Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Monday, April 25, 2016

The story of the fisherman and of the farmer

Image courtesy of John MacDonald' "Farmers and Fishermen", 1994.

As I sit on the podium with the other speakers, I have in front of me about 30 boys and girls, around 10-12 years old; not even teenagers. They sit while the other speakers tell them of climate change and renewable energies. They are being told what we believe is good for them: that we are in danger, we need to act, we need to recycle our waste, save energy, and reduce emissions. But, at the same time, I can't avoid thinking that, out there, outside the cozy world of the school and of their teachers, there is a different reality. A world where a tree has a value only after it has been cut down and sold. A world where the measure of success is how much a person can consume. A world where the fragile thing we call "the environment" is always the least important concern. 

Are we doing to these children a favor by telling them what we are telling them? I cannot say, I can only see that they are good boys and good girls and that they are doing their best to listen to the speakers. They seem to understand that what they are being told is important for their future. And some of them seem to understand that it is not obvious that they will have a future. 

As my turn to speak approaches, I try to think. What can I tell to a group of tired (and also a little scared) children? An idea appears in my mind all of a sudden. I won't give the speech I had prepared; I'll create a new one. In ten minutes or so, I scratch a script on a few sheets of paper and when my turn comes I call for volunteers to play the script in front of the other children. They like the idea and they immediately understand how to play the respective roles, they are happy and excited to do something different than just listening. Here is the script I wrote, as I remember it.


Dad, dad.... We are hungry, we are hungry! We were waiting for you to come back, we were waiting for you to bring fish for us. Did you have a good catch, dad? Tell us!

Children, children, I am sorry, the catch was small. The net that I spread in the sea didn't catch so many fish. Children, I am sorry, but this is all that I can bring to you today.

Dad, is it so little? But we are hungry. We are hungry, dad, why can't you bring more fish for us from the sea?

Children, children, I threw my net in the sea many times, but there is not so much fish anymore in the sea because there are many fishermen and all of them have hungry children. And all of them try to catch as much fish as they can. And if we fish too much, there is not much fish left in the sea. But everyone does the same and if I don't do that, too, the fish that's left will be caught by the other fishermen. So, children, this is the catch that I bought today, and I know that it is not enough. But that is what I could do today and I cannot tell you that I will do better tomorrow. And that's the way of the fisherman.


Dad, dad.... Mom gave us some bread, but it was not so much and we are still hungry. And we saw that there is still grain stored in the house. Why can't we have that grain milled and use the flour to make some good bread for us, dad?

Children, children, I know that you are hungry and I know that there is still grain in the house. But, children, we cannot eat that grain. Your mom is giving you as much bread as she can, and I know that it is little. But you must go on with what mom can give you and ask no more.

But, dad, why can't we eat that grain that's kept stored in the house? Tell us, dad, because we don't understand this.

We can't eat that grain, children, because it the seed for the next harvest. Soon, we'll go sowing in the fields and we'll sow that grain as seed. And the seed that we sow will germinate and produce more grain, and that grain we will harvest and we will have bread for next year. And we'll keep some of the grain we harvest for the year that will follow and we'll keep doing that for the years that will come as our father and grandfathers did, and as you will do yourselves and for your children and their children. And that's the way of the farmer.

And there we are. The children who played as actors have recited their part, and they look happy and excited. Those who sat in the audience listened intently and they seemed to enjoy the performance. But did they understand what I was trying to tell them? I ask, "why can't the fisherman feed his family every day?" One of the children says, "because he fishes too much, and then there is no fish left in the sea." I ask her, "but why that doesn't happen to the farmer?" She answers: "because the farmer keeps some seed for the next harvest!" They never heard of the "tragedy of the commons" nor of the problem of fishery overexploitation, but they seem to have understood these concepts. 

So, I ask them, "but, today, are we behaving like farmers or like fishermen?" They are a little perplexed. I explain: "are we keeping some seed for the future or are we consuming everything we have?" They look at me, they understand what I said. One of them says: "like fishermen". And I tell him, "You are right, but let me explain: it doesn't matter if we are farmers or fishermen, but we must not take too much of what the land or the sea can provide so that the land or the sea have the time to re-create what we took away. Whether we are a farmers or fishermen, if we respect the land, or we respect the sea, our children will never go hungry. And if we all respect the earth, then everyone will be happy, and the earth, too!" They all nod; they seem to have understood the idea.

The workshop is over; the children move away, texting on their smartphones and chatting among themselves. Will they remember what I told them? And if they will, would that be useful to them?  I can't say. As I look at them leaving, there comes to my mind that they will be less than 50 years old in 2050, when the world will either have cut fossil fuel use by 80% or so or will face the dire consequences of not having done that. What kind of world will they see? (if they will be able to see it). I can only wish them good luck. 

h/t Marco Rustioni


  1. Are we doing to these children a favor by telling them what we are telling them?

    There is a danger in teaching values contrary to the ways of the world in isolation or as you put it:

    A world where the only tree that has a value is a tree that has been cut down and sold. A world where the measure of success is how much a person can consume.

    Education of ideals in isolation can produce a naivete of how things are in the real world and that is definitely not doing the children any favors. The two stories of the fisherman and the farmer by presenting contrasting points of view is a great approach because that way children learn about higher values and how the world actually is at the same time. With two stories children can be encouraged to identify with a good 'tribe' which respects the present and is concerned about the future without being trapped into a bubble of idealism which wolves of the consuming tribe will easily spot, shun, and well; consume! Using the two story approach higher values of living in harmony with the environment can be taught without a downside of believing that ideal values represent a real world reality which we know they absolutely do not. The danger of being out of touch with the real world is avoided by your two story approach.

  2. Maybe the farmer could also have said that he needs to keep that grain because he needs to sell it to pay for the debts, or the landlord, or the Monsanto seeds he is obliged to buy for the next season ...
    Probably closer to today's farmers realities :)

  3. A bit off topic (or not so): water use
    California, central USA, Arabia, northern India, ... aquifers provide the water for the food for hundreds of millions, if not a billio or two.
    A very crass case of seneca cliff.

  4. my postings and blogs about the #carbonbubble are more and more cencured...the ranking goes down and down. made some before and after screenshot and published it on fb so this is not a conspiracy..

    So even when we try they are not allowed to hear the message the status quo must be protected.

  5. Ugo
    I think this is an important post and gives us an insight into education and leadership, as distinct from 'instruction'. This is different from the usual school approach. Parables are not 'facts 'and in many cases are more important. Much of my own more important learning came this way, and needed to continue when I was older.

    I can think of other parables. One story for perhaps older children was told to me by an Irish labouring man on a construction site in England circa 1960. (Larger construction sites attracted experienced workers mostly from what was then still rural Eire.) He and his colleagues sometimes spoke Erse among themselves and they had a very distinctive culture. He told me that from the age of nine he followed the custom of bringing a daily barrow of sea weed from the shore to a small plot above the cliff to make soil. This was done in order that in his mid to late 20s he might be in a position to marry and start a family. This was along the west coast somewhere.

    Thinking of Irish history - the population for all Ireland reached a peak in the mid-19th century of about 9 million - and of course we remember the later mass-migration that followed a famine among subsistence peasant communities – we can see the historical context for adaptive behaviour. Well, yes, the 20th century and the Petroleum Age intervened. But that man's rural background still provided nutrition and strength and many tens of thousands of well-grown and healthy young men who were able to carry the weight of much of the heavier work in mainland industrial Britain even in my time.


    1. Indeed, in history we see that successful communication is made in parables. Just think of how the Gospels report the teaching of Jesus: mostly in narrative forms, ending with the note "let those who have ears, hear!". Now, of course I am not comparing myself with Jesus, but imitating him is, I believe, legitimate!

  6. Hi Professor Bardi - another great post, very sensitive to the predicament, thanks so much. perhaps the Hopi are a very wonderful example of how to make adaptation to the rigors of climate. here is a very brief exposition of some of the farming techniques that are integrated and fundamental to a Hopi culture that has endured, and certainly tried to hold to values spoken about in a recent post of yours.

  7. Ugo,

    Humankind has lived without an understanding of the dynamics of its environment. It has crashed and burned many times because of this indifference to dynamics. The stories we are told in school even the stories of the fisherman and the farmer contain only a sliver of the dynamic information required to create a sustainable existence. For example, in this blog, many participants know at present we have no substitution for the fossil energy we will lose access to in the next 30 years. We are facing a huge collapse of our civilization and most of the world's population, including the kids in that classroom, will die of starvation or the conflicts that arise from starvation.

    These children might be better served by obtaining a dynamic view of reality. It may be hard for teachers and parents to impart it. They don't have it. From reviews of this blog's comments, it appears most of the adult community does not have it. In this blog it seems we are not telling each other stories that contain reality's temporal components. Maybe, in the future, each contribution should reflect the writer's measure of "who is going to get injured and when?" My contributions will reflect that I think 8-10 billion people will die of starvation and conflict by 2100. This video describes the derivation of this number.

  8. Re the date "2050, when the world will either have cut fossil fuel use by 80%" or face dire consequences --

    UK climate scientist Kevin Anderson has done the math and he concludes:

    "We can work out the carbon budget for that. We have a carbon budget for 2°C and we can say what’s left for the wealthy parts of the world – the UK, the US, the EU, Australia, Japan and so forth. Basically, across the board, wealthier people, wealthier nations, around the world would have to reduce their emissions at about 10% every year. Just think what that means. That means that by 2020 we would have reductions of about 50%, by mid-2020s by about 75%, by 2030 about 90% reduction, and by 2035, at the outside, we’d have to remove all carbon from our energy system. Within 20 years. That’s a huge request. But, again, I think it’s just about viable. This gives us only then an outside chance of 2°C. So, this is an enormous challenge beyond anything that is currently being countenanced by any country."

    Source: ShortLink:



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)