Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Immoderate Greatness: the narrative of collapse

Not long ago, I was taking a walk with an American friend in the woods near my house. As we walked, I was pointing to him the effects of climate change that could be seen all around us: stressed trees, damaged vegetation, signs of wildfires, and more. After a while, though, I noticed that my statements produced no reply. It was as he was not hearing what I was saying or, if he could hear me, he could make no sense of what I was saying.

My friend is not a climate denier in the sense of someone who is driven by ideological reasons. It was just that, for him, climate change was a totally alien concept. It just wasn't part of his view of the future of the world, which he seemed to see as dominated by more and more powerful smartphones.

The way we see the world, I think, is mostly as if it were a story. We absorb new information by comparing it to the concatenated elements of the plot of a long and complex story that we have in our mind. For some of us, it is a novel of progress and of increasingly sophisticated gadgetry. For others, it is a novel of initial greatness and subsequent failure. And, with my friend in the woods, it was like we were characters of different narratives, as if - say - Prince Hamlet were to meet Homer Simpson.

The concept of the world as a narrative came back to my mind when reading “Immoderate Greatness, Why Civilizations Fail”, a book by William Ophuls. It is all there: our story, the story of our civilization that we are seeing as it goes through its stupendous trajectory that has brought it to heights never seen in the past but that will end in an even more stupendous collapse. The book doesn't try to convince you of anything, it doesn't create models, it doesn't present solutions, it does not advocate that you change your behavior. It is just that: a narrative of our impending collapse in a slim book of less than 70 pages written in a style that much reminds that of the “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” by Edward Gibbon.

A couple of excerpts (p. 57)

Bluntly put, human societies are addicted to their ruling ideas and their received way of life, and they are fanatical in their defense. Hence, they are extremely reluctant to reform. “To admit error and cut losses,” said Tuchman, “is rare among individuals, unknown among states”

And (p. 68)

... the hubris of every civilization is that it is, like the Titanic, unsinkable. Hence the motivation to plan for shipwreck is lacking. In addition, the civilization's contradictions and difficulties are seen not as symptoms of impending collapse but, rather, as problems to be solved by better policies and personnel

In a sense, it is a fascinating, dramatic, fast paced story and for many of us it is the correct narrative of the world as we see it. Others, however, will still be seeing smartphones as more important than climate change.


  1. "Another damned skinny book, Mr. Ophuls? Scribble, scribble, scribble." :)

    IMO your friend is very much driven by ideology. The less conscious, the more effective.

    The irony of the Titanic metaphor is that we may be sunk by a lack of icebergs.

    Anyway, I will read the book. Thanks for the pointer.

  2. Ugo. George Marshall in his blog "Climate Change Denial" covers this theme very well.

    "People’s view of the world (and their place in it) is shaped through narratives. Social groups seek to negotiate shared narratives that are simple, appealing and reinforce shared values. In so doing they will reject or marginalise competing narratives that might challenge their current worldview."

    See his post on climate disasters and their inability to change the narrative:

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  4. ...Yes, I agree that we all have developed our favorite "mental models" and "narratives" or "stories" of the world and where it came from, where it is, and where it's going. And they are shaped by many different factors and influences and the various contexts we existed in over time. So at times when we interact with other people they easily can appear to be living in a completely different world, or at least in a completely different mental space. Like your American friend with whom you went for a walk in the woods, who may have been thinking about the next generation of smart phones while you were trying to point out to him the many visible effects of climate change. (profound related question: did you enjoy the walk more or did he?)

    But those of us who have struggled to understand certain things and think we have mostly understood them...-even if perhaps not fully and in all respects- can take comfort in the fact that the Titanic DID SINK and that very regrettably those who were on board were not able to make a last good bye call on their smart phones to their friends and relatives. But technology has progressed enormously and things are much better now ! So they should be able to at least post a last message on their Face Book page as the ship begins to take on water....or if time is really running short and the waters are rising fast, at the very least send out one last Tweet to all those "following them". And one suggestion for what to say in ten words or less for those who may be too stressed to think of something? ... "I guess my narrative was not quite right after all"? (or would that exceed the allowed character count?)

    1. Excuse me, but I must disagree. One of the early casualties of systemic dysfunction of the OECD will be reliable electric power, and computer driven communications.

      Both of these will bring down Google, Facebook, and a host of others.

      What will surprise many is the most reliable form of communication, long distance will be HF radio, powered by solar PV, backed up by batteries, and operated by amateurs. It's either that or mirrors and smoke signals.


  5. the bizaare thing is there is no real conflict. people can easily enjoy technology, frugally and selectively, while understanding and acting on information about climate change [and overpopulation etc]. the two things shouldn't be [and to me, can't be] mutually exclusive, as its all stuff from science and reason. that is presumably true, as most writers on agw also use a computer to convey that information, and most also use cars to some extent. the relevant words here are 'frugally and selectively'. we could curb our impact dramatically by using much less, or preferably banning, the most undesirable technology; cars and flying come to mind first, and being extremely frugal with other consumption, and also human reproduction to get demand down. accepting bad information does not mean we have to go and live in a mud hut. in fact it is a prerequisite so we dont have to.

  6. I saw this book, but it is still unclear to me what it offers beyond a variety of other warning type books. It reminded me most of Tainter from what little I could see.

    1. It does remind Tainter. It is a good review of many different views about collapse.

  7. Narratives are told in a language.

    By that I don't mean Italian, English or French;
    but rather Economics-speak, Politician-speak, Cornucopian-speak, etc.

    The narrative of hubristic self esteem appears to be written in philosopher-speak, not a language that resonates well with the common man.

    We have yet to develop a Rosetta Stone that converts Economics-speak, etc. into Scientific-Reality-speak and there floats our bigger Titanic. We sink or swim with the true buoyancy of our words. At present, many are like reality-opposing rocks.

  8. most people as long as the systems serves them food and warm rooms they do not think. they are happy, that the politicans do the job. the programming of human is not to think you only can reach them, when they have a personal crisis. last book i read was eisensterns sacred economics and he pointed in his first part out why people are accepting the current system. he points also fine out how it comes, that we will come to an end of the money and ressource system. when it comes to a fail, then the think tanks must be ready and tell the people their story of a new more free world made by hand.(book title from kunstler) the meme must then be strong.

  9. Thanks, I'd not heard of Ophuls before -- Plato's Revenge sounds worth checking out.

  10. Perhaps an even better metaphor for our collapsing world than the Titanic is unfolding in real time on the even more ironically named Carnival "Triumph". People crowded and trapped on a luxury liner, hungry, hot, and drowning in their own shit and vomit. Apparently there is still plenty of booze though. Something to look forward to!

  11. May I also point your attention to E.F. Schumacher's excellent little book "A Guide for the Perplexed" for a pithy explanation of how our view of reality itself is shaped by the mental maps that we've been given by society and mostly never bother to revise. He talks of being lost in Soviet era Moscow looking on his "official" street map for the huge Orthodox cathedral taking up a whole block in front of him - and being advised by his guide that, for purposes of the official maps, "cathedrals don't exist".

  12. Professor Bardi, I know exactly what you are talking about. I know a fairly high-level chef in the Boston area, and I was pointing out to her the severe trouble with global fisheries. Figuring she would immediately know what I was talking about, I offered as evidence the diminished menu at what was once *the* place to go for seafood in the area, where the waitstaff are now pushing chicken and steak dishes.

    The chef's response was -in all earnest!- that this high-end seafood chain (which in the 1980s offered 10-15 fresh catches of the day just of fin fish) was, in shifting their menu, merely trying to "reach out to a different audience"(!!)

    Right… the audience of Kentucky Fried Chicken??

    The delusion runs deep. The Need Not to Know protects the psyche, I imagine, much as humans are often largely able to blot out the memories of the pain of childbirth or war.

    1. Yes, it is curios to notice, also, how fish was considered a kind of low value food up to no long ago. If we go back to Middle Ages, fish was the food you were supposed to eat on Fridays, as part of your penance. Then, with time, it became fancy food to be eaten by the rich in posh restaurants. And now we are rapidly moving to the point when fish is becoming rare. Besides, what you can find is radioactive, mercury laced, or both.

  13. Thanks for mentioning this book Ugo. I have just finished reading it. It is like a condensed elixir of our understanding of the problem. And the more devastating for that. Although I had some minor quibbles the overall thrust of his argument seemed relentless. Collapse is 'overdetermined', there are just too many factors pushing the process. Our best strategy at this stage is find ways to make sure that civilisation itself survives and only after that think about, usually ineffectually, how to prevent it. There are prior cases of the kind of action required: Ataturk overthrowing the Ottomans, and the Meiji Restoration in Japan. Courageous, determined action with sacrifice, qualities lacking in our current world.



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)