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

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Those Pesky Declinists and Their Dangerous Ideas
Declinists claim to see the big picture. Their portraits are grandiose, subsuming, total. Consider one of the all-time bestsellers, the Club of Rome’s The Limits to Growth (1972). With more than 30 million copies sold in 30 languages, this ‘Project on the Predicament of Mankind’ gave alarmed readers a portrait of demise, mapped out with gloomy confidence about ‘feedback loops’ and ‘interactions’. In fact, it shared much in common with the good Reverend Thomas Malthus, including the obsession with diminishing returns. Fixated with the decline of arable land, Malthus could not see sources of increasing returns – at least not at first. Some of his friends eventually convinced him that machinery and colonialism solved the problem of too little food for too many mouths; later editions of his Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) went through contortions to figure this out. In the same way, systems analysts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology simulated the whole world, but could not admit little pictures of ingenuity, problem-solving and adaptation – some of which had the perverse effect of unlocking so many more sources of carbon that we’d begin to bake the planet several generations later!

This piece by Jeremy Adelman is not worth of a detailed rebuttal, but I think it is deserves to be read as a literary piece. Truly brilliant, read it for its magniloquent sound, for instance, "Declinists have a big blindspot because they are attracted to daring, total, all-encompassing alternatives to the humdrum greyness of modest solutions."

But, apart from the daring, total, all-encompassing, etc, what is that Adelman finds so "dangerous" in declinism? Curiously, the term "dangerous" is used only in the title but never in the text. So, the whole danger of declinism seems to be that it can "impoverish our imagination." Honestly, that doesn't seem to be so dangerous. All his literary brilliance seems to have led Mr. Aldeman to forget what he was supposed to say. 


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)