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

Friday, December 27, 2019

The Christmas Torches of Abbadia: Sustainable Resource Management According to an Ancient Traditions

This clip is my first attempt at a video on the subject of this blog, resource management. The results are, well, not so great: it is dark and the audio is not very good. I'll see to do better next time, but it seems to me that the clip is at least understandable and it gives some idea of the atmosphere of the torch burning festival of the town of Abbadia San Salvadore in Italy. In the video, I make some comments on the reasons for this tradition, but you can also read the text, below. Many thanks to Viola Calignano for filming.

An ancient tradition of the town of Abbadia San Salvadore, in Tuscany, involves a spectacular festival of wood burning that takes place the night before Christmas. This year, 28 wood torches ("fiaccole") went up in flames, most of them several meters tall and burning well into the next morning. I was there, guest of a family of Badenghi, the way the inhabitants of the place call themselves.

The event was truly fascinating, not a spectacle for tourists but something deeply felt by the locals. It is said that this tradition goes back to more than a millennium ago, to the times of Charlemagne. But why celebrate Christmas by burning so much wood to heat nothing in particular? I have to say that I found the question perplexing, considering that I often try to explain to people that biomass burning is not a solution to the energy problem. But then, after some head-scratching, I think I understood the reasons for this tradition. 

First of all, there is a certain fascination in seeing things burning. I think this is something that goes back to our paleolithic ancestors and that we still carry in our genes. But it is more than that. The Abbadia tradition is, actually, something akin to the "potlatch" of the North-Western native Americans. You probably know what a potlatch is, but let me report a description from Wikipedia, here.
 A potlatch involves giving away or destroying wealth or valuable items in order to demonstrate a leader's wealth and power. Potlatches are also focused on the reaffirmation of family, clan, and international connections, and the human connection with the supernatural world.
Clearly, this is a perfect description of the Fiaccole festival in Abbadia San Salvatore. It is a form of potlatch, where people demonstrate their wealth by wasting some of the resources that make them live, wood.

Think about that from the perspective of what Abbadia must have been during the Middle Ages. It is a town that sits on the side of the wooded Amiata mountain, surely inhabited mainly by woodsmen -- many people there are still woodsmen. Of course, cutting wood never made anyone rich, but for centuries it could provide a living to the families of Abbadia. 

Now, imagine yourself as a medieval woodsman: your life can only be very basic according to modern standards. You probably won't ever have, nor even see, a lot of money and your chances to buy things are very limited. Still, you are human and therefore a social animal. You want to show that your family is on a par with the others in terms of wealth. And you do that using this form of potlatch.

Note that a potlatch is possible only when the social structure of the place is not excessively unbalanced. High social differences would make the game strongly competitive with the doubly bad result that it would humiliate those at the bottom of the ladder and -- worse -- force everybody to destroy more than what they can afford to destroy. It is possible to have a wood-burning potlatch in Abbadia because the woods are managed mainly as a commons, in a rather egalitarian manner. Note also that there are strict rules limiting the size of the torches, that prevents people from overplaying their cards in the game. The idea is that every family should bring a log to the pile, but no more than that. It is, again, a way to avoid that the rich could humiliate the poor.

So, with Abbadia we have a good example of how natural resources can be reasonably well managed in the form of "commons." You remember that Garrett Hardin had spoken of the "tragedy of the commons" supposing that greed would always lead people to overexploit whatever is available to them. It doesn't happen in the real world, at least among peasants and woodsmen. Elinor Ostrom got a Nobel prize in economics for having studied exactly this subject and shown how local communities usually manage the commons well, as they do in Abbadia. 

Yes, but things are completely different if we move to larger scales, worldwide. There, we see Hardin's tragedy in full swing. We are burning fossil hydrocarbons at the fastest possible rate, we don't seem to be able to find another way to keep up with the joneses except in terms of consuming more than they do. It is as if we were thinking we can show we are richer by burning our home faster. And that happens not just at the level of families, it is at the level of entire nations. When President Trump speaks of "energy dominance" he means exactly that: the US is trying to show that it is more powerful than its neighbors by burning its oil resources faster than anyone else -- and destroying them in the process. It is potlatch in its purest form, gone out of control. We are burning everything.

Will we ever learn to manage our resources in a more rational way? Maybe it just takes time -- I am sure that it took time to arrive to manage the burning piles of Abbadia in a sustainable way. In the worldwide case, though, maybe we'll have to learn by going through one of those collapses that teach you things the hard way. Not pleasant, but maybe unavoidable.

And here are some more photos of the Abbadia Festival.

First, a photo that shows the process of the lighting of one of the torches, it is not easy and the photo gives an idea of the size of the pile.

Here us yours truly, Ugo Bardi, together with one of the "Capi-fiaccola" (torch-masters) charged with watching the tower while it burns and to make sure that nothing goes wrong and that nobody gets burned.

And, finally, me again together with a local denizen of the town, Manuela, a member of an ancient family of Abbadia. She told me that her father is a "capostipite," an honorific title in the cooperative that manages the woods around the town.

h/t the Calignano family


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)