Sunday, April 21, 2019

Italy Becoming Poor -- Becoming Poor in Italy. The Effects of the Twilight of the Age of Oil

The living room of the house that my parents built in 1965. An American style suburban home, a true mansion in the hills. I lived there for more than 50 years but now I have to give up: I can't afford it anymore. 

Let me start with a disclaimer: I am not poor. As a middle class, state employee in Italy, I am probably richer than some 90% of the people living on this planet. But wealth and poverty are mainly relative perceptions and the feeling I have is that I am becoming poorer every year, just like the majority of Italians, nowadays.

I know that the various economic indexes say that we are not becoming poorer and that, worldwide, the GDP keeps growing, even in Italy it sort of restarted growing after a period of decline. But something must be wrong with those indexes because we are becoming poorer. It is unmistakable, GDP or not. To explain that, let me tell you the story of the house that my father and my mother built in the 1960s and how I am now forced to leave it because I can't just afford it anymore.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, Italy was going through what was called the "Economic Miracle." After the disaster of the war, the age of cheap oil had created a booming economy everywhere in the world. In Italy, people enjoyed a wealth that never ever had been seen or even imagined before. Private cars, health care for everybody, vacations at the seaside, the real possibility for most Italians to own a house, and more.

My father and my mother were both high school teachers. They could supplement their salary with their work as architects and by giving private lessons to high school students, but surely they were not rich. They were typical middle-class people. Nevertheless, in the 1960s, they could afford the home of their dreams. Large, a true mansion, it was more than 300 square meters with an ample living room, terraces, a patio, and a big garden. It also had many fancy details: windows in high-quality wood, door frames in hand-wrought iron, a home-intercom system (very rare at that time), and more. It was in a green area, on the hills near Florence: an American-style suburban home.

I lived in that house for some 50 years, first with my parents, then with my wife and my two children. It was large enough to host six people easily in two separate apartments. After the death of my parents, I inherited the house in 2014 and I had some grand ideas about how to restore and improve it. With my wife, we started doing just that: rebuilding the patio, refurbishing the greenhouse, restoring the living room, repairing the roof, and more. But, after a couple of years, we looked into each other's eyes and we said, "this will never work."

We had spent enough money to make a significant dent in our finances but the effect was barely visible: the house was just too big. To that, you must add the cost of heating and air conditioning of such a large space: in the 1960s, there was no need for air conditioning in Florence, now it is vital to have it. Also, the cost of transportation is a killer. In an American style suburb, you have to rely on private cars and, in the 1960s, it seemed normal to do that also in Italy. But not anymore: cars have become awfully expensive, traffic jams are everywhere, a disaster. Ah.... and I forgot about taxes: that too is rapidly becoming an impossible burden.

So we decided to sell the house. We discovered that the value of these suburban mansions had plummeted considerably during the past years, but it was still possible to find buyers and we are just now packing up. We expect to leave the old house in the coming weeks, moving to a much smaller apartment downtown where, among other things, we should be able to abandon the obsolete concept of owning a car. It is not a mansion, but it is a nice apartment, not so small and it even has a garden. As I said, wealth and misery are mostly relative terms: surely we are experiencing a certain degree of "de-growth," but it is good to be able to get rid of a lot of the useless stuff that accumulates in decades of living in the same house. It is a little catharsis, it feels good for the spirit. (and it is also a lot of work with cardboard boxes).

What's most impressive is how things changed over 50 years. Theoretically, as a university teacher, my salary is higher than that of my parents, who were both high school teachers. My wife, too, has a pretty decent salary. But there is no way that we could even have dreamed to build or buy the kind of house that I inherited from my parents. Something has changed and the change is deep in the very fabric of the Italian society. And the change has a name: it is the twilight of the age of oil. Wealth and energy are two faces of the same medal: with less net energy available, what Italians could afford 50 years ago, they can't afford anymore.

But saying that depletion is at the basis of our troubles is politically incorrect and unspeakable in the public debate. So, most Italians don't understand the reasons for what's going on. They only perceive that their life is becoming harder and harder, despite what they are being told on TV. Their reaction is to lash out at whoever or whatever they think is the cause of their economic decline: Europe, Angela Merkel, politicians, immigrants, gypsies, foreigners in general. Italy is rapidly becoming a nasty place to live in: racism, hate, fascism, poverty, the rich getting richer and the poor poorer. It is normal. It has already happened, things will be better one day, shall pass, one day, but I am afraid it will not be soon.

It is also impressive to think that I am moving back to the southern area of Florence, the area called "Oltrarno," where the Bardi family has its roots since Medieval times. The Bardis living there were not rich, they were mostly low-class workers and some of them were wretchedly poor, I told this story in a post of two years ago. It was only with the prosperity of the golden age of oil that some Bardis could feel rich enough to afford a mansion in the hills. Not anymore. I suppose that my descendants will live there, just as my ancestors did. It is the great cycle of life.

And here is me, engaged in packing up my collection of science fiction novels. More than one thousand books, most of them in Italian. They have no commercial value but I don't want to throw them away. For the time being, I'll store them in boxes, then -- who knows? -- one day the great cycle of life may have them resurface again.

Note added after publication: Some people wrote to me worried that we are going hungry or that we'll be living in a shack. No, no....  Not at all! As I said, we are moving to a nice apartment in the Southern area of Florence. Look, it even has a bomb shelter in the garden in the form of an ogival thing in heavy concrete. Someone built it during WW2 and, who knows? It may become useful again!


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)