Friday, February 21, 2020

A Future History of the 21st Century: how we overcame the crisis of civilization'

Guest post by Federico Tabellini

In this age dominated by the here and now, discussing the future is a rare thing. When we do discuss it, most of the time it is to point out how badly things could go in the next few decades. And yet, what I want to present to you today is a book about the future. About a prosperous future (for a change), and the path that – if taken – could link it to our present. Here are some of the reasons why I really think you should read it.

First reason. It contributes to the solution of well-known problems: the environmental crisis (in a broad sense), limits to growth, technological unemployment, over-consumption; the list goes on. In the book, the analysis of these problems and the description of how we might overcome them are both based on consolidated academic approaches. Some of these approaches are often considered incompatible with one another in the social imaginary. The most significant achievement of the book is perhaps its attempt to integrate these different approaches into a coherent, organic framework. I believe it’s a successful attempt, but I will let readers judge for themselves.

The first section of the book (chapters 1 and 2) offers an ‘overall picture of the situation’, describing the profound nature of many of the issues dealt with on this blog, while the second (chapters 3-7) proposes possible scenarios for the implementation of solutions to the contemporary crises. It also describes the mutual interaction between these solutions, as well as their plausible consequences on society.
The focus is on the long run, and the approach is global, as are the challenges we face. The solutions proposed are also global, and are considered not only in their short term implementation but also in their long term effects. We could draw a comparison with the popular book by Tim Jackson, ‘Prosperity Without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet’, but my approach has a somewhat broader scope. As Jackson did in his book, I describe in detail several macro-economic and institutional reforms we should implement to counter the crises, but I also discuss issues such as the role of education and the social dynamics that link the various actors that would carry out the change.
Second reason. The book adopts a systemic approach in both the arguments it presents and the conclusions that it draws from those arguments. The premise is simple, almost banal:

'The final goal of any society is to produce the greatest possible well-being for human beings in the long run.'

On this premise, appropriately problematized (what does ‘well-being’ mean? What do we mean by ‘long run’?), a series of logical steps are inserted, which illustrate how the solutions to many of the great crises of our age become far more obvious once we abandon a sectorial approach and embrace a systemic analysis of the problems. Doing so also sheds new light on the deeper connections between the various challenges we face. These connections mean that efficient solutions to each and every one of them can be successfully implemented only if carried out simultaneously and synergistically.

To conclude, a final note. ‘A future history of the 21st century: how we overcame the crisis of civilization’ is an essay, but it is built around a narrative device: the reforms and proposals that it describes are presented from the perspective of a fictional author writing at the end of our century. It’s a little like reading a history book, but instead of the past, it describes the future. I think this small detail, aside from making the read more pleasant, adds a level of realism to the dissertation.

The book is available worldwide on Amazon. All in all, I truly believe that you won’t regret reading it. And if you do read it, please share your opinions – I will be happy to answer and discuss any of your queries.




  1. "'The final goal of any society is to produce the greatest possible well-being for human beings in the long run.'"

    At the expense of all other life forms? Sounds like typical human arrogance. No thanks, I won't be reading it.

    1. Depends what one means by 'well-being', as noted above. To my mind humans can never be well unless the entire Gaia is also well. 'At the expense of all other life forms' is old thinking. With respect, your comment seems to me presumptuous, and somewhat arrogant.

    2. Hi Bev. I've never said or written 'at the expense of other life form', so I don't know where that idea comes from. But I can assure you that my proposals would greatly reduce, and not increase, the loss of biodiversity.

    3. Federico, no you didn't say it, I said it. Because humans are not the only life-form on this planet. So why not say "all species". I thought human exceptionalism was old hat, or at least with an increasing number of people.

    4. I actually agree with you, so I am sorry but I fail to understand your criticism.

    5. Federico, not only do you agree with her concerns, but your book outlines in detail why. Unfortunately, seems this Bev person prefers to "shoot first, ask questions later" ... in other words, I doubt she has taken the time to appreciate the depth of your ideas that address her concerns.

  2. Ugo, I purchased your book and the one you referenced above. I am going to purchase this book referenced below once it is available. I have two books I am finishing up then I will get started on these three. I feel the decline process has suddenly accelerated after a 12 year plateauing. Now is the time to get more aware of decline IMHO.

    "Living in the Long Emergency: Global Crisis, the Failure of the Futurists, and the Early Adapters Who Are Showing Us the Way Forward Hardcover – March 3, 2020
    by James Howard Kunstler"

  3. I'd agree: the greatest possible human well-being would actually be at quite a low level if due regard were to be had for the functioning of the ecosystem and the well-being of all other life forms.

    I'd read extracts, as maybe there are some good ideas in it,but not buy the book it would be far too irritating.

    'How we overcame'; what arrogance! :)

  4. “I'd agree: the greatest possible human well-being would actually be at quite a low level if due regard were to be had for the functioning of the ecosystem and the well-being of all other life forms.”

    Well, of course these attitudes above represent a scaling issue. In a local with home and significant others try to tell me “greatest possible human well-being” is not what matters. In the greater picture this gets lost too in a self-organizing process where individual humans are but small participant and larger groups delusional both green and brown as to what “best possible human well-being is”. If this planetary cycle embedded with a failing human civilization is in a macro decline then nothing will arrest it. To get emotional about it is fine but is little more than crying over spilled milk. It is better to scale properly and begin lifeboats and hospices and forget about some miraculous human effort that will save a modern way of life out of balance and destructive. The Green New Deal is a fraud and that is all modern Greens have to offer for the most part. I often find those with the biggest alligator tears are fake greens who are wealthy. They are facing a double whammy of failure of their cherished green policy at least “As-Is” plus the likelihood of becoming much poorer. The Browns have little hope of understanding. They believe in the narratives of the past so their delusions are trapped in denial. They are determined by their denial of science. It is the modern green who has the potential to adapt and mitigate this paradigm shift with rational action. This means accepting the truth of planetary decline that is now likely beyond human management. At least honest science points to this. Most science is not honest these days. It has become politicized and a movement. The awakened can make this planetary decline less bad and our own personal decline less painful. It does mean prepare to be poor and face painful decisions and physical deprivations.

  5. Hi. I am the the book's author (not the translator, so I apologize for bad English). I think you misunderstood the title. It does not mean that we overcame it, only that we could overcome it in the future. And my book is not a prediction either, but rather a political proposal.

  6. Federico,

    it's an interesting approach to present a manifesto as a "Future history". It reminds me of "The rise of the meritocracy" by Michael Young. But the apparently utopian future Young projected his historian into was actually a distopia. So my first question to you is this: in this Brave New World that you envisage (and surely as this is "a political proposal" you have a vision for the future, perhaps like Huxley's), do you remember the diversity of human impulses? Because in many visions of the future, humanity is considered to be homogeneous, or at least made up of a few categories (workers/landowners/capitalist; intelligent/dullart; lazy/industrious etc.). On average individuals might fit these sterotypes, but the reality of social interaction is much more messy: the product of the average is not the same as the average of the product!

    My second question is perhaps what the whole book is about. How do you get to the "long term"? I'm reminded of what John Maynard Keynes said about the long run: "This long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is long past the ocean is flat again."

    So these two things together mean, imho, that if you cannot decompose the path to the long run into short term actions that the majority of people will *want* to take, it is all for nought.

    I'll look out for your book - perhaps you have the answers :)

    1. Hi Craig, thank you for your comment! I will try to answer your two questions as well as I can.

      1. Given that my main academic background is in economic Sociology and political philosophy, I sometimes have the opposite problem: I tend to overcomplicate reality, and miss the forest for the tree. In this book I believe I achieved a good balance between the need to account for individual human impulses and the analytical approach that any serious political, social and economic proposal requires.

      2. The book's main focus is on the path that links our present to the prosperous future I envisage. I want to stress that this is a political proposal and NOT a prediction. It is certainly a future within our grasp, but not an inevitable one. If we don't act quickly, it might even become an impossible future.
      The object of criticism for Keynes was (broadly speaking) the laissez faire model in economics, which is not the approach I adopted in this book. However, my book is not a socialist utopia either. A few of my ideas are actually closer to right libertarianism. And I want to stress, highlight and put flashing arrows around the words 'a few'.
      The answer to your question is actually the entire book. It would be difficult to explain in a short comment what I needed a book to express, and any attempt would likely leave so much out that it would be misleading rather than informative. But I can assure you that I did not skip any steps in my arguments. I did not simply describe point A (the present) and point Z (the future) leaving the daunting task of somehow filling the rest of the alphabet to the reader. It is not an ambiguous book. Its message is clear.

      And to answer your last concern:

      "So these two things together mean, imho, that if you cannot decompose the path to the long run into short term actions that the majority of people will *want* to take, it is all for nought."

      This was precisely my goal when I decided to write 'A future history of the 21st century". To create a clear path towards a better future. It is a path that I think the majority will want to take. But let's not forget that the gratest majority is yet to be born. And it is for them too that we need to change things.

      I invite you to give me a feedback on the book once you read it. Here or (even better) by leaving a review on amazon.

      p.s. I apologize for spelling and/or syntax mistakes in the comment. English is not my native language. (just to be clear, the book was translated by a professional translator, so don't judge it by my comments here ;))

    2. fedrico,

      thanks for the thoughtful response. I'll look for the book (I prefer my local bookshop to amazon).

      As for your English, you shouldn't be so depricating - english is my first language, and yours is at least as good!!


    3. Hi Craig! Thank you for the compliment ;). Unfortunately, unlike the original Italian version, the paperback version of 'A future history of the 21st century' is self-published and only available on amazon. A world-wide distribution would have required much more time and resources, which my small publisher does not have. I hope this won't prevent you from reading the book.

  7. Your simple, banal premise begs the question of our goals, and I reject the premise not because it isn’t a worthy orientation but because it fails totally as a reflection of the actual priorities we manifest in the real world. We’re acting entirely opposite to your premise: enabling absurd wealth (a poor proxy for wellbeing) to accumulate for the fewest human beings in the near-term future. In doing so, everything is being sacrificed, ultimately including even the wellbeing of those few beneficiaries. Chris Hedges uses the term “sacrifice zones” to reflect large ranges of nature (notably including marine ecosystems) reduced to lifelessness and toxicity. The term could well be extended to include human institutions and group psychology that are being distorted and corrupted to the point of unrecoverable dysfunction. Frankly, it’s impossible for me to believe in solutions to problems grown global in scale and firmly embedded in our own base nature. To the extent that we can address things positively, I say we should embark on that path despite the far greater likelihood of outcomes failing to rescue us from oblivion.

  8. "Your simple, banal premise begs the question of our goals, and I reject the premise not because it isn’t a worthy orientation but because it fails totally as a reflection of the actual priorities we manifest in the real world"

    What? Sorry but I fail to see what premise you are talking about. I can tell you that the first 60 pages of the book ARE a reflection on those priorities. I agree that we are acting opposite to my proposals (NOT to my premises, which by the way I haven't really tackled in this short presentation). This is precisely why my book is a worthy contribution to the issue. Mine is a political proposal, not a prediction of the future. I am not optimist about the future, and I don't think it is very likely that the solutions I describe will be implemented in time. But I think there is still some hope.

    Finally, a piece of advice: please don't judge a book before reading it. It is not a very wise thing to do. This applies to all books (and everything else really), not just mine.

    1. Look at your fifth paragraph, starting with “Second reason,” where you state your premise. That’s what I’m responding to. I’m not reviewing the book w/o reading it; I’m commenting on your guest blog post. My rejection of your premise is just that. It makes no sense in light of what’s actually going on in the world. In my previous comment, I added some context and recommended we should act in defiance of expected outcomes. You don’t appear to be connecting the dots.

    2. I am sorry but it is you who seem to miss the point. The point is: your previous comment didn't make much sense in relation to the presentation (and even less sense in relation to the book).

  9. From the books introduction:

    "At the turn of the 22nd century, human beings are living in the most prosperous moment in history. The many crises that troubled them at the dawn of the millennium are a distant memory, the economy exists in balance with the environment, and work has become a personal choice. But how did we get here? How did we solve the great problems of the contemporary world, from climate change to the labor market crisis, from the gaping inequalities in wealth distribution to the spreading new populisms and nationalisms"?

    We have two opposing viewpoints - look at the endless Wars in the Middle East - what can you say when:

    "Radaa, Yemen - Mousid al-Taysi was travelling in a wedding convoy celebrating a cousin's marriage when a missile slammed down from the sky. All he remembers are bright red-and-orange colours, then the grisly sight of a dozen burned bodies and the cries of others wounded around him.

    Mousid survived the December 12 attack in Yemen's central al-Baydah province, apparently launched by an American drone, but his physical and psychological recovery process is just beginning. If confirmed, it would be the deadliest drone attack in the country in more than a year".

    What can you say when:

    "The U.S. is only in the FIRST STAGE of the country’s oil demand destruction. Since the nationwide shutdown announced by the U.S. Government in mid-March, domestic oil demand has fallen more than 7 million barrels per day. In just the past three weeks, the total U.S. petroleum products supplied to the market fell by 33%".

    You do understand that the current United States Dollar is not the specified lawful Constitutional Dollar specified as Gold or Silver - but is instead 'legal tender" issued by a privately owned Central Bank - normally lent at interest - the interest amount which is never created - but usually accumulates as cheap surpluses of commodities accumulate - something which on a finite Planet - with finite resources cannot continue into infinity.

    Even the Pope has demanded a debt Jubilee - just to let us catch out breathe - as Industrial Civilization continues to wind down -

    "ROME - “Could the coronavirus-19 crisis lead to a jubilee?” Filipino Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle wondered out loud during a Mass livestreamed from the Pontifical Philippine College in Rome.

    Preaching March 29 about the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, Tagle looked at a variety of ways people can be in “tombs” and in need of light, fresh air and new life.

    Looking specifically at the coronavirus pandemic, Tagle, president of Caritas Internationalis and prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, pointed out how people are losing their jobs, “especially the daily wage earners, and that lack of resources and that poverty could be one tomb right now for many poor people.”

    “Could those who could afford to (do so) go to those tombs and release the poor people who owe them money, release them from their debt?” he asked.

    And could rich countries do the same for poor countries, he continued, calling for a forgiveness of foreign debt so that impoverished nations can use the few resources they have to fight the virus and help their people rather than making huge interest payments".

    I will criticize you with this final note -

    You are focused on OUTCOMES.

    You ignore the source of the INPUTS.

    Great post - and thank you Ugo for these interesting conversations. Wishing you and yours the best.

    1. Your quote is from the book's backcover, not the introduction. If you read the book you would know that more than half of it is about what you call the inputs. So your criticism is simply not spot on.



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)