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

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.


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)