratorial in this. It already happened for my old "Cassandra" blog. And I, for one, bow down in front of our new memetic overlords!

About the second hypothesis, it has elements of truth as well. The blog has evolved along with my personal views. I am normally classed together with the "catastrophists," and the idea of the "Seneca Cliff" can be seen as being as catastrophist as catastrophism can be. But my position is much more articulated than that: I see myself as a modern stoic. I accept the will of the Gods, but I consider it my duty to help people (including myself) to avoid the incoming disaster.

The problem is that some people seem to have internalized the idea that collapse is unavoidable, and they don't seem to be able to think of a better way to face it than turning themselves into poor peasants (or dreaming the same thing thereof). My view, instead, is that we have to build a resilient society by means of renewable energy and that it is possible to do that with the currently existing technology.

You may or may not agree with my position; the point is that many people are confused by a blog that has a title that hints at a coming collapse while it deals with ways to avoid collapse (the same problem that "The Limits to Growth" study had: few people understood what the authors were trying to do). So, they see my position as "treason" and proceed to insult me as a result. I prefer to close the blog than have readers like these. 

Apart from a number of hopeless cases of fixation on collapse, the problem is that a blog (or any kind of publication) must have a certain consistency. Many bloggers succeeded in growing their readership by always posting the same thing, only with minor variations (I have a few ones in mind, but let me not name names). That's not strictly necessary, but I understand that the aims of the "Seneca Effect" blog, as it is now, are confusing for many readers. 

So, it is time for the Seneca blog to fold over and for me to move onward. The two "souls" of the blog will find their places in two different blogs. The discussion on energy will move to the existing blog "The Sunflower Paradigm." It has been a marginal blog so far, but you can note that it is reasonably easy to find. And its readership is growing.

Then, how about my meditations on history, art, philosophy, stoicism, and the like? They might go to my existing blog, "Chimeras." Or maybe to a new blog that could be titled "Meditations" à la Marcus Aurelius?  I am still thinking about that. Suggestions are welcome. In the meantime, here is the latest post I published on Chimeras.

The Seneca Effect


I wonder if this change is the result of some academic blowback for at the very least his association with ASPO over all those years? And when that turned out to be a lead weight handed to a drowning man, the Seneca effect was just a different angle, all this got noticed and his academic career took hits from perceived incessant doom mongering? You can just see the orders issued by academia, "Enough of this nonsense, you're a chemistry prof, our reputation took a hit when you began dabbling in end of the world stuff, worse yet it never happened, and our university name got pasted with it! Stick to teaching chemistry!".


Quote from: FarmGirl on May 20, 2023, 06:55 PMI wonder if this change is the result of some academic blowback for at the very least his association with ASPO over all those years? And when that turned out to be a lead weight handed to a drowning man, the Seneca effect was just a different angle, all this got noticed and his academic career took hits from perceived incessant doom mongering? You can just see the orders issued by academia, "Enough of this nonsense, you're a chemistry prof, our reputation took a hit when you began dabbling in end of the world stuff, worse yet it never happened, and our university name got pasted with it! Stick to teaching chemistry!".

Doubtful.  Ugo has tenure and his subject area is Physical Chemistry, which doesn't deal with fossil fuels much, that is either Organic Chemistry or Geochemistry.  Limits to Growth stuff is just a hobby for him.  He has a habit of ending blogs and starting new ones every few years.  Names change but the content is similar.



                                        The sunflower
                                        It bows down to the Sun
                                        The image of resilience.

                    Friday, May 26, 2023

Godzilla's Egg: Why Renewables Will Never Replace Fossil Fuels (Or Maybe They Will?)

An early incarnation of the most famous Japanese monster. Source

Being a reptile (maybe), Godzilla is supposed to be born from an egg. But it would be a big mistake to think that the adult beast will be small because the egg is small. Something similar applies to renewable energy, often criticized because it provides only a small fraction of the total energy in the world, but surely able to grow to a much larger size. In this post, I examine the "Godzilla's Egg Paradox" in view of two recent books, "How the World Really Works" by Vaclav Smil, and "The Economic Superorganism" by Carey King.

The concept that "renewables will never be able to..." takes many forms, perhaps the most common one being that they provide today just a minor fraction of the energy produced by fossil fuels. I often use the joke that it is the same as saying that Godzilla couldn't be but a small beast judging from the size of its egg.

A recent restatement of the Godzilla's egg problem can be found in the book by Vaclav Smil, "How the World Really Works." (Viking, 2022). Honestly, it is a disappointing book, especially comparing its content with the ambitious title. Not that there is anything specifically wrong with it. Smil has excellent capabilities of reporting quantitative data; his approach is simple and direct; a good example is his analysis of the average risks faced by an ordinary person in terms of their probability and frequency.

But this book? Well, it reports a lot of data, but all in a conversational form, not a single diagram, not even a table. Maybe it is the way a book has to be if it has to become a "New York Times International Bestseller." After all, it is known that most people cannot understand cartesian diagrams. Yet, data are not sufficient if they are not interpreted in a correct time frame, and Smil's analysis is almost always static; they tell you about the current situation but not how we arrived at it nor what we can expect in the future.

The problem is especially visible with Smil's treatment of renewable energy. The whole discussion on energy is weak, to say nothing of the typical mistake of reporting that, during the oil crisis of the 1970s, OPEC (the organization of oil exporting countries) "set the prices" of oil. OPEC does not and cannot do anything like that, although its management of oil production surely affects prices.

About renewables, the main point that Smil makes is that, today, they represent only a small fraction of the world's energy production. Considering the huge task ahead, he concludes that renewables would need a very long time to replace fossil fuels, if they ever will. The main problem in this discussion is that Smil does not use the "EROI" (energy returned for energy invested) parameter. This parameter tells you that, nowadays, renewable energy is more efficient and yields more than fossil fuels and any other energy production technology. Missing this point, the whole discussion is flawed. The same is true for many other data reported; they remain scarcely useful if not analyzed in a way that gives some idea of how they are going to evolve and change. Paradoxically, what this book lacks is exactly what the title promises: an explanation of how the world works.

The weakness of Smil's arguments does not mean that renewables will quickly replace fossil fuels. One thing is what is feasible, and another is what can actually be done within the limitations of time and resources. For some dynamic scenarios of their possible growth, you may take a look at a paper that I wrote together with my colleagues Sgouridis and Csala. It is a little old (2016), but its basic methods and conclusions are still valid. And the conclusion is that it is possible to replace fossil fuels with renewables, but not easy. What we can say at present is that renewables are growing fast: will they hatch into a full-size Godzilla, able to overcome the obstacles it faces?


If you really want to know how the world works and what role energy has in it, you can learn a lot more from Carey King's book "The Economic Superorganism" (Springer 2021). It is the opposite of Smil's book in terms of methodology. King's approach is based on the fundamental tenets of biophysical economics: it is an attempt to explain how the world's economic metabolism functions. Hence the title, "superorganism," a way to define the economic system in terms akin to that of a biological system (I prefer to use the term "holobiont" but it is the same idea.)

The idea that the economy is a superorganism derives from the concept that energy drives the economy, just like it does for living beings. The Economic Superorganism book provides stories, data, science, and philosophy to guide readers through the arguments from competing narratives on energy, growth, and policy. Among many other good things, it is remarkable for its honest attempt to present different points of view in a balanced way. It also helps to distinguish the technically possible from the socially viable, and understand how our future depends on this distinction. At global scales, the combination of resource-rich environment, coordination in groups, corporations and nations, and the maximization of financial surplus, tethered to energy and carbon, results in a mindless, energy-hungry, CO2 emitting Superorganism (a concept also examined in depth by Nate Hagens).

Now, the superorganism is in trouble. Just like living beings, it risks dying of starvation. Could it be a good thing, considering how the economic leviathan has damaged more or less everything in the biosphere? Or perhaps it is still possible to tame the big beast and force it to behave a little better. Maybe. Even though we may all be just cells of a huge beast, there is a lot that you can learn from this book. Unfortunately, even though it is clearly written and well argumented, it will never be a New York Times Bestsellers. And that may be one of the reasons why the superorganism deserves do collapse.

And how about renewables? King's book doesn't take a yes/no position, and correctly so. It provides instead a complete discussion of the various facets of the issue. Just the description of the value of the EROI concept is worth the whole book. And, eventually, we'll go where the superorganism takes us.



Ugo is true to form, maintaining his long held position that eventually renewables can provide the energy necessary to maintain a technologically advanced form of civilization.  Ugo doesn't like the notion we might survive, but only living as poor peasants at about an Amish level of tech, much less aspaleolithic stone age hunter-gatherers.  He definitely stands against the notion that this will be an extinction level event, at least in the near term.

What he doesn't address, at least in this post is at what population level this renewably powered technocivilization will perpetuate, or how we will continue to acquire all the resources necessary for building renewable infrastructure as just about everything needed becomes less and less available and more difficult (energy expensive) to mine up, refine, transport and manufacture.  I mean hell, we're even running out of the sand necessary to make concrete for building dams!

Then he also isn't addressing the FOOD problem, the depleted topsoil and drought and flood prone land that has previously been used to feed the population, now at 8B useless eaters.

Now, if you knocked down the population by an order of magnitude to 8M from 8B, we probably have enough renewables right now to maintain our technoculture for quite some time.  What is less clear is how you eliminate so many Homo Saps without a whole lot of political instability & chaos, aka War or Wars.  Unlikely much of our current infrastructure will be left in good working condition after this period.

The bottom line here is that although energy is at the core of the problems our civilization faces now, it is by no means the only problem or even the most proximal one.  That one is economics and the monetary system, and it remains unclear how long the smartest guys in the room will be able to keep that patched together.  It's been holding together with spit, bubblegum and duct tape since Hank theSkank Paulson set off his Bazooka in 2008, but at the same tricks don't seem available this time.  The next few months as we slide into recession should prove interesting.  What will follow that remains to be seen.



A very cogent response. 

Ugo does not like to project negativity because of the hate backlash.  He says so in his writings.

Like me Ugo has become a Stoic.  Stoics have ways of dealing with adversity and Stoic philosophy fits a doomer trying to make the best of things.

But with Google Ugo goes too far.  Stoics know not to let assholes get you upset.  Google suppresses doom, and like my website, Google won't list Ugo's stuff in search results.  Like me interestingly, Microsoft does list us.

Yet Ugo continues to see Google as a benevolent big brother and not a kiss ass to the existing arrangement that they are.  Ugo goes too far.  Similar issues come up in the Christian rip off of the concept which comes out as 'turn the other cheek'.  Early Christians borrowed from Stoicism.

Turning the other cheek is not always the best thing.  Sometimes it is, not always.