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

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!


  1. Wonderful post, thank you for sharing this

  2. The key to surviving in poverty is to learn to live poor. It takes practice, no matter how you do it, and there are more than a few ays to go about it. The key of course is to reduce your dependence on money to survive and stripping your "wants" from your "needs". I live these days on a poverty level income as a state-certified cripple. Not a method I would recommend of course, but all things considered I live quite well.

    Another method is to get yourself off the typical lifestyle of McMansions, Carz and the excessive use of grid supplied power, and produce your own food. I had a great chat with FarmGal on this very topic, now UP on the Diner Blog. She grew up in poverty in a cabin with no running water as the child of Back to the Land "hippies" in the 70s, around the same time the original "Limits to Growth" study was published. That might have been the last chance we had to avoid the outcomes that are now staring us in the face. It's still not impossible to pursue this life though, but you do have to have a firm conviction to do it.

    FarmGal - Just Another Day on the Farm


  3. Thank you for this correspondence Ugo,

    Your experience is surely not unique not now or in our future as we understand it.

    What is unique is your understanding of how your parents were able to have the house you must now give up. This against a background official narrative that things are doing fine.

    Your knowledge of history is better than mine but I suspect that when the official narrative begins to diverge too much from peoples lived experience then the challenge for democracy and governance increase.

  4. Europe, Angela Merkel, politicians, immigrants, gypsies, foreigners in general are not root cause of downward spiral but at this moment they are not helping in any way and they can even make things worse in the future, if they are not making it worse right now.

  5. Thank you for this article. We don't need flashy cars, oversized houses, superficiality to be qualitatively human. We need empathy, kindness, a sense for balance and never to forget Milan Kundera's very special title for one of his books - The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

  6. Thanks for this post. I read it while visiting my parents house in Sweden, where my father still lives. As in your case, keeping the house after he is gone will not be possible and most of the stuff will have to be sold. The saddest part to me is that my children never had the childhood I had. Even though I am a professor in Zurich and my parents were not academics, the quality of life we had a children cannot be bought for money. Unfortunately, it is not only the end of oil but also the end of nature. As you say, the world is becoming poorer and most people do not understand what is happening to them. This is a pity, as we could still build a better world if we tried.

  7. I always enjoy blogs with a personal touch. Thanks Ugo!

  8. Ugo
    Yes, Italy seems to be feeling the effects of ‘not-enough-growth’. GDP or GDP PP is a crude measure but effects are real enough. From a young relative working in Rome we hear that in areas away from tourist eyes there has been a chronic problem with the city picking-up weekly household garbage.

    When I was late teens in Britain we were still in the Age of Coal. Heating, lighting, cooking, rail and bulk transport, were all based on coal as primary energy. Interesting that when the ex-dictatorships, Spain, Portugal, Greece joined the EU their economies were able to approach modern Petroleum Age levels in quick time, even to extending electrification to rural areas. It seems such a brief time ago.

    Tom Whipple has excerpts this week from Lawrence Livermore National Lab:
    “Primary energy consumption in the US reached a record high of 101.3 quadrillion British thermal units (Btu) in 2018, up 4 percent from 2017 and 0.3 percent above the previous record set in 2007.”
    It is worth noting, I think, that the US population has grown about 9% over that 10 years so that primary energy per capita has actually shrunk despite an uptick in the last 2 or 3 years. The jury still seems to be out on the true economic outcomes of the extraordinary shale oil and gas increase but ‘flyover’ America still seems stuck in the doldrums, hence Trump and other phenomena. Perhaps the ‘up-ticks’ will be temporary? (US car-registrations seem to have kept up with population increase, which perhaps denotes the dependence on the car to get to work; especially it seems where husband and wife must both work).

    In Britain we have struggling educational and health systems and see households needing two or three lower-paid jobs. And of course there is Brexit. And France has ‘Gilets Jaunes’. Meanwhile there is China? Their unprecedented two-decade massive increase in coal production has recently peaked. This massive source of primary energy for electrification has underpinned massive GDP growth and urbanisation, and I suggest the world economy, allowing extraordinary ‘economies of scale’. This can only happen once?
    The ‘per capita’ effects get interesting. Already we might have reached Peak Professors and Students? It is hard to see how increasing the ‘knowledge economy’ is going to make up for a future lack of growth in primary energy per capita and for diminishing returns from future increase in ‘economies of scale’?
    PS We too are facing the house with decades of accumulated belongings. Books are included … you have my sympathy!

    1. Ugo
      I did not thank you properly, above, for your personal story or for your efforts over many years to alert us to the real world.

      The word I am trying to focus on is 'affordable'. I think I need to keep trying.

      I have just read the speech to the UK Parliament by Greta Thunberg.

      My wife tells me that in a later interview with Channel 4 News she was asked what she would say to those who either deny climate change or do not think it is caused by human action. She said she did not say anything to these people. If she was pressed very hard to say something she would say 'read the science'.

      So good science still has something to say. And you have helped me face my own house clearance with a degree of uplift. Smile.

    2. Thanks, Phil. It seems that many of us are experiencing the same story. We are fighting every day with small problems, but if we stop for a moment to look back, then we perceive how we are going through a grand cycle that's starting winding down nowadays.

  9. hmm..!!! Why do you need airco, who tells you so?

    And please tell me how many servants you parents had when you where young?
    Under what curcumstances the servants lived in the early sixties, late fifties. Did they have fiat 600 cars? Did they live the life of 'la dolche vita'
    In my youth in our house we had servants for cleaning, washing, reparing clothes, bicycles repairing, furniture etc etc.
    They were cheap and worked only for a couple of houres per week or month, but nevertheless.
    What about this 'romantic cycle winding down nowadays'

    I am longing for the 'good old days of my childhood' with servants for everything:) I agree we did mot have airco a 'Bora kitchen', floorheating etc. So please tell me what are your luxury (energy) standards?

    1. They did have a Fiat 600, but no servants. Homes in modern American suburbs don't have servants, that was much before, at the time of Scarlett O'Hara and "Gone with the Wind."

      As for air conditioning, please, come here this summer, rent an apartment without air conditioning for a few months, and then you'll tell me how you fared -- if you survived that. Times change, you know? And temperatures too.

    2. To explain better the point above, Florence has always been a hot city in summer, but during the past decade or so heat waves have become brutal: longer and hotter. That doesn't mean you absolutely need air conditioning, but you still need to take precautions. I chose an apartment with the main windows oriented northward and at the first floor with the specific idea of needing as little air conditioning as possible. South facing windows and no air conditioning is a health risk, nowadays.

    3. See also:

    4. Thanks for your answers and I apologize for my poor English. I am a dutch documentary maker and living at the moment in France (Rhone Alp).

      Lots of (Un)documentated immigrants are working in our modern cities and suburbs as modern slaves in de EU and USA.

      Nearly everyone I know in Paris or Amterdam has so to say a 'polnish' household. Of course we do not have the 'butler remains of the day' type of slavery. Indeed times change, slavery did not.

      Our modern cities become so expensive and the conventration of rich people is so dense that it is hardly possible for 'normal' citizens to live in our citycentres. Gentrification as a result.

      But anyway you sold your familiy house to somebody with money and a perspective. Somebody of the new class of eliteworkers I persume.

      So this brings me to airco, luxury kitchens, bathrooms with Yakuzi and so on and so on. Of course you can complain about heatwaves etc. and probably your are need an airco.

      So then by a warm summernight you make a walk through your neighbourhood and every house and apartment are having there own climate system.
      The paradox is that all those airco's are producing an enormous amount of heat! (noise?) in all those streets.
      The result is that the local climate in your street is exploding. Everywhere concrete no trees etc. only sweat and longing for returning to your 'Greenland paradise'.

      Together with those kitchens, yakuzi's etc we are in a energy/heat rollercoaster.

      Compare your energy use with that of your parents, it will be tripled I guess. We are flying for no reason around the world as madmen etc.
      No reason to complain anyway, we saw everything and were are lucky that we lived in the golden energy era.

      At this moment I am reading 'The wages of destruction', the making and breaking of the Nazi Economy' (Adam Tooze)

      A brillant study about energy,raw materials, land, food agriculture and madness! Europe without sufficient energy,food etc.

      It reminds me how lucky we are.

    5. Well, about air conditioning systems spewing heat in the street, you may like to take a look at this post

  10. My wife and I (both retired elementary school teachers) faced a similar plight. Forced to sell our larger and more expensive to maintain home in Arizona (Arizona now becoming a haven for the often more prosperous retirees of California). We found a small town in the high desert mountains of Utah. A former coal mining town (coal mines now closed and no jobs) with inexpensive houses and few people.
    One compensation. The smaller house we purchased has a large two car garage we are busy converting to our home library. Thus we didn't have to part with our many much loved books.
    I very much enjoy reading your essays.

  11. What a lovely and thoughtful piece. I love your prose.

  12. Oil prices aren't much different than they were decades ago.

    As an American when I think about Italy there are numerous issues with the government ran there. The rigid labor laws and regulations make it impractical to create jobs there. The pension and government debt is overwhelming. The taxes and burden of government is too onerous.

    Italy has never had to deal with their problems because the EU provides them with endless bailouts. Thus the status quo can continue and real reforms never occur.

  13. capitalism sets the right condition for technological advancment (technologization)
    technology can both destroy jobs (automating them) and create new ones by discovering new possibilities. innovation is however not guaranteed. lately we have been seeing less usefull innovation and more automation. capitalism naturally leads to a race to the bottom which is why it can spur technical advancment. but the side effects of capitalism and technologizations have been overlooked. people who get displaced by technology do not always manage to get back on their feet. research actually shows that their earnings fall in both the short and the long-term. this means that these people are less likely to spend or procreate. procreation is key here. naturally, the more we technologize, the more complex our lives become. my grandparents were simple people and they too managed to build a large house. but today it is not enough just finish high school, you need to demonstrate more and more complex knowledge to be useful for the modern economy. thus, technology puts pressure on humans to educate, but as our world becomes more complex, we need to spend more time in education. this is why young people are delaying adulthood. this is why women are now giving first birth at 40. at the same time, the way capitalism works requires a rising number of consumers (demand), in order to be succesfull. when the demand stalls and or falls due to demographic reasons (less consumers, consumers getting old and no one is replacing them), companies have only one way to go - automation (in order to raise or preserve profits). which is again putting even more pressure on people. it's all going downhill, unless a majour change of the system comes.


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  15. Prof, what is your opinion about this point of view?
    It says that contemporary China is the realization of Gentile's Fascist vision

    1. Hmm..... it is just a half page, but I think there is something in what the author says. Within some limits, today's China looks like Italy in the 1920s, but we always have to be careful with these similitudes. Worth thinking about

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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)