Thursday, April 30, 2020

The most accurate model-based prediction of all times

The "base case" scenario from the 1972 edition of "The Limits to Growth." This scenario described the trajectory of the world's economy on the basis of the data and assumptions that were judged to be the most reliable ones. This run might turn out to have been amazingly accurate some fifty years after it was proposed.

One of the most remarkable features of the story of the "Limits to Growth" study of 1972 is how effectively it was possible to convince almost everyone that it was completely wrong. Amazingly, though, the most vituperated model-based prediction in history may turn out to have been perhaps the most accurate one.

Note how the scenario above, the "base case" scenario, saw the start of the decline around 2010 and the start of the collapse maybe a decade afterward, that is now. If the oil collapse generated by the coronavirus takes the whole economy with it, as it may well happen, then this scenario turns out to have been unbelievably accurate. And that for a prediction made 50 years ago. Truly amazing!

Now, of course, this story has to be taken with some caution, predictions can be right even by mere chance. But, in this case, there is a certain logic in this result: the base case scenario had been already noted by Graham Turner to have been following the real-world data. But that was true for the growth side of the diagram: even standard economic models had been predicting economic growth. The crucial test for the model was to be the sharp change in slope expected to take place around 2010-2020.

Of course, no model could have predicted that the turning point would have been triggered by a word pandemic -- as it happened. But "something" had to give and the virus is not a cause of anything, it is just the straw that breaks the camel's back. The little push that sent the system in a direction where it had to go.

So, it IS possible to use models to predict the future. Another example of a good prediction is the famous one by Marion King Hubbert of the peak of oil production in the US. In 1956, he had proposed 1970 as the likely date and he had been right. On the other hand, predictions are not always so good. In 1970, Hubbert himself had predicted the global "peak oil" for the year 2000. Later on, ASPO (association for the study of peak oil) had estimated the peak for 2010. Both predictions were not so bad, but a little pessimistic if the peak arrived in 2020.

Perhaps the most surprising discovery, here, is how the most vituperated predictions turned out to be the most accurate. Conversely, many economic models that predicted infinite growth were much praised, but they seem to have badly missed the ongoing collapse. Maybe vituperation is a good yardstick to judge whether a prediction is good or bad. In any case, always remember that the future always takes you by surprise. You can't really predict it, but you may always be prepared for it.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Collapse: the way we imagined it, and the way it was.

Even those of us who could see some kind of collapse coming (the "collapsniks") were taken by surprise by the form it took. But, as always, for everything that happens there has to be a reason for it to happen. Above: the Seneca Curve.

Collapses happen, it is a rule of life, as the ancient Roman philosopher Lucius Seneca had noted long ago when he said that "ruin is rapid" (festinantur in damnum). Yet, another rule of collapses is that they always take you by surprise. I think even Seneca himself was surprised when he received a message from his former pupil, Emperor Nero, ordering him to commit suicide.

So, even the most hardened collapsniks were surprised by the onrush of the coronavirus epidemic. I had been thinking about the collapse that the models predicted but, honestly, I hadn't imagined it would take this form. Surely, I had in mind that some unexpected shock would have unbalanced society enough to cause it to take the fast way down, but I imagined it mostly in the form of a war. When the Iranian general Soleimani was assassinated by US drones in January, I thought "This is it." It wasn't. Nobody could have imagined what would have happened just a couple of months afterward.
Yet, for everything that happens, there is a reason for it to happen. And there is a reason also for the coronavirus. I noted in my book (Before Collapse) that epidemics hit stressed societies after that they have reached their physical limits. The main example I discuss is that of the "Black Death" that struck Europe in the mid-14th century. It came after the great economic expansion that had led Europeans to try to expand Eastward with the crusades. But, after some initial successes, the crusades turned out to be an expensive failure. So, the Europeans found themselves stuck in a small and overpopulated peninsula of Eurasia, which they had thoroughly deforested. Famines were unavoidable, and then there came the black death. The final result was a loss of some 40% of the population -- not pretty, but it had to be.

In our case, we surely are badly in overshoot, but we didn't see major famines preceding the epidemic. On the contrary (again, a subject discussed in my book) the stupendous military-economic system we call "globalization" made it possible to bring food just about everywhere in the world, preventing famine to occur and allowing an extravagant expansion of the human population. Of course, some people are still undernourished but the world remained famine-free for nearly half a century, a remarkable success. But things are never what they look like: behind this apparent abundance, the seeds for disaster were growing.

Unlike the case of Medieval Europe, in the modern globalized world the weakening factor was not famines, but pollution. It is hard to evaluate exactly how much human health is damaged by the various forms of pollutions that besiege us nowadays. We are continuously exposed to heavy metals, carcinogenic substances, microplastics, reactive gases, and much more, and we add to it an unhealthy diet based on over-processed food grown by means of all sorts of chemicals unknown before in the natural world. That may keep us alive, but it is not good for our health. And the obesity epidemics in the West may be a consequence of this situation.

Just like in ancient collapses, a weakened population tends to decline. In our case, so far the decline was taking mostly the shape of decreasing natality. Not surprisingly, it is happening in the most polluted regions of the world. The rich West is also highly polluted and most Western populations have been going down: mortality increases, natality decreases. The decline is masked by immigration from areas of the world not yet so badly ravaged by pollution, but it is there.

At this point, would you be surprised if an opportunistic virus were to strike a weakened, geriatric population? Not at all, and you wouldn't be surprised that the coronavirus struck first the most heavily polluted areas of the world: Central China and the Padana Valley in Italy. What's surprising, actually, is that the epidemic is so mild. The mortality rates are projected by IHME as less than 0.1% in most Western countries. These could be optimistic projections, but surely the COVID-19 is nothing like the old black death! Outside geriatric and industrialized countries, the damage seems to be extremely limited.

What's surprising, instead, is the reaction of most governments that, arguably, did much more damage to people than the virus itself. I was saying at the beginning that I expected a war to trigger the collapse of the Western Empire. In a sense, it is what happened. The Western Governments saw the virus as an enemy and they started a war against it using the kind of war they know best: a hybrid war based on shock and awe and economic sanctions. By shutting down their economies, Western Governments waged a war against their own citizens, especially against the poor, as always the most vulnerable when something goes wrong.

So, what are we going to see? If the coronavirus was unable to substantially reduce the human population and the consumption of resources, the lockdown may well succeed at that. If it doesn't, don't worry! The ecosystem is going to solve the overshoot problem for us, one way or another. We may not be able to predict the details, but not the final outcome. For sure, we won't stop viruses with such silly ideas as wearing face masks and living in Plexiglas cages.

It is the great cycle of life  -- it is the way the universe works. It already happened and it will happen again. And so, I leave you with a modern interpretation of the Medieval Theme of the "Danse Macabre" or "Totentanz" by the Italian singer Angelo Branduardi. Sometimes, death seems to be winning the battle, but it never does. What would Death do without life?

I am Death and wear a crown,
I am for all of you lady and mistress
and I am so cruel, so strong and harsh
that your walls won’t stop me.

I am Death and wear a crown,
I am for all of you lady and mistress
and in front of my scythe you’ll have to bow your head
and walk to the gloomy Death’s pace. 

You are the guest of honor at the dance we are playing for you,
put your scythe down and dance round and round
a round of dancing and then one more,
and you’ll be no longer the lady of time.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Why Italians are not singing anymore: the problem of a weak state

Shows of brutality are used by politicians to look "tough on crime," but they are a mark of weakness, not of strength. Something similar has happened in Italy where a weak government imposed harsh confinement measures on citizens. They didn't arrive to force everyone to wear iron chains, but the idea was similar: politicians trying to look "tough on the virus. Image: convicted inmates from Brevard County Jail.

In some places in the US, jail inmates are forced to wear black-and-white striped costumes and chains around the ankles. In some cases, even iron balls are attached to the chains. Without denying that there exists a crime problem, you may reasonably argue that this is not the best way to reduce it. But these spectacular measures are chosen by politicians competing against each other by showing that they are "tough on crime."

Something similar seems to have happened in Italy, with local politicians competing against each other to impose on citizens harsher and harsher measures against the coronavirus epidemic. Also in this case, without denying the gravity of the epidemic, you may reasonably argue that most of these measures were not the best way to fight it.

The Italian lockdown was probably the harshest seen anywhere in Europe. It involved a series of unclear and often contradictory orders from the government, sometimes looking like they were meant to harass citizens rather than stopping the epidemics. Just as a few examples, you could be fined if your spouse rode in the family car in the front seat rather than in the back seat. You could take your dog for a walk, but not your child. You could buy cigarettes, but not books. You could buy newspapers, but not office supplies. You could walk in the street, alone, but not run. In addition, your neighbors could report you to the police if they thought you were doing something that was not allowed by the government, and in many cases they did.

So, why did the Italian government behave like a poor imitation of Stalin's Soviet government at its darkest moments? My impression is that it is because it is an extremely weak government -- a fragile coalition created in a hurry less than one year ago mainly with the purpose of avoiding early elections. No ideas, no plans, just a bunch of politicians engaged in a struggle for their political survival.

Dictatorship is the mark of a weak government: lacking real strength, dictators try to look strong by taking (indeed) dictatorial measures. Their only legitimacy is provided by fear and their survival depends on their capability of scaring their citizens. It is a point well explained by Chandran Nair in his book "The Sustainable State" (2018). An excellent book, well worth reading, it forcefully makes the point that no serious measure can be taken against threats such as pollution (or, recently, the coronavirus epidemic) if the state is not strong and enjoys a prestige sufficient to avoid that politicians start competing with each other instead of worrying about the needs of the citizens.

Nair has in mind China as an example of a strong state and, indeed, China managed the epidemic in an extremely effective way, although with some uncertainties at the beginning, But for an example closer to our world, Germany also did reasonably well with the epidemic. According to an article recently appeared on "The Atlantic", it was the result of the cautious management by the German chancellor Angela Merkel. No scare tactics, but honesty and trust.

Merkel has relied heavily, and very publicly, on the expertise of a handful of experts, including the now famous Christian Drosten, the head of virology at the Charité hospital in Berlin. From the perspective of the public, Pries said, the chancellor and the virologist “are very trustworthy.” People know “that what they get from both Drosten and Angela Merkel are real and very well-considered facts” and that the two also “share information about what they don’t know.” Because they are “honest with respect to their information,” he said, that information is seen as credible. This honesty, at a time of widespread disinformation, Pries told me, was playing a big role in persuading Germans to largely continue to follow the rules and maintain, even now, “a very calm situation in Germany.”
Below, you'll find an article that I wrote for Al Arabiya a few weeks ago, discussing how at the beginning Italians had taken the "stay home" order as both a challenge and a duty, to the point that they would sing from their windows and balconies. But that soon stopped: right now, the mood has soured, with many Italians fed up with the measures forced on them and with a government treating them as if they were unruly children. Right now, the epidemic is winding down, but the economic crisis is rapidly deepening. Money is running out and people are becoming desperate. The government doesn't seem to have any idea about how to manage the crisis and, at this point, anything can happen.

Coronavirus: Why aren't the Italians singing anymore?

By Ugo Bardi Friday 03 April 2020

At the beginning of the COVID-19 epidemic, a few weeks ago, Italians seemed to have found a moment of national unity when the country’s lockdown began March 9. Everyone understood that it was a difficult moment, but took it as a challenge to fight the virus together. Italian flags were hung from windows and people sang from their balconies and windows.

More than three weeks later, patience is wearing thin and the singing has stopped. Locked in their homes, people are scared, bored, and they don’t know what to do or what to expect. The media has done what they are experts at: terrorizing people by a barrage of numbers taken out of context, gratuitous sensationalism, and fake news. Politicians quickly discovered that scaring people pays, and that in difficult moments they could gain popularity by enacting tougher and tougher laws enforcing the lockdown.

Being locked at home with the police patrolling the streets is eerie. It looks like a post-apocalypse science fiction movie, something one would never have expected to see in real life.

In this situation, it seems that everyone has found convenient culprits in the European Union and Germany, who are accused of not doing enough to help Italy in this difficult moment. Several right-wing politicians are openly calling for Italy to leave the European Union and, perhaps in anticipation, the European Union flag has been taken down in some government buildings without anyone daring to enforce the law that makes it mandatory to hang it. The Germans are viewed today by Italians in the same way their ancestors in the Roman Empire viewed their neighbors: Northern barbarians to be feared and despised.

It is not just a question of being locked inside their homes. Italians are discovering that they have suddenly become poor. The Italian economy has taken a terrible beating from several sides. The income from international tourism – which generates 40 billion euros annually – is lost for this year, and nobody knows when (or if) tourists from abroad will return.

And that says nothing about the effect of the crisis on other industries: airlines, transportation, and entertainment among others. Optimists say that the Italian gross domestic product (GDP) will lose 10 percent this year, but some say it will see larger losses. But GDP is an abstract number, whereas workers in the tourism industry who have lost their jobs, very actively feel that loss. Many others are still theoretically employed, but they don’t know if their job will still exist after the emergency is over. Plenty of others are simply running out of money, and food riots in southern Italy have been reported – fortunately only minor episodes have occurred so far. What is perhaps the most anxiety inducing is that no one knows what might happen if the lockdown continues for much longer.

Yet, there is also good news for Italy: The most recent data show that the epidemic has peaked and is now winding down. In a few weeks, it may be over.

Not only is it a victory for the Italians who accepted the sacrifice of the lockdown, it is a historical occasion to learn from past mistakes and to do better going forward. Unfortunately, no one in power can seem to conceive anything but a return to the old ways: there is an absence of progressive policy makers developing a real transition to a green energy economy, for example.

Only a few people recognize the opportunities that the moment offers. We could go for a “green reboot” that could free the Italian economy from its traditional dependency on imported oil and gas. Further, with more activities becoming virtual, it could be time to reform the bloated and inefficient Italian state bureaucracy.

Italians are known to be resilient and enterprising, and there is still a chance to work for a better Italy. Who knows? Maybe one day we’ll remember the time when we sang from balconies as the start of a new era.


Ugo Bardi teaches at the University of Florence, Italy, and he is a full member of the Club of Rome. He is the author of “Before Collapse” (Springer 2019).

Monday, April 20, 2020

How effective is a hard lockdown against the COVID epidemics? The data say not so much

Data about the mortality of the coronavirus epidemic start being available. Above, a list of mortality rates for Western European countries (including the US) taken from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) of the University of Washington. The data are ordered by the projected number of deaths per million inhabitants. In addition, I built a "lockdown score," also based on the data reported by IHME (except for the US, where different states chose different options). It would be difficult to say that these data support the idea that a "hard" lockdown that includes a stay home order is more effective than a looser kind of lockdown. (for a live version of the table, write to me at ugo.bardi(whirlette)

Your friend has a headache. She takes a pill and, after a while, she feels much better. And she is sure that it was because of the pill. Maybe, but how does she know that the headache didn't go away by itself? Was the pill a homeopathic medicine? In this case, you could tell her that she ingested pure sugar, unlikely to cure anything. But, if you ever tried something like that, you know that it is nearly impossible to un-convince someone who believes to have been healed by the miraculous powers of homeopathy or the like. It is a typical problem of medical studies: how do you know that a treatment is effective? That's why there exist precise rules defining how you can test a new drug or treatment.

Now, let's go to the coronavirus epidemic: practically every region in the world has been affected and practically every government has implemented some kind of rules to stop the epidemic from diffusing, from voluntary social distancing (Sweden) to stay home orders enforced by the police. Almost everywhere, most people are convinced that the lockdown has been effective in reducing the spread of the epidemics. Maybe, but how can we say? Not having a "blank experiment" to compare with, it might be argued that all these new rules are the equivalent of homeopathic pills: a little sugar and nothing else.

Right now, the data are still uncertain, but they are accumulating and I think we can at least try some sort of preliminary analysis by comparing the results of countries where the lockdown rules have been implemented in different ways. An especially interesting way to do that is to look at the data from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) of the University of Washington. These data are good for this purpose because:

1. The IHME provides a large dataset for several relatively homogeneous countries in Europe in addition to the US.

2. The data include projections for the total mortality at the end of the epidemic cycle and so we can compare countries where the epidemic started at different moments

3. The data also include a list of the rules implemented by each government, whether they include "stay home" orders which we may see as defining a "hard" lockdown, or just invites to citizens to maintain a certain distance from each other. (but note that a "hard" lockdown in Western countries is much softer than the versioni implemented in China and other Asian countries)

Here is an example of the IHME projections. In the case of Italy, you see how the epidemic follows its typical curve and it is going down after the acute phase is over.

Note that I focused on the records on mortality because they seem to be the most reliable ones, unlike those on infected people that depend on the number of tests. About Italy, I checked with independent data on the excess mortality from all causes from the Euromomo site. It seems that the mortality rates coincide, these data are reasonably good.

The results I found for several countries are shown in the table at the beginning of this post (not the complete data set, only Western Europe). You can peruse the table yourself (for a "live" version, write to me) and come to your own conclusion. In practice, the mortality rates range from a maximum of about 700/million to a minimum of 10-20. I cannot find a clear relationship between the mortality rate and the harshness of the rules imposed by local governments.

My impression is that the kind of "hard" lockdown imposed in countries such as Italy or Spain didn't help so much, perhaps not at all. For instance, Germany and Austria do well in the list without the need for a stay home order. But, of course, you might also focus on Sweden's relatively poor performance to argue that very loose rules are not a good idea. However, in this case, you might also note that Norway, a country similar to Sweden, is doing much better also with a relatively soft lockdown. Then you might consider other factors, for instance, population density. A colleague of mine (Claudio Della Volpe) examined the data for this factor and he found that there may be a weak dependence but, at present, it cannot be said for sure.

So, my conclusion is that the hard lockdown is unjustified and probably useless, but let me repeat: these are PRELIMINARY data and this is a TENTATIVE analysis, justified only on the urgency we have to manage the epidemic the best we can. Consider that the lockdown is causing a lot of suffering for a lot of people and risks leading us to complete collapse. We should try to do what we can to understand if it is effective. Let me also note that I am NOT DENYING that the COVID-19 virus is killing people, and I AM NOT SAYING that nothing should be done to stop the spreading the epidemics. (and I am not saying that the virus is an engineered bioweapon, or that it is an evil plot to enslave all of us, gosh!). I just placed on line the data I found for the benefit of the readers of Cassandra's Legacy who may interpret them the way they like. When we'll have better data, we'll be able to arrive at more solid conclusions.

As a final note, the story of the coronavirus epidemics shows how we humans tend to politicize/polarize everything. Not that the virus itself, poor critter, is left- or right-leaning, but by now the Right and the Left have taken sides. The right in the US is against a hard lockdown, while the left favors it. At this point, speaking against the lockdown turns you automatically into a Trumpist and a supporter of the NRA, if not of the Ku-Klux-Clan (and of Bolsonaro, too!).

As an example, yesterday I posted on Facebook a link to a study by Yitzhak Ben Israel, (*) of Tel Aviv University that seems to support the idea that most lockdown rules are not very effective against the virus (and note that I didn't even say I thought the paper was correct -- I can't read Hebrew!). But, as I should have expected  I was defamed and abused just for having linked that obvious piece of Israeli propaganda, surely a hoax thought to support the bad orange man and his ilk (surprisingly, my readers on Facebook seem to be familiar enough with Hebrew to be able to easily detect the mistakes in a scientific paper written in that language).

So, why is the stay-home ruling "Left" while no stay home is "Right"? Beats me. For those of you who can understand Italian, I leave you with a scene from a movie by Francesco Nuti, where he examines various kinds of cold meats concluding, among other things, that mortadella (bologna) is communist, while prosciutto cotto (cooked ham) is fascist.

(*) Dr. Ben Israel was so kind to send me a version of his paper in English. If you would like to have it, write to me

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Collapse: The Coronavirus is not a Cause, it is a Trigger

Is the epidemic going to cause civilization to collapse? It may happen for good reasons

This is a version of the article that I published on the English version of "Al Arabiya" On March 26, 2020. It is not the same text I published there -- but I kept the wonderful illustration by Steven Castelluccia. It perfectly conveys the concept of "Seneca Cliff"

Do you remember the story of the straw that broke the camel’s back? It is an illustration of how overloaded systems are sensitive to small perturbations. Could the COVID-19 epidemic be the straw that breaks the back of the world’s economy?

Like an overloaded camel, the world’s economy is strained by at least two tremendous burdens: one is the increasing costs of production of mineral resources (don’t be fooled by the current low prices of oil: prices are one thing, costs are another). Then, there is pollution, including climate change, also weighing on the economy. These two factors define the condition called “overshoot,” occurring when an economic system is consuming more resources than nature can replace. Sooner or later, an economy in overshoot has to come to terms with reality. It means that it can’t continue to grow: it must decline.

These considerations can be quantified. It was done for the first time in 1972 with the famous report The Limits to Growth sponsored by the Club of Rome. Widely disbelieved at the time, today we recognize that the model used for the study had correctly identified the trends of the world’s economy. The results of the study showed that the double burden of resource depletion and pollution would bring economic growth first to a halt and then cause it to collapse, probably at some moment during the first decades of the 21st century. Even with very optimistic assumptions on the availability of natural resources and of new technologies the calculations show that the collapse could at best be postponed, but not avoided. Many later studies confirmed these results: collapse turns out to be a typical feature of systems in overshoot, a phenomenon called sometimes the “Seneca Cliff” from a sentence of the ancient Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca.

The base case scenario calculated in the 1972 version of "The Limits to Growth" 

The coronavirus, in itself, is a minor perturbation, but the system is poised for collapse and the epidemics may trigger it. We already saw how the world’s economy is fragile: it nearly collapsed in 2008 under the relatively small perturbation of the crash of the subprime mortgage market. At that time, it was possible to contain the damage but, today, the fragility of the system has not improved and the coronavirus may be a stronger perturbation. The collapse of entire sectors of the economy, such as the tourism industry (more than 10% of the world’s gross product), is already ongoing and it may be impossible to stop it from spreading to other sectors.

So, what exactly is it going to happen to us? Since we started with mentioning a camel, we may also mention a famous statement by Shaykh Rāshid that we can summarize as, "My father rode a camel, I drive a Mercedes, my son will ride a camel." Might that sentence have been truly prophetic?

Indeed, the coming crisis might turn out to be so bad to push us back to the Middle Ages. But it is also true that all major epidemics in history have seen a robust rebound after the collapse. Consider that, in the mid-14th century, the “black death” killed perhaps 40% of the population of Europe but, a century later, Europeans were discovering America and starting their attempt of conquering the world. It may be that the black death was instrumental in this rebound: the temporary reduction of the European population had freed the resources necessary for a new leap forward.

Could we see a similar rebound of our society in the future? Why not? After all, the coronavirus could be doing us a favor by forcing us to abandon the obsolete and polluting fossil fuels we use today. The current low market prices are the result of the contraction of the demand and are likely to be the straw that breaks the back of the oil industry. That will leave space for new and more efficient technologies. Today, solar energy has become so cheap that it is possible to think of a society fully based on renewable energy. It won’t be easy, but recent studies show that it can be done.

That doesn’t mean that the near term collapse can be avoided. The transition to a new energy infrastructure will require enormous investments, impossible to find in a moment of economic contraction we expect for the near future. But, in the long run, the transition is unavoidable and there is hope for a "Seneca rebound" toward a new society based on clean and renewable energy, no more plagued by the threats of depletion and climate change. It will take time, but we can heal the poor camel’s back.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Resignation and optimism on the brink of the apocalypse

Guest post by Federico Tabellini

Despite the misleading title, I will not talk to you today about the coronavirus, but of that other, far more insidious crisis that we cannot hope to solve with a vaccine. The global ecological crisis: a crisis in which we are the virus. I would like to share with you some brief reflections on human agency, human nature and their relationship with the possibility of a sustainable society. I know, philosophical stuff – but with very practical implications. 

The idea for this article came from a series of conversations I recently had with a reader of my book ‘A Future History of the 21st Century: How We Overcame the Crisis of Civilization’. The text debates the nature of the current socio-economic system, and analyses which of its structural elements constitute obstacles to our transition to a sustainable society. It then discusses how we could potentially overcome those obstacles, focusing on specific economic, institutional and political reforms. All of this while avoiding the well-known trap into which many Degrowth theorists still fall today, which can be summarized by the dead end idea that bottom-up change is the only way out of the crisis, and that to change the world we first need to change ourselves. In short, this is a dead end idea because it cannot be translated into concrete policies. Conversely, to be carried out successfully, a bottom-up change requires a top-down change that facilitates and supports it. In other words: institutional, political and economic reforms.
After this necessary introduction, let’s get to the core topic of the article. The reader I spoke of earlier agrees with the book’s analysis of our current situation and acknowledges that the solutions proposed could produce the desired transition to a sustainable steady-state economy. However, he argues that human nature will never allow us to implement those changes. In other words, not only can human beings not change themselves – they can’t even change the very institutions they created. And this is not an unlikely change either, he claims, but an absolutely impossible one. This is the same as saying that we are trapped in a car that is heading speedily towards a ravine, with a functioning brake in easy reach of our hands, but sadly we are programmed not to pull it.
To put it another way, the problem is not to be found in a defect of the hardware (our hands) or in the resilience of the system (the car), but rather in the software code (our head). The software, he argues, is programmed for accumulation, for a growth without limits and without purpose, for constant acceleration. These things are not cultural constructs, but rather inalienable characteristics of human nature.
He then proceeds to claim, based on fringe clyodynamic theories – which he of course accepts as undisputable scientific proofs – that history demonstrates this; that civilizations have always grown until they could, and when they stopped doing so, they without exception collapsed. The only solution, he concludes, is exactly that: collapse. A non-solution. Worse still: to embrace the very idea that a solution is not possible. That we cannot pull the brake. That we cannot change direction. That we need to give up and accept that we are going to fall into the ravine, and die along with the system. Not everybody, of course. Those of us that will survive will have the chance to start again, little by little, from down there, the slow climbing of the cliff. Only this time with fewer resources. And this ad infinitum, with our heads forever preventing us from learning from the mistakes of the past: until the final suicide.
Of course – I’m sure you’ve guessed it by now – I do not agree that this is the unavoidable destiny of our species. I do acknowledge, however, that we are indeed genetically programmed for accumulation and growth, and that we are not programmed to individually impose limits to ourselves. We get immediate pleasure from accumulation, while the most we get from limits is a kind of long-term serenity. To obtain the latter we need effort and perseverance, while to accumulate more and more, we just need to follow our instincts.
In other words, starting from a clean sheet and without culture, we tend to long for growth. To have more, to produce more, to do more. What I do not agree with is that our culture has to strengthen this inclination, and cannot instead compensate for it, for everyone’s sake.
Let me be clear: contemporary global culture intensifies these human tendencies more than any other culture that preceded it. The fact that we live inside this culture makes us see it as the most natural outcome of human nature, just as the ancient romans thought of their own culture as the peak of human civilization. Neither they nor we were right, of course. In the same way as we constrained our human tendencies to indulge in gratuitous violence, and no longer slaughter slaves in an arena, so people in the future can stop growing their production and consumption beyond the carrying capacity of the ecosystems. What allows us to do this is human agency: the ability to change our culture and our institutions based on what we think is right. In this case, what is right for most people (including the author of this article) is to increase the lifespan of the human race on this planet, and make sure that life is worth living for future generations.
In this sense, we should note that our current situation involves never before seen elements that work in our favour. Here are some of the most significant:
1.      Today, for the first time in history, we know that our socio-economic model is environmentally unsustainable, and that a change is necessary (although there is currently no complete agreement on what type of change we need, or how to produce it).
  1. Today, for the first time in history, the entire world is interconnected, and can potentially discuss shared solutions (although coming to an agreement is not as easy as we hoped).
  2. Modern technologies make producing the goods and services essential to human survival more efficient. We produce and consume too much, but each unit we produce and consume has a lower impact on the environment compared to the past.
  3. It is now a consolidated fact that beyond certain levels of consumption, further consumption does not equal more well-being for human beings.[1] We already passed those limits, which means that a reduction of our per-capita consumption would not produce a reduction in aggregate well-being.
There is also historical evidence that points towards the possibility of complex social models that are not based on the relentless accumulation of material goods.
There have been entire communities in Asia and Africa that for centuries lived in societies in which the individual accumulation of material goods was socially sanctioned. These are examples of instances in which culture compensated nature, producing ecologically sustainable social models as a result.
Thus, the real fundamental question is not whether it is possible to build a sustainable society, but rather whether it is possible to do so without sacrificing the fundamental values of the West and people’s well-being. If by ‘fundamental values of the West’ we mean things such as human rights and political and civil liberties, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’ (you can find a demonstration of this in my book). If we instead mean unchecked capitalism and a lawless market, then the answer is ‘realistically, no’.
However, we do not need to ask history to know this, because history does not include the full range of possible futures. If there is a constant in human history, it is novelty. The creation of new things that constantly confute the idea that history is destined to repeat itself. History is not the full toolbox we have at our disposal to build our future. Many things that exist today did not exist before. These things are as varied as computing technologies and the internet, but also liberalism, the state of law, and human rights. We also, for the first time, live in a full world, without new frontiers to exploit. Human history has always been a history of exploitation because, among other things, there was an abundance of resources to exploit; now we are consuming (far) more than what nature produces. The situation has changed, and there is no reason to believe that we cannot change also. Before we did not need to change. Now we do. The very fact that we can see this as a problem is a relatively new thing, and a hint that we have the power to solve it.
My reader, however, appears to be blind to the very possibility of change, any change. This is because he draws his arguments not from history, but from an interpretation of history. A highly deterministic interpretation that excludes human agency. Doing so, he looks at the forest as an actor independent from the trees it is made up of. In this way, culture becomes an entity separated from people, which controls them as a puppet master. It has its own will, or moves as if it had one. There is no way we can control it. And even when it looks like we are in control, in reality we are just executing its directives. It is not the trees that make up the forest; it is the forest that makes up the trees.
Conversely, my position is one shared by most social scientists: the forest makes up the trees and at the same time, the trees make up the forest. The influence is mutual. Under certain historical conditions, it is mostly the forest that shapes the life of the trees. It decides where they lay roots, where they extend their branches, where they spread their seeds. In times of uncertainty and crisis, however, the trees can shape the life of the forest. They can shape which direction it expands. Whether it grows or retreats. If it provides sufficient nourishment for the living beings that inhabit it.
In a similar fashion, human beings are not slaves to their culture, although going against it, to change it, requires a considerable effort. An effort that the majority will not want to undertake unless they perceive it as absolutely necessary. Unless – and this is the main message I want to pass here – they believe that a change is possible.
Such a change is not likely to occur spontaneously, without direction. Most great changes in history have occurred when capable and innovative leaders (not only politicians, but also intellectuals) come together with a mass of people united by a common goal. A mass that starts small, but little by little grows until it reaches the critical threshold necessary to spark a change. This happened with women’s rights, with workers’ rights, with the liberal-democratic model, with communist revolutions, with Nazism. Change is not always positive. But it is almost always possible.
This does not mean it is probable. Often it is not. Today I think it is not probable. But it is possible. And this is really, really important. Another thing is important: change becomes more probable if we believe it possible. If the ideas of my aforementioned reader spread, change would become less probable: a self-fulfilled prophecy that could condemn our race (and others, too) to a dreadful future.
It is true: human beings are, to a certain extent, programmed by genes and culture. But they can also reprogram culture. Often they can only do this indirectly, like when the standard working day was reduced to 8 hours (an institutional reform). This produced more free time for individuals, which in turn translated into a proliferation of new activities, giving birth, among other things, to the entertainment industry and sport (previously, sport had been something that only athletes and nobles engaged in).
In conclusion, between my reader and myself there is both agreement and disagreement. We agree that the world is hurrying towards a ravine. We disagree on the possibility of pulling the brake. I firmly believe that resignation is the worst enemy of change. It paralyzes us. And I believe that optimism is needed more, not less, on the brink of an apocalypse. If we want to produce a positive change in the world, we need to look at the ravine with a smile on our lips, but also – and especially – with rolled up sleeves and our brains at work. It may be highly unlikely that we will be able to pull the brake. Nonetheless, we have the moral obligation to try. Success might not be probable, but it is surely possible. And this possibility, being rooted in the present and not in the past, is something that no deterministic interpretation of history will ever be able to disprove.

[1] See, for example, D. G. Blanchflower, A. J. Oswald, Well-being over time in Britain and the USA, in “Journal of Public Economics”, 88 (2004), pp. 1359-1386; R. Layard, S. Nickell, G. Mayraz, The marginal utility of income, in “Journal of Public Economics”, 92:8/9 (2008), pp. 1846-1857; D. Kahneman, A. Deaton, High income improves evaluation of life but not emotional well-being, in “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America”, 107:38 (2010), pp. 16489-93; E. Proto, A. Rustichini, A Reassessment of the Relationship between GDP and Life Satisfaction, in “PLoS ONE”, 8 (2013).


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)