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

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

A depressed man with a smiling face: Jorgen Randers speaks at the Summer School of the Club of Rome in Florence

This is not a picture taken at the summer school, but it is Jorgen Randers, the real one!

Jorgen Randers' speech at the Summer School at the Club of Rome has been dramatically different from the standard speech dealing with sustainability. Randers defined himself as a "depressed man with a smiling face" and he summarized his 47 years of work to promote sustainability as an utter failure. "We are worse off now," he said, "than we were 50 years ago. 

What went wrong? Randers asked to the audience to propose reasons. He got more than a dozen, from the financial system to greed. But he said that none of these is the real reason. It is not a fault of the government, it is not a fault of corporations, it is not a fault of banks. It is, simply, the fault of people. According to Randers, people are simply unable to postpone their immediate satisfaction for a better future. And that's the problem today as it was 50 years ago.

Randers supported his opinion with the example of Norway, the country where he comes from. He said that he and other scientists had prepared a plan that would have zeroed the country's emission by 2050 at a cost of some Eur 200 per person per year for 50 years. It was refused at all levels. The rich and well-educated people of Norway prefer to have an extra 200 Eurs to spend shopping in London rather than give an example of good management of the ecosystem to the world.

Randers's talk arose some strong reactions in the audience, some quite unfavorable. But, really, it made a sorely needed point: we are still reasoning as we were reasoning 50 years ago. We are creating environmental activists who are supposed to push people and governments to do something good for the environment. It doesn't seem to work. Not well enough for what we need to do, at least. And the batch of young activists being prepared at the summer school may face a task that will turn out to be even more difficult than it was for the previous generation.

So, what to do? Difficult to say, but at least asking the right questions is a good starting point


  1. Wrote this in 2011:
    Most of humans will do anything and everything to maintain our present personal level of energy use and the comfort it affords us. We will do anything and everything to the earth, to other people and even to ourselves to continue on this path. And if we don’t have the energy level we see others have, we will do anything and everything to the earth, to other people and even to ourselves to attain that level. The proof of this assertion is simple; we are doing it.

  2. Any chance this speech will be made available in any format?

  3. One can pose as many questions and search for as many starting points as one wishes or is able to, but what are the meaningful questions? And where are the people brave enough to place them? After all, scientists are human beings too: they have families to support, cars to refuel, lovers to entertain, bills to pay... perhaps the most pressing questions remains unanswered because they're personal questions that most of us really don't care to answer and act accordingly. In the end, the only thing that we all, from outcastes to scientists, really, really need (from things not immediately available) is nutritional support for our organism - the history of civilization seems to be nothing but the struggle of some to control who gets the food. Is there anyone here available to change this?
    Thank you.

    1. It's not just people. Every living organism strives to maximize resource acquisition, reproductive success and lifespan. Non-human populations are kept in check by environmental constraints. Why should people be any different? Just because we know what those constraints are?

      So far, the answer is that we are not different, so therefore our population will be kept in check by environmental constraints. And those constraints are looming over our near future. Get ready to be constrained.

    2. We have been very naughty. Mother Nature has given repeated warnings and has made the rules very clear: now, we will be given a good spanking, and sent to our 'long beds' without any supper.....

    3. Though you are -unfortunately- mostly right (and also Manuel Palacio and Anonymous (same Anonymous?) below), I should point that human beings -Homo Sapiens- have been around on this planet for almost 300,000 years and they have lived most of it under the same environmental constraints of other organisms quite successfully (taking the 14,000 years estimate for the first signs of sedentarization, it makes 95% of that 300K time span). More so, you still have human beings living along with Earth (and not against her) today. In sum, we have choices (and consequences, which is a concept, complementing Anonymous comment below, with which younger activist generations seem to have some trouble dealing with.)
      Thank you for reading.

    4. Re Joe's comment: "It's not just people. Every living organism strives to maximize resource acquisition, reproductive success and lifespan."

      But no other living organism -- as far as I know -- has the human capability for self-awareness, a capability that allows us to use our brain's executive function to counter our selfish tendencies and, as well, to assess and avoid risks to our wellbeing. I suspect there's a complex mix of factors that might help to explain what went wrong, making this one of those difficult to solve "wicked problem."

  4. As a species, I think we are behaving in the only way we can behave. Expecting something else is rather delusional. Any given species will always be in overshoot if it's allowed to. That's all.

    1. As a species? really? Which is our species' awarennes? May be 7,5 billions of inidividual rights carriers? We should be the good shepard among other species.This is not possible until we think in terms of (human) individual rights.

  5. I strongly recommend the book The Hacking of the American Mind, The Science Behind the Corporate Takeover of Our Bodies and Brains, published today by Robert Lustig, MD, at the University of California in San Francisco.

    Lustig asks, and answers, the question: Why are we increasing addicted to substances and actions which generate dopamine, and also more chronically depressed? Lustig contrasts pleasure (dopamine) with happiness (serotonin), and maintains that our culture is clueless about the differences. Certainly a first step in achieving a sustainable economy is to refocus on happiness instead of pleasure, which would have the effect of greatly reducing the size of our economy and the destruction of health and happiness which that economy generates.

    You can find an interview with Lustig here (30 minutes):
    Please note the irony in my posting this talk of Lustig ripping into the dominance screens have over us on the day when Apple was set to unveil its latest and greatest and most people regard it as magic.

  6. Mr Randers is quite correct.

    We are all -like any other species - under the biological imperative to garner as much energy as possible in the short-term, in order to reproduce successfully.

    Alas, we have developed the tools to do so on a suicidal scale.

    I'm not surprised he received a negative response - he spoke the truth!

    The young anti-capitalist, Green believers of Europe are fundamentally hypocritical - they also want the holidays, full-house heating, cars, fashions, i-crap, etc, that this system produces.

    They like to blame everything on capitalists, the bourgeoisie, Boomers and 'greed', but they are the problem themselves.

    They are merely 'anti-capitalist', for the most part, because it is cool, and because they figure that 'socialism' will give them more of the goods they crave so desperately.

    There is no solution until this all crashes, horribly.

    But that is just Nature, and one must accept it.

    Nature is perfectly just and equitable, without exception the end.

    1. Nature is perfectly just and equitable...

      Yes indeed - an observation that goes back to Sextus Empiricus, and in the plain English of Henry Longfellow:

      "Though the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small.

  7. As with any complex system, there is no single variable we can pin the blame on. The problems we face are due to a vast array of variables, some of which we can 'control' and some that are beyond our reach. A burgeoning population. Financialised economic system dependent upon infinite growth. Oligarchical political systems. Diminishing returns on resource extraction. Increasing complexity. Environmental degradation (natural and human-induced). Technological innovation. Etc., etc..
    Overshoot and collapse seems inevitable...

  8. I do not like discussions about "the species", may be as much thruth in them as can, because the person discussing puts her*himself out of the picture, looking at it like from outside, or worse, from above. "The species" is interesting only so far, as I can recognize the biological mechanisms in myself. The really interesting question is: what can I do, and, even more important, what do I w a n t to do about it? Blogging and organizing conferences and summer schools is good. Buying a super-efficient fridge, refraining from using cars or airplanes make sense, often even financially. Electing the right people is of utmost importance. Buying CO2 allowances out of the market, e.g. via and talking about it is good.
    People are doing, what the people they know do, or think they do. By changing my attitude and my own way of life, I am influencing the people around me a little bit. We can be happy without a SUV or a holiday 6000 kilometers away, can't we? We can build a house, that is a little smaller, because we put a greater percentage of our budget into heat insulation, can't we? And so on and so forth.

  9. To visualize life on earth, think of a raging elephant running through a crowd of people. Many people have been trampled, are being trampled, and billions will be trampled. The observers are like a bunch of blind men. Each hanging from the tail or a leg, or the trunk, or a tusk, or an ear, or an eyelash of the elephant. And each has an idea of how to stop the present and future carnage. But to any sighted person flying over head the blindman really have no chance of understanding or stopping the carnage.

    The blind men birthed and they fed the elephant and they filled its path with people, and they provoked it into a rampage.

    Even from the airborne observer might have trouble seeing how to deal with the situation. The system momentum is large, the levers of change are weak or out of reach.

    The most interesting and powerful way to address such a generic crisis is to-not-create-it. Behave before the fact to not create a world where too many people and elephants are crowded too close together.

    If overshoot conditions already exist unwind them.

    After overshoot is eliminated remove actions that can re-create it.

    If this is the correct description of our system’s present and future crisis
    it should be clear the blind men’s analysis and proposed policies
    are not going to change the outcomes perceived by the airborne observer.

    What should be taken away from the Club of Rome conference;
    from hundreds of similar efforts is:
    It is time to
    recast our view of our predicament,
    propose changes that actually address it, and
    find ways to implement those changes.

    Too hard, impossible, you say, well OK enjoy being trampled.

    Here is my aerial view and its resolution.
    Unwinding the Human Predicament



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)